The murky truth behind local cocktail lore and how curiosity can spin a good tail
Illustrations by Gary Handman
Who invented the Pisco Punch?
What was the first cocktail ever made?
Where did the word “cocktail” actually come from?
Those enchanted by cocktail lore love to ask these questions while perched on a bar stool, but the truth behind any answers can be as cloudy as a glass of absinthe mixed with water.
Ah, but this is why we have Wikipedia! It’s why we keep our smartphones nearby while at the bar!
Well, we all know by now that the Information Age has made it just as easy to perpetuate misinformation as it is to find quick answers. Still, following cocktail lore can be an engaging and memorable journey, like when you learn that Chartreuse was once produced by monks in France but is now made by robots.
Some invented drinks do have documented origins: the Boothby, for instance. After creating this concoction—a Manhattan topped with sparkling wine—at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, William Boothby put the recipe in his book The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them, published in 1907. But the origins of many drinks remain enigmatic.
We’re lucky to have several astute modern writers helping us get closer to accurate accounts of cocktail history. One is David Wondrich, a James Beard Award–winning author who, in 2007, published Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar Featuring the Original Formulae. The book has spiked Interest in cocktail history and helped launch the modern cocktail renaissance.
As its subtitle implies, this book serves as a tribute to Jerry Thomas, a bartender and larger-than-life character whose own book on cocktails, How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant’s Companion, was published in 1862, and is considered to be the world’s first volume on the subject. Thomas traveled the country, but spent considerable time in New York and San Francisco. He is thought to have created the Martini during a stint in the Bay Area. But did he really? This question—or doubt—has spawned arguments and articles among bartenders and cocktail aficionados alike.
What about the Pisco Punch?
Good question! It is widely believed that this cocktail, which is based on a Peruvian brandy called “pisco,” was created by Duncan Nicol at San Francisco’s Bank Exchange, a bar of much historic fame. The problem with that notion is that the Bank Exchange opened its doors in 1853—with much acclaim—but wasn’t purchased by Nicol until 1893. We know from a 1850’s review of the Bank Exchange by San Francisco Bulletin writer Pauline Jacobsen that barmen well before Nicol’s day “always prepared punches with pisco.”
According to Duggan McDonnell, a San Francisco–based author of Drinking the Devil’s Acre: A Love Letter from San Francisco and Her Cocktails, Nicol bought the recipe for the Pisco Punch when he became the Bank Exchange’s new owner. “He created mythology around it as marketing,” explains McDonnell. However, the Pisco Punch is now invariably associated with Nicol, who perfected the recipe and made it the most popular drink in town. In fact, Nicol’s drink inspired the old saying, “A visitor to San Francisco must absolutely do three things: ride a cable car, watch the sun set through the Golden Gate, and drink a Pisco Punch.”
But, Nicol was proprietary about his recipe, which he took to his grave. Many, including McDonnell, have tried to decipher the ingredients and their proportions. A common misconception is that it was originally made with limes, but we now know it had to be lemons, since limes weren’t yet available in Northern California at that time.
Pisco Punch is what led McDonnell down a rabbit hole out of which he has yet to climb. As a bartender with an MFA in creative writing, McDonnell has thought and read deeply on the history of his home city, and his research has brought him around to regarding pisco as an interesting emblem of the unique culture and geography of San Francisco: Just as pisco is an imported spirit that America embraced and made its own, the spirit could be seen to symbolize the great melting pot. McDonnell, who also owns Cantina (a bar on Sutter Street in SF), fell so hard for pisco that he got himself involved in producing the spirit: In 2008, with Carlos Ruben Romero-Gamero, who serves as master distiller, and Walter Moore, he founded a distillery in Ica Valley, Peru, where the partners created a much-admired pisco called Campo de Encanto Pisco.
But McDonnell couldn’t stop there: In the fall of 2014, he began a campaign to have Pisco Punch declared as San Francisco’s official cocktail. Having secured the support of District 3, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, he says he’s now working on the Mayor’s Office and the San Francisco Historical Society. And though he’s taken a break to finish and promote Drinking the Devil’s Acre—a narrative account of San Francisco cocktail history through the lens of 25 drinks—he plans to continue his efforts to formalize San Francisco’s sweet relationship with the Pisco Punch.
Though we may never know the names of the original bartenders who concocted the first Pisco Punch at the Bank Exchange, it was indeed Duncan Nicol who popularized it and helped to put San Francisco on the map as an innovative drinking city. So, we might now ask, “Did the drink belong to Nicol, even though he didn’t create it?”
“Yes, it did and it does,” posits McDonnell. “It begs the question: What makes something yours? Did Nicol invent the drink? No. But he made it popular and brought it to the masses, so I would argue that it does indeed belong to him.”
And although it came from Peru, does pisco belong to San Francisco? Should the Pisco Punch be the City by the Bay’s official drink? Does McDonnell now carry the torch for Nicol? In keeping with this logic, we can say yes on all accounts.
“What is Whose?” The question becomes even more fascinating as we move forward in the Information Age. Identity is something that’s cultivated. It evolves with the invention, adoption, and engagement of ideas, just as it does with the mixing of a drink.
Now, how do you want that Martini? Dry, wet, shaken, stirred, gin, vodka, dirty . . .
Which city is home to the first ever tiki bar, Los Angeles or San Francisco?
Sorry Bay Area, it was indeed Los Angeles.
The Facts: In 1933, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, known fondly as “Donn Beachcomber,” opened the first tiki bar—Don’s Beachcomber Café—in Los Angeles. He created the Zombie cocktail there in 1934. (The drink was featured at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.) Donn moved his bar across the street in 1937 and changed its name to Don the Beachcomber.
A year after Donn ushered in his first customers to the seminal tiki bar, a man named Victor Jules Bergeron Jr. opened a place called Hinky Dink’s in Oakland. Bergeron quickly changed his restaurant’s name to Trader Vic’s, and by 1940 the first franchised location was opened. Trader Vic’s later grew into a national chain.
Many believe that Bergeron invented the Mai Tai cocktail in Oakland, but the only truth there is that both he and Donn laid claim to the famed tiki drink.
Modern Cocktail Myth No. 2: Regarding St. George Spirits and Hangar One
Did St. George Spirits get bought out? Many think so, and the rumor mill has been swirling since news broke in 2014 that St. George would no longer be making Hangar One Vodka. Is this true? No, St. George—the company—was not sold, only the Hangar One line.
The facts: St. George began making Hangar One Vodka in 2002 and released four types: Straight, Mandarin, Buddha’s Hand, and Kaffir Lime. In 2010, the team, Jörg Rupf, Lance Winters, and Dave Smith, sold only the Hangar One Vodka to Proximo Spirits, not the entire company or any of their other products. As part of the contract, St. George continued producing the vodkas for a few more years but has now handed the Hangar One line over to Proximo completely. (Proximo’s new production facility is located just up the block from St. George’s distillery in Alameda, which may account for some of the confusion.) Meanwhile, St. George has just released a new vodka line, which includes California Citrus, Green Chile, and All Purpose.
COCKTAILS MENTIONED IN THIS STORY
2.5 ounces St. George Spirits Botanivore gin
.5 ounce French vermouth
Stir with ice, strain into a coupe glass, and garnish with an orange peel.
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
2 dashes orange bitters
2 ounces rye whiskey
1 ounce sweet vermouth
Stir with ice, strain into a coupe glass, top with 1 ounce sparkling wine, and garnish with a maraschino cherry.
1 dash aromatic bitters
2 ounces pisco
1 ounce pineapple gum syrup
1 ounce fresh lime juice
.5 ounce Lillet Rouge
Shake with ice, strain over a Nick & Nora glass, and garnish with an orange peel.
1 dash Angostura bitters
1.5 ounces Gold Puerto Rican rum
1.5 ounces aged Demerara rum
.75 ounce fresh lime juice
.5 ounce Donn’s mix (fresh grapefruit boiled with cinnamon syrup; find recipes online)
.5 ounce Falernum
1 teaspoon grenadine
6 drops Pernod
6 ounces crushed ice
Blend ingredients with ice, pour contents of blender into ice, add ice to fill glass, and garnish with a mint sprig.
2 ounces premium aged rum
.75 ounce fresh lime juice (about half a lime)
.5 ounce orange curaçao
.25 ounce orgeat syrup
.25 ounce simple syrup
Shake with ice, pour contents into a rocks glass, and garnish with a mint spring.