You’re in San Francisco on holiday and you want an alcoholic beverage: a cold beer, a glass of red wine or a cocktail. Where do you go in a city in which there are bars on almost every corner? Not in every neighborhood, but in many of them. Too many bars to keep track of. Take my advice and go to the High Horse, a bar and restaurant in what’s known as the Financial District, though once upon a time it was called the “Barbary Coast,” an area famous for saloons, brothels, dance halls, brawls and murders.
Those days are long gone. So is the very shape of San Francisco. Back in the Barbary Coast days, the basement at the High Horse would have been ten to twelve feet under water. Then the city experienced growing pains. Huge swaths of the bay were filled with rock and sand. Old ships were buried along the waterfront and the fledgling city expanded to the East. Now the basement of the High Horse, where I’m drinking a Manhattan and eating an eggplant sandwich, is as dry as it is on the ground floor. The thick stone walls make me feel like I’m living in the past.
It’s a Friday afternoon and already the rush hour traffic is starting to build up on Montgomery Street. I’m listening to Will Herrera, a bartender and an historian, who mixes drinks at the Old Ship Saloon, which dates back to the days of the Gold Rush, and also at the High Horse on Washington Street in the shadow of the TransAmerica Pyramid. At 853 feet high, the Pyramid once was the tallest building in the city. Then in 2017, the 1,070 foot Salesforce Tower came along and took over as number one.
In a city with legendary bartenders, Herrera is a legend among legends who will talk your ears off if you let him. I’ve heard him called “a diamond in the rough.” He’s a working class stiff with a style all his own.
“Do you drink Bushmills or Jameson?” I asked when Herrera told me that he liked whiskey. I know the taste of both Bushmills and Jameson, both made in Ireland, one of them reputedly by Catholics the other by Protestants. “Wild Turkey is my poison,” Herrera said. That makes sense. Wild Turkey was Hunter S. Thompson’s favorite whiskey and Herrera is a Hunter S. Thompson kind of guy: a gonzo bartender. In Hunter’s inimitable style, Herrera added, “I’ll drink whatever bottle is nearest me and is open.”
Herrera isn’t drinking right now. He’s watching me and my friend Z. drink our Manhattans and he’s entertaining us, as bartenders often want to do. I couldn’t ask for a better storyteller. “I’ve lived the dream, lived how I have wanted to live my whole life,” Herrera explains. “I want to establish a legacy. I’m trying to prove to my kids that they can follow their own passion.” Herrera’s passion has taken him into the pages of San Francisco history which leads inevitably to world history. In the mid-nineteenth century the world rushed to San Francisco and made it the first truly multi-ethnic city in the world. Herrera says: “Drinking spirits inspired me to get to know the world better than I did. I’ve learned that the city’s past is in flames and that the city’s story is a story of ships.”
In fact, in the nineteenth-century San Francisco burned down again and again and was rebuilt again and again. Ships brought men and women from around the world to prospect for gold, make their fortunes, lose themselves in drink, work on the waterfront, build skyscrapers, write poetry and raise families. “I have a love/hate relationship with the city,” Herrera tells me. “During the pandemic there was often not another living soul on these streets. I got to know the buildings. I built a bond with the neighborhood and I fell in love with it all over again. My occupation now feels less superficial than before.”
One way that Herrera keeps the past alive is by making and serving Pisco Punch Cocktails. Peruvians brought Pisco, a brandy native to their own county, to “Yerba Buena,” as the settlement was called in the late 1830s. It was renamed San Francisco in 1847, in the wake of the Mexican-American War that brought vast Mexican territories into the United States.
During the Gold Rush, Pisco became the drink of choice for prospectors, dreamers, adventurers, outlaws and scoundrels. Duncan Nichol, the famed owner of the Bank Exchange & Billiard Saloon, created the notorious recipe for Pisco Punch. Prohibition closed the doors of his saloon. Nichol died soon afterward and took the recipe with him to the grave. That didn’t stop Rudyard Kipling from writing that Pisco Punch was “compounded of the shavings of cherub's wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters." Harold Ross of New Yorker magazine fame noted that it tasted like ordinary lemonade but had “a kick like vodka or worse.”
Herrera makes Pisco Punch with four ingredients: Caravedo Pisco Brandy, Cocchi Americano Rosa, St. Elizabeth Allspice Liqueur and Pineapple Gum Syrup. Before I climbed the stairs of the High Horse that led from the basement to the ground floor, Herrera gave me a can of Pisco Punch and a slip of paper with the ingredients and the words, “Please Drink Responsibly.”