In the late 19th century, when San Francisco was the cultural gem of the Pacific coast, one drink enjoyed exceptional prestige in the city: Pisco Punch.
Often credited to barman Duncan Nicol at the Bank Exchange, located where the Transamerica Pyramid now stands, Pisco Punch had a dramatic reputation: in 1889, Rudyard Kipling wrote that it was "compounded of the shavings of cherub's wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters," while others wrote that "it tastes like lemonade but comes back with the kick of a roped steer," and that "it makes a gnat fight an elephant."
Now that a new pisco is available that has close links with San Francisco's bars, it's time to take a fresh look at Pisco Punch. The story goes that Nicol took the exact recipe for the punch to his grave, and there are several similar versions of the recipe in circulation. Here's a single-serving recipe that I've had luck with, a simple preparation with one not-so-simple component.
While the base elements of pisco, lemon juice, sugar and fresh pineapple are easy to come by, one ingredient is a bit more challenging: gum arabic. A common ingredient in 19th century syrups, gum arabic acts as an emulsifier, preventing the crystallization of sugar in a syrup and holding other flavor ingredients in balance; in a drink, it lends an exceptionally smooth and silky texture, making what's essentially a boozy lemonade into something much more luxurious.
It's easy enough to make your own gum syrup (aka gomme), and food-grade gum arabic can be purchased at many natural-food stores or specialty food stores, or you can purchase excellent pre-made gum syrup and pineapple gomme from Small Hand Foods. If that's all too much trouble, though, you can still make a perfectly delicious Pisco Punch without gum arabic—though it may not quite have that touch of cherub's wings and tropical dawn.
Note: Pineapple gomme may be purchased from Small Hand Foods (check the website for retailers near you, or purchase online). To make your own, peel and core a pineapple and cut the flesh into 1-inch cubes. Soak pineapple in a bowl filled with one quart of gomme syrup (ideally) or rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar dissolved in 1 part water over medium heat, then cooled) overnight; once syrup is well-flavored with pineapple, strain the syrup and save the sugary fruit for another use.
- 2 ounces pisco
- 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 ounce pineapple gomme (see note)
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake until well chilled, about 15 seconds, and strain into chilled cocktail glass.