Talking Pisco with Duggan McDonnell

Duggan McDonnellDuggan McDonnell is known as one of San Francisco’s leading bartender/bar owners, and his place Cantina a must-stop on the international cocktail crawl. Recently, though, he’s been engaged in another activity: readying the release of his own brand of Peruvian Pisco. At a time when bartenders are increasingly entering the production side of the business, either as consultants or brand developers, it made sense to check in with him on the introduction of Encanto.

NCB Mix: Why Pisco? Why now?

I am an outright lover of cultures South of the Border, specifically for food and drink. Pisco and the culinary culture of Peru are on the rise and possess amazing flavors, with stories upon stories to go with the culinary culture. In my opinion, it has yet to even reach the heights of which it is capable.

Pisco, in its true form, is the world’s original distillate — an unchanged, single Alembic-distilled, grape eau-de-vie — without rectification, not column-distilled, without caramel coloring or barrel aging. If you’re a cocktail purist who loves history and authentic products, you gotta love artisanal Pisco. And that’s exactly what Encanto is: an expression of what the world is capable of, a beautiful spirit, absolute terroir in a bottle. No other category, no other distillate is made in this way. And I wanted to make the world’s purest, best-tasting single-distilled white spirit. Maybe someday we will get there!

The last part of the story is, of course, the legacy that Pisco has in the West and specifically in San Francisco. Fog City was and is again the most important marketing city for Pisco in the world. Our Duncan Nicol launched the Pisco Punch and then Victor Morris brought the Pisco Sour to the world and much that’s been written over the past 100 years about Pisco has been about its relevance and success in San Francisco. This is our collective inheritance.

NCB Mix: What attributes exist in Pisco as a cocktail ingredient that don’t exist in, say, brandy or grappa or eau de vie?

McDonnell: This is a great question. Without deconstructing what those other grape distillates are, I simply like to note that Pisco is a pure, white spirit, a tropical distillate that does a lot of the work that other white spirits do, including blanco tequila, unaged rums, vodka and gin. We made an Acholado for this very expression – a blend of white and red grapes, aromatic and non-aromatic distillate – then we blend portions of our small lots in a proprietary fashion similar to how sherry and Scotch are blended to arrive at a flavor expression that is both full and smooth as a sipper, but complex and aromatic for use in cocktails.

NCB Mix: How involved were you in developing the final product?

McDonnell: I am the Master Blender and arbiter of our proprietary formula and techniques balanced by the exquisite expertise of my two partners: Master Distiller Carlos Romero and Sommelier Walter Moore.

NCB Mix: Pisco as a spirit category has been bubbling along slowly but there hasn't been a significant breakthrough to consumers yet the way it's happened with cachaça — why do you think that is?

McDonnell: Cash, buddy. The category of Pisco needs to rise collectively on a big wave for any one or all brands to succeed. And to push this message of education and experience takes money, an ad campaign, a sales force, a team of brand ambassadors. No one in the Pisco game has yet to create such an infrastructure. Sure, there’s been a collective effort amongst mixologists (I resurrected the Pisco Punch when Cantina opened), and certainly Diego Loret de Mola and BarSol Pisco have done the heaviest lifting to spread the gospel of Peruvian Pisco. I simply hope that everyone else in the Pisco game follows suit.

NCB Mix: You've just started distribution of Encanto — how is that going?

McDonnell: Four weeks in and we’ve sold over 150 cases in over 50 accounts; we’re on cocktail menus in San Francisco, Sacramento and up in Mendocino. Bartenders have created cocktails I’ve never thought possible; we’ve had dinners paired with Encanto, the bartenders at Gaston Acurio’s La Mar Cebicheria are drinking it as their favorite shot, and we’ve benefited by the consumer-driven Pisco Society of San Francisco.

NCB Mix: There are a few other brands — BarSol, Gran Sierpe, Macchu Pisco — that have already developed relationships with the bartending world — presumably you'll have to grow the category a little to make a mark?

McDonnell: Certainly, the category needs much growing. However, no one in the world knows and works with Pisco in the unique way that I do, as both a bartender and a producer. At Cantina, I’ve supported and worked with every Pisco brand available in the United States. When Cantina opened in 2007, it boasted the largest selection of Pisco in the United States, which has now only been surpassed by my friends here in San Francisco at La Mar Cebicheria and Pisco Latin Lounge. I’m a senior member of San Francisco’s chapter in the United States Bartender’s Guild and co-founder of the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail, presenter of San Francisco Cocktail Week. I’m a bartender turned producer, and that’s what it means on the front of Encanto’s label: Premium Peruvian Grapes Distilled & Blended for Bartenders, by Bartenders.

NCB Mix: Finally, as always, what's your favorite cocktail - made with Encanto, of course.

McDonnell: You know, when it comes to cocktails with Encanto, there are many better mixologists than me. I created the brand, the flavor profile, embraced its legacy with the Pisco Punch and the Pisco Sour ... But I haven’t created many new cocktails — that will come from the talented hands of my brethren in arms behind the stick. At home, I make an ‘Improved Negroni’ for Felicia, my lovely girlfriend. However, for you my friend, I’ll humbly submit one recipe:

Top Hat

10 mint leaves
2 ounces Campo de Encanto Pisco
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce Chartreuse (Yellow)
1/2 ounce sugar syrup
1 ounce seltzer
Thin cucumber wedge

In a highball glass, muddle the mint, then pour all liquids into the glass with ice, garnish with the cucumber wedge, and serve. Enjoy!

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