The Martini was invented in 1860s San Francisco — having evolved from the Martinez in nearby Martinez — and the lesser-known California Milk Punch and the Cable Car came along decades later. The Mai Tai was invented in Oakland.
So why is the city’s official cocktail the relatively obscure Pisco Punch?
Ships had to sail around the Cape of Good Hope to reach San Francisco in thoses pre-Panama Canal days, so they routinely loaded up with pisco in Valparaiso, Chile and other ports of call where goods from the Peruvian highlands and elsewhere were available. There was lots of the stuff around, and a bartender named Duncan Nicol created the drink more than a century ago at the Bank Exchange inside the Montgomery Block, a Barbary Coast structure that stood at the spot currently occupied by the Transamerica Pyramid. (A four-story colossus, it was also the tallest building west of the Mississippi upon its completion in 1853.)
Fast-forward to 2017, and San Francisco finally has its own equivalent to the distilled wine. “Pisco” is a protected name, so we have Frísco.
Although “San Fran” is arguably much worse, referring to San Francisco as “Frisco” sends people into a rage equaled only by referring to Dogpatch as “The Dogpatch” or saying Nob Hill’s southern boundary is California Street and not Pine. But it’s not Frisco like FRISS-co; it’s Frísco like FREECE-co, with a snap of the r.
“Accent on the i!” Frísco founder Charlie O’Connell tells me one afternoon at House of Shields, reminding me that at the function where we first met, my first words to him had been, “That’s bold, man. That’s bold.”
What’s also bold is Frísco’s label. A crisp, red-white-and-blue job with vertical and horizontal lines, it was inspired by a TED Talk on why city flags — including San Francisco’s — are terribly designed. But O’Connell’s product’s S.F. origin story is legitimate, even if 19th-century pisco and our current vexillological embarrassment are not.
Like bourbon on the Kentucky frontier, a distilled spirit like pisco made commercial sense in a region where transporting more barrels of lower-alcohol wine would be cost-prohibitive. But distilled spirits have often attracted suspicion because makers can conceal inferior source materials. O’Connell works with the Bayview’s Seven Stills Distillery using grapes sourced from four different vineyards in the Central Valley, so what’s going into the pot is better. A former finance guy who lived in Southeast Asia while working in international shipping, O’Connell and his small team soft-launched Frísco in May with 1,000 bottles. Within months, Wine Enthusiast gave it a score of 92 and a “Best Buy” rating, noting that “you might just fool your favorite pisco lover.” Bars and restaurants around town — The Progress, E&O Kitchen and Bar, Park Tavern, Delarosa, even Mr. Bing’s — have begun carrying it and churning out creative cocktails.
“E&O is doing one with lychee and Aperol,” O’Connell says. “It’s slightly sweet and smooth. Balboa Cafe does a Frísco pisco Sour. That’s quintessential San Francisco.”
At 45 percent ABV, it’s not a quiet spirit. I compare it to mezcal with the smoke held at bay and O’Connell nods.
“Ever had baijiu, the Chinese rice liquor that takes the paint off a house? This is like the best baijiu,” he says. “It’s clear, slightly sweet, got a little body to it. It won’t burn the house down.”
One further point of pride is that there isn’t a copycat mentality that opening a new bourbon distillery today would embody. Steven Soderbergh’s Singani 63 swept through town in early 2016, and while singani is essentially Bolivia’s answer to pisco, it’s notably sweeter (and it’s not distilled using charcoal at the end). O’Connell is also looking to combat brandy’s reputation, which isn’t the Grandpa Badass factor of a fine bourbon, but something closer to the connotation of a fussy Professor Plum figure.
“It’s got those old-school glasses and it smells like pure alcohol,” he says, although it’s hard to tell if that’s criticism, praise, or something in between.
“One cocktail I’ve been doing is apple cider, a bit of OJ, nutmeg, and cinnamon,” he says. “We just call it spiced cider.”
There’s a bit of a double-edged sword in getting people to appreciate a new spirit while also coming up with creative cocktails that manage to sustain their interest without masquerading that base spirit. But sometimes, the simplest things work best.
“It’s like, look, just try it,” O’Connell says. “I was at happy hour the other day and I said, ‘Try it with soda water,’ and the bartender said, ‘I’d never think to do that!’ ”