It was not yet midnight on the evening of Monday, June 30, 1919 when the last Pisco punch was passed across the mahogany bar at the Bank Exchange. The saloon had stood on the southeast corner of Washington and Montgomery streets in San Francisco since the Gold Rush. It had withstood the 1906 earthquake and emerged unscathed from the fires that ravaged the city in its aftermath, but the Bank Exchange would not survive prohibition.
The 18th Amendment, which had been ratified five months earlier, would not go into effect until 1920, but the Wartime Prohibition Act would become the law of the land that night at 12:01. That act, signed after the armistice, restricted the sale of all drinks with more than 2.75 percent alcohol. Few knew what was in the Bank Exchange’s famous Pisco punch, but it was definitely over the limit. One regular likened the cocktail to the scimitar of Harroun, with an edge so fine that “after a slash a man walked on unaware that his head had been severed from his body until his knees gave way and he fell to the ground dead.”
Over protests from the patrons gathered for a final hurrah, longtime proprietor Duncan Nicol locked the doors of the Bank Exchange at 10:30 that night. Nicol’s establishment was known a gentleman’s saloon, the type of environment so genteel that sons could bring their mothers for an elixir. Nicol was determined that would not change in last few, frantic moments before the cocktail shakers were silenced on “Thirsty First.” Andrew Volstead, the Minnesota representative who was the public face of prohibition, had won, but he could not have Nicol’s reputation or his Pisco punch recipe. “Mr. Volstead can’t take the secret from me,” Nicol declared.
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Many people had tried to learn the secret of Pisco punch in the 50 years Nicol stood in his white coat behind the bar at the Bank Exchange. There were stories of bribery, espionage, and even an attempt by a rival saloon to recruit a scientist to recreate the cocktail. The Los Angeles Times, in a preemptive obituary for the Bank Exchange written in early 1919, warned that the drink would never be replicated; it was “a febrifuge of rare and mythical ingredients, which has delighted and flabbergasted thirsty San Franciscans since the old days. And no one can make it except the aging genius Duncan Nicol.” Rudyard Kipling had hazarded a similar guess at the recipe in an 1889 travelogue. “It is compounded of the shavings of cherubs’ wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset, and fragments of lost epics by dead masters,” he concluded.
Pisco punch was, imbibers seemed to agree, a mix of Pisco, an unaged grape brandy carried to the port of San Francisco on ships from Peru and Chile, and pineapple, newly abundant in San Francisco in the second half of the 1800s as trade increased with the Kingdom of Hawaii. And it was stirred, “delicately and without haste,” one reporter recalled. Beyond that, the recipe was anyone’s guess, and the guesses ranged from absinthe to hashish to cocaine. Nicol died in 1926 at the age of 72 “without revealing to anyone the secret of making the punch,” the Associated Press reported the next day.
But the legend of Pisco punch did not die with Nicol. When prohibition was lifted in 1933, a brisk and cutthroat trade in bottled Pisco punch emerged, each claiming to be the original concoction. And the drink has enjoyed periodic resurgences of popularity in San Francisco in the decades since, depending on the availability of Pisco. Today, interpretations of the classic—made with Lillet Rouge or lime or even strawberry—can again be found on the city’s trendiest bar menus.
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There was, however, one man who maintained that the first recipe for Pisco punch was never truly lost. Instead, it sat for decades in a filing cabinet at a venerable San Francisco law firm. In 1964, the author William Bronson was asked to organize the papers of elderly lawyer A. Crawford Greene, who planned to write a memoir. Among the letters was a 1941 exchange between Greene and a Portland, Oregon, lawyer named Henry Corbett. “I have two bottles of Pisco brandy that I bought before Duncan Nicol died and I am tired of having them in the cellar and want to drink them up,” Corbett wrote. “I can’t drink them up unless I know the recipe.”
It is clear from the correspondence that Greene had not been forthcoming with the closely guarded secret in previous letters, but on May 1, 1941, he acquiesced, enclosing the Pisco punch recipe he acquired from John Lannes, the very man who took over the Bank Exchange from Nicols at the dawn of prohibition. Lannes ran it as a dry tavern, serving soft drinks for less than a year before shuttering it completely.
The secret Bronson discovered in those long-lost letters was gum syrup, a common pre-prohibition ingredient made from sugar, water, and gum arabic, the dried and reconstituted sap of the acacia tree. Known more for its velvety texture than its taste, gum syrup smoothed the often-rough edges of 19th-century Pisco.
Lannes’ Pisco Punch Recipe
- Take a fresh pineapple. Cut it in squares about 1/2 by 1 1/2 inches. Put these squares of fresh pineapple in a bowl of gum syrup to soak overnight. That serves the double purpose of flavoring the gum syrup with the pineapple and soaking the pineapple, both of which are sued afterwards in the Pisco Punch.
- In the morning, mix in a big bowl the following:
1/2 pint (8 oz.) of the gum syrup, pineapple flavored as above
1 pint (16 oz.) distilled water
3/4 pine (10 oz.) lemon juice
1 bottle (24 oz.) Peruvian Pisco brandy
Serve very cold but be careful not to keep the ice in too long because of dilution. Use 3 or 4 oz. punch glasses. Put one of the above squares of pineapple in each glass. Lemon juice or gum syrup may be added to taste.
Lannes’ recipe was meant for a party, not for serving one person across the bar, but “when the recipe is followed,” Greene wrote, “[t]he result tastes exactly as it did in the days of the old Bank Exchange.”