1950s Archive

Pisco Punch

Originally Published September 1957

One of the best of the ambrosial legends wafted down the San Francisco decades since that dreamy period of unearthly wonderment known as “before the fire,” part myth, part recorded fact, part recollected grandeur consecrated by long acceptance, concerns the Pisco punch.

Around this sacramental brew the regional mythology of San Francisco's Golden Age of Nabobs and Splendid Living gathers, perfumed by names that will live as long as she Old West recalls its heroes and its magnificos: Duncan Nicol, Leland Stanford, Joaquin Miller, and John Mackay. Others are shadowy or substantial as the light of time glances over their remembered profiles, the Emperor Norton, François Pioche, David Scannell, Isaac Requa, John Percival Jones, Mark Twain, and the god-like William Morris Stewart.

As with the Palace Hotel, there was scarcely a personality of consequence or character in nineteenth-century San Francisco who cannot be associated, as one of the faithful at Duncan Nicol's Hank Exchange Bar, with the miracle and benison that all men of good will and sound judgment universally admitted the Pisco punch to be. No regional drink, not even the benevolent julep of Kentucky, the Medford rum of Yankee New England, or the Taos Lightning which brought civilization to the region the Denver Post likes to call the Rocky Mountain Empire, was more truly indigenous to the place of its most appreciative consumption. To be sure, the basic spirit from which Pisco was compounded was imported in great earthenware pipkins by sailing ship from far-off Peru, where the volcanic soil gave to the grapes an essential genius encountered nowhere else on earth. Until it reached San Francisco, however, Pisco remained merely one more of the ardent spirits that inspired men have evolved over the centuries from the grapes and grains of earth.

Once in the hands of Duncan Nicol it was translated, as by consecration in the name of a divinity more benevolent than all others, into Pisco punch, the wonder and glory of San Francisco's heady youth, the balm and solace of fevered generations, a drink so endearing and inspired that although its prototype has vanished, its legend lingers on, one with the Grail, the unicorn, and the music of the spheres.

Like much of the vocabulary of California and many of the customs, artifacts, and social institutions of early San Francisco, Pisco was an inheritance from the Spanish days of the great ranches. Along with the Golden Gate and the Presidio at Monterey, the inheritors of California took over a number of pleasant aspects of Old Spain: the talma, or short cloak, of the mounted grandee, the siesta and the love of case it represented, a habit of calling the highways caminos, and a pronounced taste for Pisco.

Pisco punch, so far as anyone can discover, originated in the premises called Parker's Hank Exchange, which opened in 1853 in the Montgomery Block, an edifice built by General Halleck and representing to its generation in San Francisco all that the Empire State Building was to represent to New York three-quarters of a century later. The Montgomery Block, at the junction of Washington, Montgomery, and Columbus Avenues, speedily became the most admired professional address in San Francisco and was filled with the offices of lawyers, top-ranking merchants, and the private bankers of the time. On its second floor was a splendid red-and-gold billiard parlor; directly beneath, and under the same management, was Parker's Bank Exchange Saloon.

Somewhere in the shifting mists that obscure San Francisco each evening as the sun goes down beyond the Golden Gate, the original Parker disappeared from behind the bar of this favored oasis. In his place there emerged—and name his name with bugles-Duncan Nicol, an authoritative, almost clerical figure, clad in immaculate white, his eyeglasses hanging over his right ear.

In the fifties in San Francisco a saloon for gentlemen that was run by men of breeding and manners was an extreme rarity. Barry and Patten, themselves New ling-landers from fine families, set the style when they opened their saloon in Montgomery Street next to the first office of Wells Fargo and Company. Their walls were hung with choice paintings, nudes not among them. Gambling was forbidden and the wines and liquor were irreproachable. There were no libraries or reading rooms, and many patrons COOK to the town's better saloons to read their mail and the local newspapers. The New York and Boston papers, usually about three months old, which had come around the Horn in sailing ships, were on racks for all to peruse. Barry and Patten are still known to a later generation of San Franciscans for their gentle and illuminating book of recollections of the town in pioneer times.

It was the success of Barry and Patten in attracting a clientele of respected merchants, professional men, and first citizens generally that inspired Parker and his successor, Nicol, to undertake I similar project in the Bank Exchange.

Nicol was like no bartender or saloonkeeper before or since. In a generation when most San Francisco bartenders were recruited from the slugging carnivals of the Barbary Coast and acted as their own bouncers, he fairly radiated respectability. Merely to be admitted to the Bank Exchange was a patent of social and financial probity. Nicol tolerated no arrivistes. “Two of my punches are enough for any gentleman,” he would say serenely, “and I'll have none others in the Bank Exchange.”

He meant it, too, about the two drinks to a customer. If a favored patron like Fire Chief Scannell or James Flood, the Nevada bonanza king who was himself once a saloonkeeper of note (both of them were known tosspots), wanted more, he could walk around the block, thus qualifying as a new customer. When millionaire John Mackay, perhaps the richest man in America at the time, wanted a third, he like everyone else raked his silk hat off the stag-horn rack, walked demurely around the block, and returned to get if. Nobody took liberties with Nicol.

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