The theme for this month’s Mixology Monday is Repeal Day, and Pre-prohibition drinks are thus in order. Pisco is flavor of the month at my place since I managed to pick up three different brands of the stuff. That makes the Pisco Punch the obvious choice for this month’s drink.
I mentioned Pisco Punch the last time I wrote here. The problem with Pisco Punch, and it is quite a problem, is that the original recipe seems to have been lost. Certain things about the drink are known with certainty though.
Pisco Punch was invented at the Bank Exchange on the corner of Montgomery and Washington streets in San Francisco. The Bank Exchange was a meeting place for the San Francisco business community and one of the city’s preeminent watering holes for much of the period between its opening in 1854 and its closure on the arrival of Prohibition in 1919. The drink appears to have been invented by the original owners of the Bank Exchange and the recipe was passed on to Duncan Nicol who ran the establishment from the late 1870s until its closure.
For some reason Pisco Punch attracted exaggerated praise among imbibers. Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1889 that the famous punch 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”. Another commentator stated more ominously that it would “make a gnat fight an elephant”. The drink was clearly tasty, potent, well-marketed or some combination thereof.
The recipe was a closely guarded secret and seems to have been lost following the death of Nicol. The result is that various different recipes now claim to be the original. All of these recipes share in common the use of pisco and fresh pineapple chunks marinated in syrup. Almost all also call for lemon or lime juice, though at least one uses grape juice in place of citrus and cuts the pineapple juice down to a mere teaspoon. One or two recipes include a dash of absinthe. Some variations call for a spicy element, either from marinating cloves together with the pineapple or though a dash of Angostura Bitters – this last being a variation that may result from confusion with the Pisco Sour. The controversy surrounding the recipe suggests that there may have been some ‘secret ingredient’ that foiled attempts replicate the taste of the original. However, given that Nicol guarded the recipe so closely he might easily have fed rumors of a ‘secret ingredient’, even if none existed, simply to throw imitators off the scent. It seems difficult to know the truth of the matter, but the idea of a ‘secret ingredient’ is certainly attractive.
An article on a blog by Knox Bronson claims that the ‘secret ingredient’ was gum syrup (see The Secrets of Pisco Punch Revealed). I am not sure about this theory. Gum syrup (sugar syrup with the addition of Gum Arabic to prevent crystallization and give a silky texture) was a standard 19th century sweetener. Modern drinkers might be struck by a unique texture when the punch is prepared with gum syrup rather than standard syrup, but for drinkers in 19th Century San Francisco gum syrup would have been nothing unusual. Having said that though, punch recipes in Jerry Thomas’ 19th Century bar guide exclusively call for loaf sugar as a sweetener, with gum syrup mostly restricted to use in cocktails. Jerry Thomas does give one punch recipe that uses gelatin to provide a silky texture, an effect that could also have been achieved with gum syrup. A gum syrup sweetened punch therefore might have been an unusual punch variation. It seems less plausible though that it was a ‘secret’ innovation. After all, owing to its easy mixability compared to sugar, gum syrup would likely have been a common substitution for sugar among bartenders mixing single serving punches in a hurry. Concluding that gum syrup was the ‘secret ingredient’ in the pisco punch seems premature.
Bronson also argues that, despite rumors at the time that the recipe included absinthe, this could not have been the case because the absinthe would have dominated the flavor and been easily discernable. I’m not so sure. The use of very small quantities of absinthe (i.e. dashes) was fairly common in other drinks of the time and hence the use of absinthe would not necessarily have implied an absinthe dominated drink. A punch containing absinthe may have been unusual though. Jerry Thomas lists various absinthe drinks, but not a single example of absinthe in a punch. The apparent lack of other absinthe punches, combined with the absinthe rumors associated with the Pisco Punch, thus could be interpreted as evidence that absinthe was the ‘secret ingredient’.
Regarding the possibility of the secret ingredient being some spicy element, Jerry Thomas gives an interesting recipe for a California Milk Punch that contains pineapple, lemons, sugar, cloves, coriander, cinnamon, brandy (unspecified but possibly in California this meant Pisco?), rum, Batavia Arrack, green tea and milk. Jerry Thomas contains several punch recipes that call for pineapple, but only the Californian version combines the pineapple with spices. This could simply be coincidence, but possibly there is a connection between this Californian spiced pineapple punch recipe and the Pisco Punch?
Personally I suspect that much of the novelty of the Pisco Punch may have lain in the use of pineapple. Pineapple is an interesting fruit from a social history perspective. Originally from Brazil, Europeans first encountered pineapple in the Caribbean at the close of the 15th century. The extraordinary natural sweetness of the pineapple (sugar was a luxury item at the time), its exotic appearance, and the difficulty of transporting the ripe fruit (which only deteriorate after harvesting) initially cemented the position of the pineapple as the fruit of the elite. European ships would load pineapples in the Americas, then make the long return voyage to Europe and present what few fruit remained unspoiled to the local monarch. From such lofty beginnings the pineapple could only really see its status decline, but it managed to retain its exotic and aristocratic associations into the 20th century.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries European aristocrats invested huge sums in hot houses and expert gardeners solely for the purpose of growing pineapples with which to impress dinner guests. Such a luxury were these hot house pineapples that often they were not even consumed, instead being presented as ornamental centerpieces during desert. Guests would recount both the number of pineapples presented and the number actually eaten, perhaps saying that a particular banquet had included “six pineapples, two cut”. The American gentry in the early years of the United States followed this English fashion for growing pineapples in hot houses.
The arrival of steam ships and rail in the 19th century reduced transportation times sufficiently that the hothouse cultivated variety became uneconomical compared to imports. The middle classes and even the poor could suddenly afford occasional pineapples. It ceased being de riguer to serve pineapple only by ceremonially cutting a whole fruit, and pineapple ices, pies, fritters, punches, and other recipes began to appear. Pineapple retained their exotic associations though, and in big cities greengrocers would rent out particularly handsome pineapples as decorative centerpieces for dinner parties. One London socialite joked that no dinner party was complete unless the table was graced by Lady Curzon and a pineapple. Pineapple had become a commodity rather than a true rarity.
Pineapple lost its aristocratic exclusivity by the late 19th century, but nevertheless would have remained a novelty throughout most areas of the United States. The fruit only became truly ubiquitous after commercial farming and canning operations got underway in Hawaii in the early 20th Century. Thus the use of pineapple, plus the pisco (unfamiliar to most drinkers outside of California), would already have made the Pisco Punch unusual and worthy of comment among drinkers. Just possibly a dash of absinthe, spice, or even Batavia Arrack added the finishing touch.
Maybe though the original recipe really has been found again? A certain Peruvian San Franciscoite named Guillermo Torro-Lira has recently released a book on the subject entitled “Wings of Cherubs: The Saga of the Rediscovery of Pisco Punch, Old San Francisco’s Mystery Drink”. I have not read this book since I only just saw it online while Googling around for different Pisco Punch recipes. Still, the book may shed some light on what mystery ingredients, if any, were contained in the original Pisco Punch. Has anyone in the US had a chance to check it out?
I made my picso punch as follows (recipe scaled down to single serving size):
2 oz pisco
¾ oz lemon juice (or experiment with lime?)
½ oz pineapple flavored gum syrup* (perhaps with spices?)
Perhaps add a dash of absinthe or absinthe substitute?
Place a chunk or two of marinated pineapple* in a glass. Gently muddle if you feel like it. Stir pisco, lemon juice, gum syrup and (if desired) absinthe over ice and strain into the prepared glass. Recipes for the scaled up punch generally include an ounce or so of water per serving so give it a good long stir over the ice to allow plenty of dilution.
I have also tried adding various other herbal flavorings, such as Chartreuse (green and yellow) and Peychauds Bitters. Chartreuse has an affinity with pineapple, and Peychauds Bitters has anise notes not unlike pastis. It might not be very authentic but there is room to experiment with something along these lines. Still, absinthe/pastis probably works as well as anything.
* Make pineapple marinade by chopping up a fresh pineapple into chunks, covering in gum syrup (sugar syrup with the addition of gum Arabic), and leaving overnight. Both the fruit and syrup are later used in the punch. You could try adding spices to the marinade, perhaps cloves, cinnamon and coriander as in the California Milk Punch. If you added spices it would make sense to gently warm them in the syrup before adding the fruit to allow better infusion of flavors.