1950s Archive

Pisco Punch

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It wasn't long before the ritualistic imbibing of Pisco achieved wide fame. Passengers of distinction who arrived from Panama aboard the Pacific Mail steamers Strode down the gangway and told cab drivers in resolute tones to take them to the Bank Exchange; they could register at the Palace after they had presented their credentials to Duncan Nicol. After 1869, when the steam cars came through from Omaha in a miraculous five days and patrons of the Central Pacific Railroad in Inverness cloaks and Sherlock Holmes caps were brought over from Oakland, as they are to this day, on the ferry, the first stop for knowing travelers was still the Bank Exchange. What Twenty One is to New York, or the Pump Room to Chicago, the Rank Exchange was to San Francisco celebrities in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

Pisco came into the fullest flowering of its celebrity, became a generic term, and entered the local language. A writer in the California Alta elegantly referred to a drunken character as “more than piscoed.” Neill C. Wilson, the western historian, coined the simile “as comfortable as a Pisco jag.” Scores of lesser places advertised ' “The Original Pisco Punch,” but Nicol, serene and secure in unimpeachable supremacy, smiled on the competition and steadfastly kept the secret of the greatest mixed drink of the age.

The speculative contents of a Pisco punch were as much a conversation piece of San Francisco as its undeniable authority, its guileless approach, and its invariable triumph over the partaker who partook too well. Topers who managed to countervene the two-drink regulation, or who were susceptible to this maximum allowance, lapsed into unconsciousness with the docility of sleepy kittens, wreathed in smiles and dreaming heavenly dreams. Nobody ever got fighting drunk on one of Nicol's punches. On the contrary, communicants acquired a perhaps unwonted courtliness of manner; benevolence radiated from features usually stern, noted curmudgeons were gentled into fraternal attitudes of good will. Under its spell, misers donated liberally to good causes. The Pisco drinker was at peace with himself and with the world around him.

Nicol gradually achieved international fame. Of the Bank Exchange special, Rudyard Kipling wrote: “I have a theory it is compounded of the shavings of cherubs' wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset, and fragments of the lost epics of dead masters.” Before Kipling, Thomas W. Knox had written: “The second glass was sufficient, and I felt that I could face smallpox, all the fevers known to the faculty, and the Asiatic cholera, if need be.” Lesser singers have hymned Pisco in less Arcadian cadences bin with no less veneration.

The Bank Exchange in Nicol's consulship was, according to all contemporary testimony, quite unlike most of the well-upholstered San Francisco bars of its age. No barroom nudes profaned its hallowed walls. The décor was of a classic austerity commensurate with the exalted status of management and guests. Tessellated black-and-white marble was on the floor, the bar was of simple polished walnut, steel engravings of irreproachable theme adorned the walls. The Champagne buckets were of sterling silver and the handles of the beer pulls were made of authentic Wedgwood china.

A free lunch of fabled variety and viands in keeping with the character of the Bank Exchange were served daily from an enormous mahogany table in the middle of the main room. Awed customers remarked that the steel engravings in the back room-scenes of the French Revolution-were identical with the ones in the robing room of the House of Lords in London, and were valued at fifteen hundred dollars each by connoisseurs of such matters. The bar had been worn smooth at its outer edge by generations of drinkers, and old-timers were fond of recalling how. in the sixties and seventies, its well-to-do patrons often varied their noontime dice games for drinks by side bets for gold double eagles piled in neat stacks among the Piscos.

Duncan Nicol and the Hank Exchange remained honored institutions in San Francisco, as nearly immutable fixtures as mortality allows, until well after the fire of 1906. Pauline Jacobson, quoting from an old-timer in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1912, describes the remarkable uniformity of performance on Duncan's part even though his hands were by now trembling with the years. “E-v-e-r-y one of them is mixed the same.” deposed the old-timer. “I had nine of them punches once and e-v-e-r-y one of them was mixed the same.” (Duncan must by that time have relaxed his mandate of two to a customer.) “If you came there for thirty-five years, every one of them would be mixed the same.”

And so we rake leave of Duncan Nicol, gentleman, perfectionist, austere acolyte of a noble priesthood, who could have flourished only in San Francisco's golden noontide, and who will remain forever among her most durable legends.

On the true contents of the mysterious Pisco, who shall speculate with authority? Until only a few years ago a saloon calling itself “The House of Pisco” did business among the honky-tonks in Pacific Street and served a not unrefreshing arrangement which the management maintained was the True Sacrament as first devised by Nicol a full century ago. The drink wasn't a bad one. and contained pineapple juice, and what passed in those days for Pisco, bur it embodied none of the magical qualities associated with the legend of the hank Exchange, and a few of them served to induce torpor without exaltation, something like the effect of a slug at the base of the neck.

Only recently a lineal successor to Nicol, Jack Koeppler of the Buena Vista Café in San Francisco, who has proved himself worthy of his noble heritage as an innovator by first launching Irish coffee on the American market, prevailed upon a fellow San Franciscan, Kenneth Prosser, to reveal to this writer what purports to be the recipe of the True Elixir. Mr. Prosser swears on a formidable stack of assorted books that the following recipe was recorded in his late father's own handwriting and may be taken as Revelation. It comprises 2 jiggers of Pisco, 2 jiggers of white grape juice, I teaspoonful of pineapple juice, and I teaspoonful of absinthe, Pernod, or Herbsaint.

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