Pisco Punch is the drink “that can make a gnat fight an elephant,” as one journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle put it in 1912.
Or more rapturously as the drink “compounded of cherubs wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics of dead masters” in 1889, according to Rudyard Kipling.
The English short-story writer, poet, and novelist was one of many visitors to San Francisco‘s Bank Exchange Billiard Saloon located at the southwest corner of Montgomery and Washington Streets during the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries where Pisco reigned as the drink of choice.
He had just concluded a turbulent crossing of the Pacific from India via Japan in a four-masted barque titled the “City of Peking” during which he recalled that “twice I know I shot out of my birth to join the adventurous trunks on the floor.”
Once on solid ground, he ventured to the famous saloon and imbibed its rose-tinted cocktail made with Pisco, pineapple gum syrup and sugar, and a splash of red wine for that essential rosy hue.
Even Ernest Hemingway, was a fan of “Pisco Sours,” which he first encountered during his fishing trips to Cabo Blanco, a fishing village in northwestern Peru.
And at the Rialto Center for the Arts in downtown Atlanta on the evening of Dec. 13, it was celebrated once again for reflecting Peru’s “national spirit” by Miguel Aleman, Peru’s consul general for the Southeast and the current dean of the city’s Consular Corps.
“Pisco was born in the 16th century in the Valley of Pisco very close to the port of the same name,” he told the dozens of guests who came to celebrate the grape brandy that has a protected legal status, just like wine from Napa Valley or champaign from the Champagne Region of France.
“The word Pisco has a very old history in Peru, long before the Spaniards arrive, the pre-Columbian culture of the Piskus gave their name to the area.”
Mr. Aleman, who has served unavoidably as an unofficial ambassador of Pisco throughout his diplomatic career, traced the origin of its name to Pisku, a word of the native Quechua language that means bird.
He went on in his welcome remarks at the celebration to say that the most famous Pisco cocktail is the Pisco Sour created in the Morris Bar in downtown Lima, Peru’s capital, in the 1920s.
But here he stepped on controversial ground because due to its popularity the origins of Pisco Sours and their varieties of Pisco Punches are claimed by many.
Most agree, however, that Victor Morris, a San Franciscan no less, is credited with inventing the first Pisco Sour at his famous Morris Bar including pisco brandy, lime juice, egg white, sugar and bitters. Pisco is derived from grapes, like wine, but is technically an “aguardiente,” or brandy.
“But long before Pisco Sour existed, Pisco Punch was a favorite in San Francisco during the Gold Rush in the middle of the 19th century as it was easier to bring Pisco to California navigating the Pacific Ocean than bringing Tennessee whiskey or bourbon from the Southeast as still there was no railway service from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” he said.
One famous claimant of the origins of the Pisco Punch imbibed by renowned writers such as Mark Twain and Samuel Beckett, in addition to Mr. Kipling and to more ordinary imbibers was Duncan Nichol, the bartender at the Bank Exchange Saloon in 1853.
According to rumored legend, Mr. Nichol’s punch contained a special wallop because his recipe included a secret ingredient purported to be coca from which cocaine is derived, a perfectly legal ingredient at the time.
Not surprisingly Coca-Cola, a distant cousin of Mr. Nichol’s original recipe, is on occasion today added as a modern-day companion ingredient in the proliferating varieties of Pisco Punches accompanying the gaining popularity of Peruvian cuisine globally.
With the Peruvian band, APU INKA, about to play, Mr. Aleman closed his remarks by thanking the Coca-Cola Co., the creator of that distant Pisco cousin, for sponsoring the evening celebration.