The Bank Exchange Saloon was built during the first decade of San Francisco’s existence, when the City of the Golden Gate became the fastest growing, richest city in the history of the world. It was the tallest building West of the Mississippi, and it was the grandest, most opulent drinking palace outside of Manhattan. It was four stories tall and it was built over mud – and the house cocktail, from its beginning in 1853 till its demise due to Prohibition was its Pisco Punch.
The Bank Exchange Saloon was the City’s first watering hole for politicos and set a precedent for equal rights when the immigrant saloonkeeper Duncan Nicol added a lounge for women which became the world’s first cocktail room for upstanding women to enjoy cocktails with equal aplomb. It had been the final stop for the Pony Express, the room where Mark Twain essayed to drink with the town hero Tom Sawyer. In 1906, the Bank Exchange was protected by Nicol from anxious firemen, who fearing the historic blaze, were dynamiting all of San Francisco to stop the fire; the Barman, with rifle raised against a military presence, reportedly cried: “You will not blow up this building!” When the smoke had cleared, the Bank Exchange stood again as the tallest building West of the Mississippi. All of San Francisco then gathered in its anteroom to celebrate that it had cheated death, and with their arms aloft clutching Nicol’s famed Pisco Punch, the survivors emptied the cellar and went out to rebuild the City.
The Pisco Punch is called Old San Francisco’s Mystery Drink for good reason – it was a popular cocktail even before Jerry Thomas laid claim in San Francisco as America’s most-famed Mixologist. But, the actual recipe was never released in print. After many decades and near his death, Nicol adamantly refused to release his recipe. Yet, history proves that the Pisco Punch wasn’t just Nicol’s creation – it was a work in progress that began long before Nicol arrived as a Scottish immigrant to work his first shift as a Barman, and long before he purchased the Bank Exchange Saloon in 1893.
Did it begin like the Martinez – the original Martini – as an Italian Vermouth dominated cocktail, ruby red in color, slightly sweet with a touch of gomme arabic in it? Or, was it like the East India Cocktail, belonging to Thomas’s rival, Harry Johnson, which began using Raspberry Syrup and then transitioned to a preferred Pineapple Cordial. Did it for a time contain the infamous coca leaf aperitif from Bordeaux, Vin Mariani? Maybe. The Pisco Punch recipe that Encanto loves best is a simple one; one that is an homage to Nicol and all the bartenders of the Bank Exchange Saloon.