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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pisco Latin Lounge's Self-Styled 'Cocktail Historian' Curates an Indigenous Guzzler

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2009 at 5:20 PM

The Pisco Punch at Pisco Latin Lounge: The real deal, for better or worse - KENN WILSON VIA FLICKR
  • Kenn Wilson via Flickr
  • The Pisco Punch at Pisco Latin Lounge: The real deal, for better or worse
Guillermo Toro-Lira is pretty much obsessed. It's no coincidence that the Peruvian-born, self-styled "cocktail historian" once wrote a novel about a couple who were (surprise) obsessed with sussing out the original formula for Pisco Punch, the indigenous SF cocktail made with the Peruvian brandy pisco. Three years ago, Toro-Lira traded in life as an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley for what he calls a "long sabbatical" researching Peru's historical influence on Northern California. It took him straight to Pisco Punch.

The 19th-century bartender Duncan Nichol invented the pineapple-flavored guzzler at the Bank Exchange (it stood where the Transamerica Pyramid now towers), a saloon that survived the Great Earthquake but perished with Prohibition in 1919. "It was very famous in San Francisco," Toro-Lira told SFoodie. "In 1901, 1902, every visitor to the city had to taste it." But it was Nichol's secret, especially the pineapple gum syrup on which the drink is based.

Toro-Lira became an investor and de facto consultant in James Schenk's Pisco Latin Lounge (1817 Market at Octavia), which opened late last year. He made sure the Pisco Punch served there is historically accurate, down to the pineapple gum syrup - based on fresh pineapple, simple syrup, and gum Arabic, the sap of a certain kind of acacia tree imported from the Middle East - in a process Toro-Lira says takes a whole week. "It's a long process," he said.

The bar also uses what Toro-Lira considers the correct pisco, or at least as correct as possible. Inca Gold Ancholado Pisco is distilled from a blend of grapes, including a fairly high proportion of Italia grapes, the variety original piscos were made from. Nowadays the fruit is more valuable as table grapes - it's the cheaper quebranta variety that find its way into the distiller. But Ancholado ('blended') contains a respectable proportion that Toro-Lira believes yields a superior punch.

"We are sticklers for the historical recipe," he said. "This is not a modernized recipe -- for better and worse," he added. Worse? "Some people, wine drinkers, say it is a little sweet," Toro-Lira acknowledged. "But it is a punch. What do they expect?"

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