A Conversation with Duggan McDonnell about the Pisco Punch, the Cocktail of San Francisco

The Pisco Punch at Cantina, San Francisco

The Pisco Punch at Cantina, San Francisco

San Francisco has attracted travelers and fortune seekers to the West Coast since the Gold Rush Days, a time when one of its most notorious neighborhoods was known as the Barbary Coast. At its border, in the heart of the City’s financial center is where the most important cocktail in San Francisco’s history was born, the Pisco Punch, at the Bank Exchange Saloon. You might think, then, that the Pisco Punch is the official cocktail of the City, but it isn’t. Not yet. Not because it lost out to the Martinez or to Boothby’s Manhattan, but because  in spite of San Francisco being a renowned culinary destination, it does not yet have an official cocktail. But that is about to change, and in this conversation with Duggan McDonnell, Barman and Founder of Campo de Encanto Pisco, Pisco Trail learned about his campaign to make the Pisco Punch the official cocktail of San Francisco.

Pisco Trail: Duggan, I remember that the first time I walked into Cantina several years ago, you served me a Pisco Sour, and that night marked the beginning of a friendship that has been forged over the many cocktails we’ve shared and our ongoing and very passionate conversation we’ve been having about Pisco, its birthplace in Peru, how delicious it is in cocktails, and Pisco’s historical significance to San Francisco.  

Duggan McDonnell: I remember that as well, Nico. San Francisco has always been a very fun, exciting and beautiful City in which to live and visit. It deserves an official cocktail. New Orleans has one, Washington, D.C. has one – the Pisco Punch which connects the political, literary and culinary talents of San Francisco should be the City’s official cocktail.

PT: Living in San Francisco, it’s been great to witness first-hand how Pisco has once again become one of the most popular spirits of the City. Peru’s Pisco export world wide has grown year over year, and your bar Cantina, where you serve Pisco cocktails with your own label, Campo de Encanto, is considered ground zero for the recent Pisco boom. What factors do you feel have contributed to this resurgence? And how far would you like to see this boom go? 

DM: If this current trend happens like I hope it will, Pisco will resume its place as one of San Francisco’s preferred spirits, and in the future, folks will again say: “When visiting San Francisco you have to … drink a Pisco Punch!” The Pisco Punch was the house drink at the Bank Exchange where Mark Twain drank with the real life Tom Sawyer who was a firefighting hero, having literally saved San Francisco from fires multiple times. Tom went on to open a cocktail saloon called The Gotham, and I wonder just how much Pisco was poured in his bar. The Bank Exchange was saved during the fire of 1906 and afterwards stood as the tallest, proudest building in the West and its house cocktail, the Pisco Punch, was served a-plenty. Then, Duncan Nicol, the proprietor of the Bank Exchange, built a separate lounge just for women; this was the first saloon that catered to normal, non ‘working’ ladies who were treated as equals and could enjoy a Pisco Punch. This bold move for women’s rights happened during the suffrage movement while much of the country was simultaneously campaigning against the drinking of alcohol. That was politically progressive, that was true to San Francisco! These days, Pisco Punches are shaken all over the City alongside Margaritas and Mai Tais, Sidecars and Sazeracs. Like San Francisco itself, the Pisco Punch is a tale of redemption and innovation. Let’s reclaim our history and celebrate with a cocktail!

PT: Every year Encanto holds an international competition for bartenders to become a Distiller’s Apprentice to visit Peru and experience first hand the grape harvest and the distillation of Pisco. Tell us why you started this competition, why this trip is so important from a historical point of view, and how does visiting the town of Pisco, Peru, change each apprentice? 

DM: Campo de Encanto translates to Field of Enchantment. Pisco, how it’s made and where it comes from is pure magic. Its impossible to comprehend this, to soak up the culture without visiting Pisco. What I hear from every person who’s joined us at our bodega is that their time in Peru was life-changing, and that they cannot wait to return. 

PT: Winemakers from France, Spain, and South America all talk about terroir. Even coffee producers use that term when describing beans. But because Pisco is made from 100% grapes, talking about Pisco’s terroir is also very appropriate. France has its champagne, Italy its grappa, Mexico its tequila, here in the US we have Whiskey, and Peru, of course, has its Pisco. What is so unique about Pisco’s terroir that first captivated your interest, and why is Pisco, long time considered a brandy, its own category now?

DM: First, from an etymological perspective, the word ‘Brandy’ is younger than the word ‘Pisco.’ Pisco, which for hundreds of years was the preferred spirit of the Pacific, was subject to the amorphous nature of language, in both Spanish and English. Local parlance sometimes adopted the usage of Pisco for local grape distillate from as far south as Patagonia and on up to the distilleries in nearby Napa, while the opposite was also true: Pisco would arrive on the docks in San Francisco and then be sold as Brandy. Unlike now, where Pisco is a legislated spirit with a whole set of rules which accompany that, for hundreds of years its been a delicious tipple, highly mixable and notorious in punches up and down the Pacific coast. 

Terroir is a unique French expression, which translates to sense of place. The rules that govern the production in Peru exist for that reason: to maintain its uniqueness. As a Barman and a Founder of Encanto, I certainly believe that a single pot distilled grape spirit, blended to create a rich symphony of flavor can absolutely be the world’s most mixable spirit. Cocktail, anyone?

PT: When Pisco historians talk about the Pisco Sour, many agree on its story, on the contribution by Victor Morris, and the work done by other bartenders in Lima. But the history of the Pisco Punch is more mysterious, and there are many speculations about the actual ingredients. Tell us how you first got interested in the Pisco Punch, and what you’ve discovered while researching its rich history. 

DM: There is that old saying in San Francisco which originated in the Gay Nineties era: “A visitor to San Francisco must do three things: ride a cable car, watch the sun set through the Golden Gate, and drink a Pisco Punch.” But 10 years ago when I began researching the historical drinks of the City, Pisco Punch was nowhere to be found. I learned that it had captivated the City for nearly 100 years, with an official recess during Prohibition. But then, due to political instability in Peru, Pisco become unavailable in the U.S., and San Francisco’s cherished cocktail faded away … until I opened Cantina in 2007, which began the Pisco Punch renaissance in San Francisco, and I’m proud to say, the rest of the country has followed. 

My research has also yielded a recipe for the Pisco Punch which I’m certain is the most historically relevant and absolutely delicious version. That took the better part of 10 years, and perhaps you’ll invite me back to share with the world how I came to this particular recipe.

PT: Last year, I attended the Mistura food festival in Lima, and one of the most interesting interactions I had was with Pisco producers there. When I told them I was based in San Francisco, they were all very eager to hear about the history of the Pisco Punch. One phrase that always comes to mind is something I’ve heard you say before — “the Pisco Punch put San Francisco on the culinary map.” That’s a pretty bold statement for a cocktail, what inspired you to make this claim about the Pisco Punch?

DM: Know this: that San Francisco began as the richest city in the world, and with such riches, comes many liquid options. Into the port came all the great intoxicants the world had to sell, and decades before the first cookbook in California was published, many cocktail books were written. San Francisco was a city of great taste, a drinkers city, and in the center of all that stood the Bank Exchange Saloon, its beloved drinking palace, where politicians and financiers held court, whose house cocktail the Pisco Punch attained mythological status and was copied by others throughout the City. This is certainly why San Francisco should have an official cocktail and why it should be the Pisco Punch.

PT: We’ve talked about the birthplace of Pisco, its terroir, its historical connection to San Francisco, the story of the Pisco Punch, and the recent Pisco boom. Given all we’ve talked about today, it’s not surprising that you are campaigning to make the Pisco Punch the official cocktail of San Francisco. Why hasn’t this happened sooner? What about the present makes it the right time for this to happen? And what can we, Pisco lovers, cocktail lovers, and San Franciscans, do to support this campaign?

DM: This is first and foremost about San Francisco celebrating itself, a great city that began as a colony of Spain, just like Pisco, Peru. It is an opportunity to tell the world that we love our City, cherish its past and will never be shy about having a cocktail in our hands. I’d prefer that everyone drink Pisco Punch, but of course that’s unlikely. What is likely is that having an official cocktail, one that connects San Francisco to so much of its character, its glorious past and innovative future, will be undeniably a San Franciscan thing to do. The Pisco Punch holds the City in its past and offers a glimpse into its future. Lets band together and tell our District Supervisors that these things are important to us, and when do, lets toast our success. I promise to shake the worlds largest Pisco Punch on the lawn of City Hall, and everyone will be invited!

PT: Duggan, as always, it’s a pleasure to talk to you about Pisco. As a California native, a Barman in San Francisco and a distiller of Pisco in Peru, you connect San Francisco and the Pisco Punch in a truly unique way. I can’t think of anyone better suited than you to make this happen. Thank you for taking the time to chat with Pisco Trail, please visit again soon so you can tell us more about the 10 years you spent researching a new recipe for the Pisco Punch — I look forward to the day soon when we can toast to the official cocktail of San Francisco — the Pisco Punch, cheers!

Stay tuned for a follow-up post where Duggan will share his new recipe for the Pisco Punch, in the meantime, you can stay in touch and:

Be sure to follow Pisco Trail on Facebook and Twitter for the latest news on the campaign to make the Pisco Punch the Official Cocktail of San Francisco, cheers!