When I hear the word “punch,” I think of that commercial from the late 1970s in which two kids, hot and thirsty from chasing bank robbers, call in their buddy, a corpulent pitcher of Kool-Aid fruit punch that bursts through a brick wall to save and quench the day. It seemed so real at the time.
As an adult who now prefers her drinks without red dye and flying stones, I am happy to report that I still love punch, though my taste has morphed to a grown-up, dare I say healthier, version of those sugary drinks I so adored in my youth.
Punch, it turns out, has a storied history in San Francisco, long predating the craft cocktail trend, with the Pisco punch reigning (unofficially for now) as The City’s signature drink. While we wait for the Pisco punch to be crowned, punch in many modern varieties is popping up on menus at some of The City’s best watering holes, including twists on San Francisco’s old standard.
The Pisco punch, made with pineapple in some form and the distilled grape brandy from Peru called Pisco, is rumored to have been invented during the Gold Rush by a barman named Duncan Nicol, who poured for characters (including Mark Twain) at The Bank Exchange Saloon. Nicol was the last proprietor of the saloon, located where the Transamerica Pyramid now stands, and is said to have kept the punch recipe a closely guarded secret. One thing we do know for sure, however, is that from the late 1800s until the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, the Pisco punch was as important a piece of the identity of San Francisco as fog and cable cars.
The word punch comes from the Sanskrit word pañc, meaning “five,” referring to the drink’s number of essential ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water or tea, and spices. That recipe is still the template today, according to Alex Smith, general manager at Novela, a literary-themed cocktail bar with one of The City’s best punch menus.
“Traditionally a punch needs those five components — the spirit, the sugar, the sour, the diluter and the spice,” said Smith. “And we take that seriously here, but creatively, too.”
At the helm of the bar’s punch program, started in 2013, is 25-year-old Dillon Lockwood, who offers six different varieties at any given time by the glass ($10), pitcher ($45) or in flights of three ($12). The punch menu changes according to seasons and whims, which means this time of year you’ll find the Fall Harvest punch, a spicy quaff that combines Way & Nephew rum with pumpkin pie, persimmon, Pur Likor Spice blood orange liqueur, orange peel and honey.
All punches at Novela are hand-mixed, including the oleo-saccharum, a key ingredient in punch that combines lemon, orange or grapefruit zest and sugar, infusing the alcohol with an elegant, citrusy-sweet flavor and aroma. Novela’s sophisticated menu also includes a nod to San Francisco’s esteemed Pisco punch.
“It is a punch made with Pisco but a very unique Novela recipe and not at all similar to the historical Pisco punch invented by Duncan Nicol at the Bank Exchange,” said Smith (Novela’s version includes red grape, melon, cucumber, mint and lemon).
My personal favorite however, is Novela’s tequila punch, made with Maestro Dobel tequila, pineapple, beet, cilantro and lemon.
Maybe it’s the distinctive red color I love, or that it’s so smooth and thirst-quenching, but I feel like I could down several more glasses.
I don’t dare, however.
If those old commercials taught me anything, it’s that you never want to feel like you’ve hit a brick wall, no matter how satisfyingly good the punch.
Kimberley Lovato has been writing about travel, food, and drink for the last 20 years and has never met a happy hour she didn’t like. www.kimberleylovato.com
PUNCH AROUND TOWN
662 Mission St.
580 Sutter St.
Pisco Latin Lounge
1817 Market St.