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I knew that Peru and California had a common history that went back to the Gold Rush era of the 1840’s. But recently thanks to the General Consulate of Peru in San Francisco and especially of Guillermo Toro-Lira which directed a play at the Alcazar Theater in downtown San Francisco about the history of the introduction of Pisco -brandy of Peru of ubiquitous grape- to Alta California, that I was exposed to a much earlier relation between my native Peru and my current residence of California.  I was surprised that it went back for that long and that merchant ships that sailed up and down the coast transported among other things, Peru’s native distilled drink.

pisco tinajas

Pisco Tinajas

Not only did Pisco made its way during the Gold Rush to the Bay Area, but it was already enjoyed in the shores of Alta California since the late 1700’s when Limean navigator and explorer Don Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, explored Bodega and Tomales Bay just north of the Golden Gate and co-discovered the entrance to San Francisco Bay in 1775. During his maiden voyage and other ships that followed from the Spanish Armada, Pisco was among the goods that were transported. If you consider that the first distillery in the Americas was established in 1684 at the Hacienda La Caravedo-currently producer of Pisco Porton in Ica, Peru- one has to ponder that shipments of the distilled grape and wines were being shipped from the Port of Pisco and Port of Callao in Lima since these times.

Way before the Panama Canal and the Transcontinental Railroad, most intercontinental commerce was done via shipping lanes up and down the coast that came primarily from South America. At the time, Lima the capital of Peru and its port, Callao, was the epicenter of the Americas for the Spanish Colony in the Pacific Coast because of its geographical position. Ships that came from the Tierra del Fuego passage at the bottom of South America travelled north stopping along the way at different ports and the first Spanish ships to make it to North America introduced foreign goods to this part of the world. Initially the Spaniards did not find enough riches in metals in North America compared to what they found in South America and Mexico and did not colonize but after the British and Russians started showing up, the Spaniards started colonizing with what we now know as Presidios and Misiones which are all over California today.

San Franciscans have long enjoyed Pisco and shipment arrivals were quick news in downtown San Francisco after the Gold Rush of 1849. After the Gold Rush, San Francisco established itself as a legit urban area and its cosmopolitan style quickly grew and many establishments took root in the Downtown we now know. Well almost, in fact the bay front used to go all the way to where the Transamerica building stands today, todays bay front is landfill where ships used to dock. Just next to the Transamerica building area in the Montgomery block is where the Bank Exchange bar was established in the 1850’s and where its owner and sole proprietor Duncan Nicol sold its famous Pisco Punch.

bank exchange

Duncan Nicol far left

Pisco Punch was a sensation in this new world and a recipe that only its owner knew. This bar quickly became a gathering location and one of a very active night life, where rowdy parties were the norm fueling Can Can dancing and raided by police in more than one occasion. The punch was so potent that one writer of the day wrote “it tastes like lemonade but comes back with the kick of a roped steer.” Others said “it makes a gnat fight an elephant.” Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker magazine wrote in 1937: “In the old days in San Francisco there was a famous drink called Pisco Punch, made from Pisco, a Peruvian brandy… Pisco punch used to taste like lemonade but had a kick like vodka, or worse.”            *More to come on this journey of Pisco and San Francisco.

Not for nothing was called Pisco Punch, it had its kick



“Wings of Cherubs” The Saga of the Rediscovery of Pisco Punch, Old San Francisco Mystery Drink     By: Guillermo Toro-Lira


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