Obtaining the recipe for the Pisco Punch turned out to be quite and endeavor for Guillermo Toro-Lira, many twists, turns and false leads. Research took them-he and wife Brenda- to Salinas, Monterey and the San Francisco Public library many times looking at archives and talking to people that had some information of the evolution of San Francisco’s early days, traditions and of its fine establishments.
Some of the finds of this research included the history of Pisco itself. How did Pisco come about? When the Spanish colonized South America, they brought with them their vines from Europe and soon after started producing wine of great quality. After this occurred, the Spanish wine producers started complaining about their sales decrease because of the competition from local producers of wine and King Phillip II of Spain prohibited the production of all wine in all the Viceroyalty of Peru. As ingenuous as Peruvians are, soon after they started producing Pisco, which is a distilled spirit and did not directly compete with the wine importers.
Another find was that during the Gold Rush of Northern California, Peru established the first consulate of all of South American countries in San Francisco and was one of the first in the world. It was founded in 1849 when the brigantine of war Gamarra anchored in this coast carrying documents sent by President Ramon Castilla, to protect the interests of Peruvians during the gold rush. It happens that many Peruvians came to the gold rush in ships from Callao Port in Lima, because they were expert miners compared to other migrants that did not have a clue when it came to mining techniques. Peru and its ancient civilizations have been mining for millennia. Worldwide, today Peru is # 2 in Silver and Copper production and 6th in Gold, among other minerals. Mineral exports represent 60% of all exports.
Along this research they came across information that perplexed Guillermo and his wife Brenda many times. For instance, what we now know as the famous Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. in Fisherman’s Wharf, was founded by an Italian chocolatier, Domingo Ghirardelli that migrated from Lima, Peru to San Francisco in 1849. He started his business in 1852, had nine children and was married to Peruvian Carmen Alvarado Pimentel.
Another interesting fact found during the research was that many people of the Americas of the 1800’s traveled to Peru to attend university at the second oldest university in the Americas, Universidad of San Marcos in Lima founded in 1551- oldest is the Universidad Autonoma of Santo Domingo in Dominican Republic founded in 1538. Back in the day, San Marcos University was considered top notch and it produced many famous intellectuals. Because of extended political instability in Peru in the last 150 years, this public university is not even the shadow of what it once was. It has been over politicized and its quality has diminished considerably. Perhaps, now with the new political and economic winds blowing in Peru right now after a positive Presidential election this last Sunday April 9th, that the overall situation in Peru will improve to the point of where it once stood as a prosper nation and as the amazing millenary culture that it is. With this in mind, many old institutions and industries can regain the leadership that they once had. That is the hope of the vast majority of Peruvians, despite still having a strong communist and terrorist presence in parts of the territory that have only proven to be a generator of poverty and mediocrity, but that hopefully will soon be eradicated by the new policies of wealth creation with “real” inclusion.
By the 1870’s Pisco Punch was the most demanded drink in all of San Francisco. But it remains a mystery on why to this day this is something that vanished from San Francisco culture and that it could have been San Francisco’s trade mark drink. The most logical explanation is that the recipe was well guarded by just one man and that the National Prohibition Act of 1919 which lasted thirteen year was the culprit to extinguish this tradition and preference. The recipe was carefully guarded by the Bank’s Exchange owner, Duncan Nicol or Pisco John as he was known. He got this nick name from another funny anecdote in Guillermo’s research which happened when the telephone lines were installed in the city in 1903 and the assigned number in the Bank Exchange was 3246, but also needed a name as a prefix to the number which in this case was John- John3246. So, when people called and did not remembered the number they would tell the operator please John of the Pisco, which soon was abbreviated to “Pisco John. “
It is only now that because of this research and because of the recent popularity and reintroduction of Pisco that this story is coming to light. In addition, many Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco now offer Pisco. Coincidentally, today the most famous Peruvian restaurant in San Francisco, created and operated by famous Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio-considered father of the present successful positioning of Peruvian Cuisine worldwide- restaurant La Mar, sits just five blocks from the original Bank Exchange location. This is not mentioned in Guillermo’s research, it is my own observation of this coincidence. If you look at the map carefully, you’ll notice that the Bank Exchange was located in the corner of Montgomery and Washington Street where the Transamerica pyramid is today- on the map the street on the right towards the bay is Washington and the waterfront is Montgomery Street- restaurant La Mar is located five blocks away almost in straight line following Washington St. towards the water front to Pier 1-1/2. Thus, the Bank Exchange was at the water’s edge in its time and so does La Mar today in what is now landfill. I know for a fact that La Mar serves great Pisco and Pisco Sours. I am intrigued if they prepare the famous Pisco Punch concoction? That is something that I will have to find out in my next visit.
After many hours of research from Guillermo, the recipe he came for Pisco Punch is the following:
The actual concoction preparation is another story and an arduous process, including macerations and alterations. Not even this research believes that all the ingredients and processes are complete. There is a brief explanation of the assumed process in Guillermo’s book and should be followed as reference to prepare the famous Pisco Punch.
“Wings of Cherubs” The Saga of the Rediscovery of Pisco Punch, Old San Francisco Mystery Drink By: Guillermo Toro-Lira