Crystal clear and kicking like a mule, pisco is the national drink of Peru — and Chile, too, pretty much. Distilled from grapes near the Nazca Lines since the early 1600s, this take-no-prisoners 80-proof liquor played a role in our own post-Gold-Rush local history. Opening in 1854 where the Transamerica Pyramid now stands, a lavish tavern called the Bank Exchange served high-profile patrons including sea captains, politicians, and Mark Twain. Its signature drink was pisco punch, an explosively potent ambrosia whose top-secret recipe was concocted by proprietor Duncan Nicol. His pisco arrived by sea, as did the pineapples — exotica, back then — that perfumed the punch.
When Nicol died in 1926, so did his recipe. Pisco was largely forgotten hereabouts — but now it's trendy again. At FIVE (2086 Allston Way, Berkeley), mixologist Ron Harmer uses piscos made in Peru by Don César and Inca Gold; the latter has distilled the stuff since 1776.
"Pisco is a brandy, but unlike other brandies it's not aged in wood, so it's nice and dry," Harmer said.
Norteños "aren't accustomed to a cocktail as dry as the classic pisco sour — yet," Harmer said. The traditional foam-topped pisco/lime-juice/egg-white/syrup/dash-of-bitters formula "is so dry and so tart that I soften it up a little for Californians" with sugar and orange liqueur.
Harmer's pisco punch incorporates pineapple gum syrup made by Berkeley's Small Hand Foods, which uses organic fruit, organic sugar, and acacia-derived gum arabic to produce this aromatic, high-viscosity, pre-Prohibition favorite. Duncan Nicol "was doing something with pineapples in his basement, and everyone wondered what," Harmer mused. "Was he macerating it? Was he making it into a gum syrup? We'll never know."
Pisco sours are a staple at Peruvian restaurant La Furia Chalaca (310 Broadway, Oakland). Fonda (1501 Solano Ave., Albany) hand-shakes its sours. Sidebar (542 Grand Ave., Oakland) offers two different sours: the "Classicist," made with Peruvian pisco, and the "Locavore," made with organic biodynamic pisco from Fresno's Marian Farms. Mua's (2442A Webster St., Oakland) "Crazy Pisco" includes agave.
Adesso (4395 Piedmont Ave., Oakland) makes its icy sour with Quebranto pisco from BarSol, one of Peru's oldest distilleries. Fonda (1501 Solano Ave., Berkeley) hand-shakes its sours. Barlata (4901 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) serves a Barlata Ponche, which combines orange, pineapple, and lime juices with pisco, Amaretto, and the gentian-infused Italian aperitif Aperol. Revival Bar & Kitchen's (2102 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) the Blue Note contains pisco and fresh blueberries.
For Bocanova (2 Webster St., Oakland), East Bay bartender Zachary Taylor, who blogs at SpiritOfTheBar.com, created a spicy pisco punch comprising BarSol pisco, lime juice, orange juice, fresh pineapple, bitters, ginger beer, and syrup infused with Chinese five-spice powder.
Said Taylor: "I've been making an improved pisco sour — and before traditionalists get up in arms over the name, 'improved' is a denotation added to any recipe tweaked to include orange curaçao — to which I also add a small pinch of cinnamon."