San Francisco is, undeniably, a great drinking city. As a leader of the craft cocktail revival in the ‘90s, the city was at the forefront of incorporating California’s bounty of fresh ingredients into mixed drinks. It kicked off the fernet craze. It houses some of the country’s best tiki bars. And it is the access point for some of the world’s best wineries. But its longest standing boozy institution is also the least known outside the Bay Area: pisco.
As the former owner of the influential (and dearly departed) Cantina, co-founder of San Francisco Cocktail Week, and author of Drinking the Devil's Acre: A Love Letter from San Francisco and Her Cocktails, Duggan McDonnell is a major champion of the city’s unsung historical spirit. He explains that the unaged grape brandy, which is only made in Peru and Chile (unless you count American copycats like Frisco), broke like a wave over San Fran during the California Gold Rush.
When gold was first discovered in California in the late 1800s, word spread not only across the country but down into South America. Many Peruvians immigrated to the area to try and strike it rich. “With them, came their beloved spirit,” McDonnell says. “In addition, the preferred means of travel for would-be miners was to sail to San Francisco via going around South America, and stopping to reload in the port of Pisco. There, supplies—including the locally produced spirit— would be taken aboard to sell in San Francisco.”
Gold miners brought pisco to SF, but the city’s bartenders brought the liquor to the people in the form of Pisco Punch. Popularized by Duncan Nicol at the Bank Exchange Saloon (but served all over the city) in the 1890s, the drink combined pisco with lemon and pineapple for an easy citrus sipper. The punch’s popularity was helped by the fact that Nicol likely made the drink with a signature ingredient, Vin Mariani, a precursor to Coca-Cola that contained a decent amount of cocaine.
Pisco’s luck turned in 1920 with the enactment of Prohibition and the closing of the Bank Exchange Saloon. “Like many other spirits, Prohibition drastically reduced the importation of pisco into the U.S.,” McDonnell says. But that wasn’t the only roadblock. Even after Prohibition ended, the spirit suffered due to events in Peru. “Dictatorship, a turbulent economy, domestic terrorism—for decades. Peru was unstable and thus pisco couldn’t prosper.”
It wasn’t until the 2000s that the spirit began to return to San Franciscan bars, on the heels of the cocktail revival. According to oral historian and author of Bay Area Cocktails, Shanna Farrell, a handful of bars joined Cantina in the quest to restore pisco to its historic glory, places like La Mar. Located in the touristy Embarcadero, La Mar was run by Enrique Sanchez, a Peruvian native, who spread his love of pisco to anyone who would listen. As customers experienced the famed (albeit cocaine-free) Pisco Punch at La Mar, and as the pisco-pushing Cantina launched the careers of countless bartenders who then disseminated across the Bay Area, spreading the good word, pisco reclaimed its rightful place in SF bartending culture.
Farrell says that bartenders in SF are now intimately familiar with pisco. ”They see it and they know immediately what they’re going to do with it,” she says. Still, there’s a lack of knowledge among consumers. McDonnell recognizes that lag as well. “Just because what is old is new again, doesn’t mean success looms on the horizon for pisco,” he says. “I’d love to see the category, or even a single brand, rise and really resonate with the American consumer. But to do so, pisco needs to better connect with contemporary drinkers. Vodka and tequila succeed because the leading brands not only look and taste great, [but] the brands themselves speak to us. Pisco, if it is to leap from being a provincial darling, needs to expand its story beyond the merits of Peru and offer something drinkers can’t live without. That’s what the Pisco Punch did—that’s what every successful brand must do.”
McDonnell wonders whether the Pisco Sour might one day achieve the popularity of classics like the Sidecar or Old Fashioned, or even if pisco could find its place in a Highball as a more full-bodied alternative to the Vodka Soda. But regardless of whether or not pisco becomes the next fernet or the Piscola becomes the next Red Bull Vodka, we will always have San Fran to thank for bringing a taste of Peru to our shores.