It’s a colloquial saying that’s never been attributed to a specific person or an era.
But since New Orleans’ official drink is the Sazerac and Washington, D.C. has the Gin Rickey, why doesn’t The City, where cocktails are at its core, have one?
Duggan McDonnell is attempting to change that.
The owner of Union Square bar Cantina and Encanto Pisco, McDonnell has spent the last 10 or so years down the rabbit hole of the grape distillate and it’s rich ties to San Francisco history. His brand is a standard in bars across the States, and won the Gran Medalla de Oro in 2010 — Peru’s highest pisco honor.
McDonnell and I got together at 10 a.m. on a pisco-body high, sipping the regal concoction of grape spirit, pineapple, gum syrup and bitters. His enthusiastic smile and breadth of knowledge on the booze assures one that he lives for this stuff. And along with producing top-shelf pisco, McDonnell is campaigning to get the Pisco Punch solidified as the official cocktail of San Francisco.
“More cocktail books have been published out of San Francisco than anywhere else, yet we don’t have an official drink?” McDonnell said. “A great cocktail is one that brings together the globe. And that’s the Pisco Punch.”
Nine years ago, when coming up with the concept of Cantina, it was this very drink that McDonnell admired. It’s the drink that Mark Twain drank at the old Bank Exchange Saloon with a familiar friend, Tom Sawyer — yes, there was a real Tom Sawyer. The Bank Exchange Saloon was located where the Transamerica Pyramid now stands. There, a Scotsman by the name of Duncan Nicol, the chap rumored to have invented the drink, would only pour patrons two drinks. If they wanted a third, they were told to walk around the block, and if they were fit for another, they’d be served a third — either for good measure or good marketing.
It was the house drink in the most important building in The City, covered in marble and under the lights of giant chandeliers. It was also home to the first lounge in the American West, where women could drink equally with men.
“It’s social commentary,” McDonnell said. “The punch is progressive, and represents equality for all.”
And pisco’s roots run deeper. Even before it was placed in the glass, boatfuls of pisco and fruits made their way from port city stops in Peru, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, San Diego and then to San Francisco.
“In that day, lots of the pineapple would rot on the way. And if you had the privilege to mash up pineapples for your drink, you had to have some money,” McDonnell said, rubbing his fingers together in a symbol of cash.
It only seems right that the rare fruit with a crown could be found in drinks in The City of Gold. McDonnell discovered records of a grape distillery in Napa that existed even before the gold rush, when California was Spanish territory.
And even before the distillery, Spanish missionaries who traveled to California had planted the Mission Vine, a common grape vine, that is believed to have launched the California grape industry in the late 18th century. It’s also the same strain, also known as quebranta, of the common black grape in Peru used for making pisco.
“It’s an amazing connection of history,” McDonnell said. “California and, especially, San Francisco is connected to Mexico, Spain, Peru, all the way back to Babylon and the Moors.”
But pisco consumption was nearly lost with Prohibition and tough economic disparities in Peru. The popularity of the spirit floundered in the States, and production is at a fraction of what it once was. But that too, is something Duggan is attempting to change.
“There’s so much to learn about the history of a place by the way they eat and drink,” McDonell said. “Pisco has been here the whole time, and the Pisco Punch runs through S.F.’s veins.”