Popular Cocktails and Spirits of San Francisco in the 1800’s

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San Francisco is an old, iron safe filled with gold, glory, disaster, and secrets. SFCentric History is a column, by SF writer V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi, that digs in the vaults of local history and shares the sensational people, places, and things that rocked San Francisco.

San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square, also known as the Plaza, as seen in 1851. The view is to the west, toward what was later dubbed Nob Hill.  Photo credited to a dentist named S.C. McIntyre. (Image via Wikimedia Commons and Library of Congress)

We all have ideas in our minds of what the Gold Rush years were like, and what blossomed from that. No doubt, our thoughts–and the actual history–involve a lot of alcohol. In fact, in 1852, San Francisco had 350 bar rooms, and in 1853, 537 places in the city were serving alcohol. Ever wondered what exactly San Franciscans were sipping on in the 1800s? If so, read on.


Pisco Punch

Photo: Dishmaps

Photo: The Pisco People

Ships stopping in Peru first brought Pisco, a grape brandy, to San Francisco in the 1830s. It would become the starring ingredient in a classic city drink, at The Bank Exchange around 1853. The Bank Exchange was a bar on the ground floor of the Montgomery Block, which was in the location the Transamerica Pyramid is today. It is there that owner and bartender Duncan Nichol/Nicol combined pisco, lime juice, pineapple, gum arabic, and distilled water (or something similar, as Duncan never divulged the recipe) to create the Pisco Punch. Many commented that it tasted like lemonade, but with a strong kick. That could have been from what many thought to have been the secret ingredient–cocaine.


Cyrus Noble Kentucky Bourbon


When Cyrus Noble traveled to California, hoping to make it rich during the Gold Rush, he ended up leaving empty-handed, back to Ohio. However, his Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, created in 1871, became a hit and favorite among San Franciscans. Legend has it that the bourbon was named after its creator got drunk and fell into a vat of the stuff. The name was associated with the batch, and it stuck. San Francisco family-owned grocer, the Haas Brothers, sold the liquor from their locale at 100 and 102 Front Street, after Ohio lawyer Ernest Reuben Lilienthal brought the whiskey with him to San Francisco and distributed it across the West through his wholesale liquor business, Lilienthal & Co. It was popular, sold at miners’ saloons and served at homes. So popular, in fact, that in 1901, when John Coleman went to Searchlight, Nevada, to trade his small mine interest, he did so for the best bourbon in town–a bottle of Cyrus Noble. Unfortunately, that land claim produced over $250,000 of gold ore, but at least Coleman had quality liquor to help him forget.


National Lager Beer


Photo: Brewery Gems

San Francisco was host to a variety of now-defunct beer brands. One of these was National Lager Beer. The brew was produced at the National Brewing Company, located at the corner of Fulton and Webster Streets, and operating from 1861 to 1916, before becoming part of the California Brewing Association.  One San Francisco beer brand from the 1800’s that still exists today is Anchor Steam, which got its start in 1896.


Old Tom Gin

Photo: Foley Hoag

The name of Old Tom Gin came from the black cat-shaped plaques in English pubs, where those who wanted a drink could secretly pay and get their booze during the Gin Craze. The liquor was imported into San Francisco, to be distributed by Wreden-Kohlmoos Co., the Pacific agents for London and Imperial Distillery Co.’s Extra Reserve Old Tom Gin, and located at 412 Front Street. Their trademark was filed on December 14, 1899.

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V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi

V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi

V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi is one of those rare born-and-raised San Franciscans (unicorn status). She is the Style & Culture, SF Editor for Hip Latina, and writer for several publications on fashion, art, culture and all things San Francisco. Alex aims to educate everyone (including natives) on anything you could possibly want to learn about the best city in the world. Follow her at @SFCentric and @TheItFactorBrand.

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