Duggan McDonnell, the Perfector of PiscoSeptember 12, 2011 By: Robert Plotkin
Looking to build a successful career? If so, there’s a great deal you can learn from tracking the unfaltering rise of Duggan McDonnell. Now a young 37 year old, McDonnell has spent the better part of his life behind bars honing his craft and palate. The internationally acclaimed mixologist and bartender extraordinaire has recently added another impressive line item to his resume, pisco producer.
McDonnell is best described as a born entrepreneur whose primary driving force in life is seemingly to conceive and execute ideas — both creative and pragmatic. After reaching the age of majority, he began spending as much time as financially feasible at wineries and breweries in and around Seattle. He admits taking the tasting tour at the original Red Hook Brewery about 30 times.
“The brewery tour was only $2, and my friends and I drank beer directly from the tanks, munched on hops and left each time with souvenir glasses,” McDonnell notes. “Then I progressed to taking road trips throughout the Pacific Coast, visiting wineries, breweries and distilleries. By the time I turned 23, I was working as an in-store wine steward at the original Costco in Seattle. The job fit me like a glove. I quickly became the company’s top salesman in the West. Nevertheless, I still had no interest in making the beverage business my profession.”
Fast-forward four years, and McDonnell is pulling shifts as a barback at Seattle’s ultra-popular Wild Ginger restaurant. Not only was working at the multistory eatery physically and mentally challenging, he found himself struggling with the demands of the required work ethic.
“I knew that I had the product knowledge to excel at the job, but the level of hard work it took to survive in such a high-volume, high-expertise environment astounded me," he says. "I committed myself then and there to develop a more professional work ethic, which I’m pleased to say I did.”
After that McDonnell became a dedicated mixologist. He moved to San Francisco and landed a gig as the spirits savant and cocktail authority at Frisson Restaurant, co-founded San Francisco Cocktail Week and, more recently, opened a Latin spirits Mecca, Cantina. It was about then that he shifted his career focus to developing beverage concepts and brands.
It was that strategic shift in focus that brought McDonnell to the most significant crossroads of his life. In 2008, he entered into partnership with Carlos Romero — distiller awarded the Gran Medalla de Oro (Best in Show) by the Comision Nacional del Pisco — with the intention of creating a world-class pisco.
The long anticipated result is called Campo de Encanto Pisco, a satiny smooth spirit equally sublime in cocktails as when sipped neat or over ice. Handcrafted in Peru’s Ica Valley, Campo de Encanto is alembic distilled, then blended by McDonnell from various vintages of Quebranta (74%), Italia (16%), Torontel (6%) and Moscatel (4%) grapes varietals. The classy, crystal-clear brandy has a velvety textured body, generous aromatics and a long, fruit-laced finish.
After a year on the market, Encanto is generating rave reviews from the on-premise community and is now a featured performer in many of the finest cocktail lounges in the country. New York’s Death & Co. currently has two Encanto drinks on their menu, while The Violet Hour in Chicago promotes three. The famed Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Ore., is having equal success with a cocktail dubbed the Rosetta Stone (Encanto Pisco, Rhum Clément Creole Shrubb, Bénédictine, lemon and orange juices and Amargo Peruvian bitters.
“I describe the drink as eminently quaffable,” proprietor Daniel Shoemaker says. “I've made a lot of cocktails with Encanto, but this is the most sunshine-laden of them all. The pisco is such a versatile ingredient that it’s appealing in all seasons. For our summer menu, I wanted to emphasize the spirit’s high, bright notes, and this cocktail displays those lively flavors with precision.”
When asked what prompted him to take such a huge leap of faith, McDonnell thinks he knew instantly to seize on the notion. “As a mixologist, I know pisco to be a highly approachable white spirit. Americans love white spirits; therefore, Americans will love pisco. Likewise, pisco is a luxurious grape-distillate. Americans love grape spirits, and, therefore, Americans will come to love pisco. Lastly, pisco is a Latin spirit. Our country is having a love affair with the Latin culture and Encanto Pisco is Latin through and through. Why hesitate?”
Producing the brand in post-2007 earthquake Ica, Peru, has been exceptionally challenging; however, McDonnell believes the response to the product vindicates the artisanal approach.
“We still operate like a startup,” he says. “Our facility is wanting, our resources slim and we continue investing all of our minds, strength and talent into creating and marketing the product. I truly believe we’re doing the right thing; we’re growing Encanto the right way. There isn’t a precedent for mass-market success in the category of pisco, yet it’s happening. We’ve grown Campo de Encanto organically, and it’s on track to become a very robust brand here and in Peru.”
McDonnell adds that other expressions of the Campo de Encanto are forthcoming. “I’m looking forward to Encanto having its break-out moment; for it to be featured on backbars and retail shelves around the country. I’d like to see the brand hit critical mass due to Pisco Punches, Pisco Sours and shots of our pisco being called for nightly. Sounds delicious, don’t it?”
In the journey of discovery, Campo de Encanto is an essential port of call.
Get Creative With Muddling
Looking for some creative applications? The following specialty cocktails come with money-back guarantees.
The Rosetta Stone
Specialty of Daniel Shoemaker at The Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Ore.
1 1/2 oz. Campo de Encanto Pisco
3/4 oz. Creole Shrubb
1/2 oz. Bénédictine
1/2 oz. lemon juice
1/2 oz. orange juice
3 dashes Amargo Peruvian bitters
Pour ingredients into iced mixing glass. Shake vigorously with ice and strain. Shake, strain into a cocktail glass.
The Bedford Bramble
Specialty of Pete Gugni at The Bedford in Wicker Park, Ill.
1 1/2 oz Campo de Encanto Pisco
3/4 oz. lemon juice
1/2 oz. Five Spice Simple Syrup
2 oz. ginger beer
Lemon wheel and blackberry, for garnish
Building in a tall, iced glass, muddle pisco, lemon juice, simple syrup and blackberries and add ice. Top off with ginger beer. Garnished with a lemon wheel and blackberry.
Specialty of H. Joseph Ehrmann at Elixir in San Francisco.
2 oz. Campo de Encanto Pisco
1 1/2 oz. POM Mango
1 oz. Mighty Tea Leaf Chamomile Tea Syrup
1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
Lemon twist, for garnish
Pour ingredients into iced mixing glass. Shake vigorously with ice and strain. Garnish with a wide lemon twist.