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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pisco Punch, a Butt-Kicking Sip of S.F. History

Posted By on Thu, Oct 8, 2009 at 3:07 PM

The version at Pisco Latin Lounge: From the Monkey Block to your lips. - KENN WILSON/FLICKR
  • Kenn Wilson/Flickr
  • The version at Pisco Latin Lounge: From the Monkey Block to your lips.
The mind can touch on all sorts of topics when allowed to wander unimpeded. So it was that as we reflected on Chinatown's annual Double 10 celebration commemorating the overthrow of the Xing Dynasty on October 10, 1911, we thought about how the revolt was masterminded by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, author of the Chinese Constitution. And how the doctor wrote the constitution while in exile at the Montgomery Block, a warren of studios, galleries, courtyards, and saloons at Washington and Montgomery -- the so-called Monkey Block -- once favored by artists, writers, and bohemians, among them Mark Twain, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, and Robert Louis Stevenson. And how the Monkey Block's most enduring claim to fame (Chinese Constitution notwithstanding) is Pisco Punch, a sneakily subversive cocktail invented on the premises.

Pisco, an especially potent Peruvian grape brandy, first arrived in the port of Yerba Buena in 1839 via an English clipper ship out of South America. By the time of the Gold Rush and the city's reincarnation as San Francisco, pisco was one of the locals' favorite potables and the primary ingredient in many a popular cocktail. The greatest of them all was first crafted in the Monkey Block's Bank Exchange Saloon by owner-barkeep Duncan Nicol. His Pisco Punch employed lime and pineapple juice, sugar, distilled water, and the titular hooch, and by all accounts was sweet, refreshing, and downright dangerous.

The bar's regular habitués made the drink internationally famous -- Stevenson wrote that it was "compounded of the shavings of cherubs' wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters" -- but Prohibition and Nicol's untimely death ended the punch's glory days.

But as the new century embraces San Francisco's historic contribution to the art of the cocktail, Pisco Punch has made a resurgence. Pisco Latin Lounge (1817 Market at Octavia) has that old S.F. feel -- polished walnut bar, Carrara marble flooring -- and the punch, crafted with Inca Gold acholado pisco, is a butt-kicking trip down memory lane. (Co-owner Guillermo Toro-Lira is author of Wings of Cherubs: The Saga of the Rediscovery of Pisco Punch, Old San Francisco's Mystery Drink.)

The Monkey Block, meanwhile, was torn down in 1959 to make way for the Transamerica Pyramid, and while Sun Yat-Sen endures in the form of Bufano's statue in St. Mary's Square, his constitution is somewhat the worse for wear.

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Matthew Stafford


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