Pisco, Please

San Francisco packs a punch—a Pisco Punch, that is. The clear grape brandy has a rich history in San Francisco and is making a comeback in bars and at restaurants throughout the city.

“Pisco is the next big spirit to tantalize the American palate,” says Duggan McDonnell, owner of Cantina bar and one of three partners in locally imported Encanto Pisco. “Grape-based and from South America, Pisco is easy-drinking fun, which is what American cocktail drinkers love best.”

The South American spirit (origins: Peru or Chile? Debate rages on) is made from eight grape varietals, highlighting close parallels between pisco and wine. Undiluted with no aging, this clear brandy reflects a grape’s purity: from floral, sweet Italia, to earthy, dry Quebranta varietals.

Pisco is a spirit with long ties historically to San Francisco, more so than any other place in the U.S. As the first U.S. city to import pisco in the 1830s, San Francisco bars heavily stocked the spirit, and local bartender Duncan Nicol was responsible for creating San Francisco’s now signature cocktail—the Pisco Punch. His enduring recipe using pisco, pineapple, lime, sugar, gum arabic and water, was created where the Transamerica building now stands in what was once the Bank Exchange, one of the city’s first saloons. San Francisco became a destination for the drink, with bars bragging that they served “Original World Famous Pisco Punch” years after Nicol’s death.

And today? A few years ago, bars like Pisco Latin Lounge and restaurants like La Mar Cebicheria brought a fresh wave of pisco appreciation to the Bay Area. To this day, Pisco Latin Lounge stocks the largest known pisco selection in the U.S. Many of the city’s best bars rotate exemplary pisco cocktails on their regular menus. Downtown at Cantina, there’s a winning off-menu Pisco Negroni. Though classic Pisco Punch is always on order at Barbary Coast-themed Comstock Saloon, bartenders there have been known to pull out the punch bowl for recipes like Pisco Milk Punch to celebrate special occasions. Dogpatch restaurant Poquito offers seven pisco cocktails, each highlighting the seven pisco brands in stock. Harry Denton’s Starlight Room serves an elegant Pisco Crusta with red lychee tea and lime. Be sure to order the drink both Chile and Peru lay claim to: a Pisco Sour—frothy with egg white and served at bars all over town.

Pisco’s San Francisco ties don’t stop at cocktails. We continue to be a key source for importing pisco into the U.S. Locally imported Oro Pisco makes a pisco in each varietal. A side-by-side tasting in Oro’s warehouse on Treasure Island reveals the spirit’s range. Encanto, another pisco with local roots (from Peruvian distiller Carlos Romero and SF pisco experts Duggan McDonnell of Cantina and sommelier Walter Moore), recently celebrated its one-year anniversary.

On a national scale, Pisco Porton hit the market in 2011 with the biggest, widespread pisco marketing campaign seen yet. “Porton is escalating pisco’s visibility globally,” says Encanto’s Walter Moore.

Where to Sip
1817 Market St., 415.874.9951, www.piscosf.com

580 Sutter St., 415.398.0195, www.cantinasf.com

2368 3rd St., 415.643.3900, www.poquitosf.com

Pier 1 1/2, 415.397.8880, www.lamarcebicheria.com