San Francisco is full of iconic dishes and drinks, ranging widely from massive carne asada burritos to Irish coffee. But what about a classic cocktail? New York has its Manhattan and New Orleans its Sazerac, but what is San Francisco's claim to cocktail fame? Long forgotten by its home city, pisco punch is now making a comeback. The basic, yet magnificent, trio of Peruvian brandy, sweet pineapple syrup (usually with gum arabic) and a touch of lemon juice was created by a San Francisco bartender back in the 1800s, and has benefited from a renewed interest in classic cocktails and the world premiere of the documentary, Pisco Punch: A Cocktail Comeback Story, at last week's Napa Valley Film Festival. Intrigued? Taste for yourself these eight first-class pisco punches around the Bay Area.
Presidio Mexican restaurant’s bar director Enrique Sanchez hails from Peru and serves a playful nod on pisco punch with his piña punch. It’s a complicated but downright thrilling creation that needs to be divided in two parts. The “piña” part involves a syrup of pineapple, cinnamon, cloves and sugar. The “punch” component brings together orange bitters, ginger liqueur and another San Francisco stalwart, Fernet-Branca. Shake those two elements together with pisco and lemon juice for a transcendent cocktail.
50 Moraga Ave.; 415-561-3650
The relaxed, autumnal-leaning Best Boy Punch is exactly what you want post-wine tasting and pre-dinner in Napa. It’s a winning creation of pisco, apple, lemon, honey (for the tangy gum arabic element) and tarragon made better by its riverfront location. The drink's name is a reference to an on-set assistant in a film crew, which is apt since the town's yearly film festival happens just two blocks away.
790 Main St., Napa; 707-927-5265
Destino’s Pisco Lounge
No bar in the Bay Area can match the number of pisco cocktails that this Mid-Market Latin restaurant and pisco-centric lounge offers. Pisco gets mixed with everything from ginger beer and cilantro to hibiscus and vanilla, and there are four types of pisco sours. All that aside, when you want a classic, no-frills and right-on-the-mark pisco punch, your search ends here. Be careful: The refreshing drink goes down easy with the delicious empanadas and ceviche on offer.
1815 Market St.; 415-552-4451
Pisco punch hits the tropics at the Mission’s venerable old saloon–quality cocktail bar. The Duncan’s Swizzle — Duncan Nicol is the San Francisco bartender who likely invented the drink — centers on BarSol’s Pisco Quebranta, a single varietal type of pisco made from just one type of grape, which gets infused with chamomile citrus tea. Then it joins lemon, Velvet falernum, clover honey syrup and Creole bitters for a spicy-sweet, easy-to-drink take on the San Francisco–Peruvian classic.
3200 16th St.; 415-552-1633
Fort Mason Center’s unique bar and cafe features a cocktail menu from Small Hand Foods founder Jennifer Colliau. Her company handcrafts bar syrups for home mixologists and professional bartenders. One of those syrups is pineapple gomme (pineapple gum syrup), the key partner of pisco and lemon in the original pisco punch. The Interval’s traditional version of the drink with that syrup is available, but off menu. It’s worth a request here, as Colliau has been vital in giving the drink a new life.
Landmark Building A, 2 Marina Blvd.; 415-496-9187
Not surprisingly, one of the premier and most classic pisco punch renditions around town comes from the only California restaurant by Peru’s most esteemed chef, Gastón Acurio. We’re fortunate in San Francisco to have the chance to enjoy his bright, deeply personal cooking (ceviche and anticucho skewers are obligatory), partnered with the bar's enormous collection of pisco bottles. Have your pisco in the pisco punch, made with the typical spirit–lemon juice–pineapple gomme syrup recipe and garnished with a flamed pineapple wedge that you’ll wish was served as a bar snack.
Pier 5 The Embarcadero; 415-397-8880
The Last Word
Try the Last Word, the namesake chartreuse-and-gin cocktail, in your second round at Livermore's bustling gastropub. Focus first on a charming pisco punch–inspired drink — the Nomihoudai (Japanese for “all you can drink"). Served up in a coupe, it incorporates Suze (a bitter French aperitif) and swaps in the tag team of pineapple juice and grenadine as the pineapple gomme. The Bay Area knows that Livermore is the region’s unheralded wine region. Now we know they’ve got noteworthy cocktails, too.
2470 First St. #100, Livermore; 925-493-7293
San Jose is quietly emerging as one of the Bay Area’s marquee cocktail centers, and this stunning, grand bar is its established leader. Mezcal and barbecue fans take note if you're seeking a pisco punch with smokiness; the Ghosts of Montgomery Block is for you. It’s anchored by pisco but is ultimately a narrative about smoked pineapple shrub that hits the perfect charred sweetness note. The drink is completed by a little lime, a pineapple-anise shrub, Angostura bitters and Cocchi Rosa (similar to a sweet vermouth). For history buffs, the Montgomery Block was San Francisco’s first fire- and earthquake-proof building, built in 1853 — right when pisco punch was emerging. It's an engaging drink with an equally compelling story behind it.
72 S First St., San Jose; 408-713-2625