New & Notable

Locally distilled Frísco brings a new spirit to the city

Don't worry, it's pronounced "freez-koh." photo: Alejandra Quintero Sinisterra

The idea for the new San Francisco-crafted, grape-based spirit Frísco (pronounced “freez-koh” because nobody calls it ‘Frisco) was born in Argentina. Marina resident Charlie O’Connell has spent lots of time roaming the world learning as much as he can about cultures and customs. Stints in countries like Thailand, Spain, Singapore, and Chile gave O’Connell a taste of the world, literally once he sipped a spirit called Pisco while he was in Argentina. He spent a semester abroad studying in Chile and grew hooked on the slightly sweet spirit. “Creating an American drink like Pisco was always in the back of my mind,” says O’Connell.

Pisco is a light-colored brandy produced in the winemaking regions of Peru and Chile. Developed by 16th century Spanish settlers, it’s made by distilling fermented grape juice into a high-proof spirit. Chile is the main importer of Pisco.

O’Connell graduated from Wesleyan College with two degrees in Latin American studies and economics and went on to earn an MBA from the University of Virginia. He began a career in finance that led him to Asia, where he spent several years working in Singapore. But it was while he was traveling in Thailand that a cousin found him on Facebook; the two brainstormed their ideas, and thus Frísco was born. “Little did I knew that 20 years ago when I tasted my first Pisco in Latin America,” O’Connell says, “that it would ignite a journey to creating Frísco right here in California.”


Using Muscat grapes harvested from Northern California vineyards, O’Connell and his team founded North Channel Distillery in 2016 and began making Frísco right here in the city. The spirit has light tropical fruit tones along with a full-body roundedness. The grapes are crushed and double distilled on a traditional copper-pot still in small batches followed by charcoal mellowing, a technique rarely used on this type of brandy. This concentrates the alcohol to 45 percent by volume. Frísco is aged without oak, and its flavor is designed to be both smooth and versatile whether drunk straight or mixed into a cocktail.

All brandies are basically fermented distilled fruit juice. Until Prohibition, apple, pear, and peach brandies were among the most common drinks in America along with grape brandy.


According to legend, says O’Connell, when the 49ers — the gold seekers, not the football team — came to the port of San Francisco in the 1800s, Pisco was their preferred spirit used to toast their findings after a long day’s work. So it seems only fitting to make a new version of it here today. “Not only is Frísco made right here in San Francisco at the Seven Stills Distillery,” he says, “but it’s also being sold here at several retail locations including the Jug Shop, Plumpjack, and the Marina Deli. You can also order a Frísco cocktail at local restaurants including The Bus Stop, Balboa Cafe, and The Brickyard, and we’re adding other spots all the time.” Frísco is currently available in a 750 ml format for a suggested retail price of $35 in California and New York with rollouts planned for additional markets this year.

Two-year-old Seven Stills is part of a growing trend toward craft distilleries in the U.S. While its focus is distilling whiskey from beer, its owners Obert and Clint Potter have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a line of bitters using seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. And of course, Frísco.


According to the American Distilling Institute (ADI), while there were only 60 craft distilleries in the country in 2003, in 2016 there were 760. Small distilleries are defined as those producing less than 100,000 nine-liter cases a year, and most U.S. craft distillers make fewer than 50,000 cases annually. Just as craft beer has grown, so have craft spirits; the ADI estimates growth last year at around 30 percent. Brandy especially has become the darling of the liquor industry. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States reports that more than 13 million cases were sold domestically in 2016, ahead of gin, Scotch, and Irish whisky. And eight million cases of that was American brandy.

While Frísco is great on its own, this clear, flavorful spirit can be easily mixed into cocktails. Think of a Pisco sour with a twist. So savor a sip of Latin America in a new San Francisco-made brandy and relax with a little Frísco.

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