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Raleigh Bartender Wins National Pisco Cocktail Contest

John Anton, bar manager at Mandolin
courtesty of John Anton

If you’ve never heard of pisco, then you're not alone. But  Mandolin bar manager John Anton hopes to change that.  He wants to introduce pisco – a Peruvian grape brandy – to people in the Raleigh area willing to give it a go, and he believes that a trip to Peru to witness the makers of the spirit can help him do it. Anton will head to the Peruvian town of Ica next month, courtesy of pisco-maker Campo de Encanto, to watch a 90-year-old master pisco distiller in action.

Campo de Encanto has hosted a nationwide contest for bartenders for the past two years. The challenge is to invent a cocktail that features their brand of pisco, make a video about it, and post it to YouTube. Anton, along with seven other bartenders around the country, won this year’s Campo de Encanto Pisco Distiller’s Apprenticeship. Next week, they head to Peru to learn how the spirit is made. Here is his winning entry:

“It’s exciting,” Anton says. “I’ve never been to Peru. I’m not certain what the itinerary is yet, but I think they’ll be getting us up at five a.m. to pick grapes.” While Anton does not distil spirits himself, he hopes that the trip will help him be a better bartender by expanding his understanding of the ancient liquor.

Pisco dates back to the 1600’s. Unlike cognac or other brandies, it is not aged in barrels, so it retains a water-like clarity. According to Anton, it also takes on the regional flavor of the grapes used to make it.  He likens it to a wine’s terroir.  When a Durham liquor distributor introduced him to Campo de Encanto’s pisco about a year ago, he fell in love with it. “It’s bright, aromatic. And it’s something you can have before a meal or after.” Anton compares it to the Italian spirit grappa, distilled from grape-skins and traditionally enjoyed after meals.

Popular pisco cocktails include the pisco sour, which features egg whites and Angostura bitters, and one using gum syrup and pineapple juice called pisco punch. Anton says he’s even used pisco in place of bourbon in an old-fashioned.  His winning drink entry was a homemade version of the pisco punch.  For two weeks, he consulted kitchen staff about ingredient ideas and tested recipes out with customers before he decided on the final one.  The result is the Winter Pisco Punch, made with rosemary, green chartreuse, and a simple syrup infused with wood-grilled jalapenos and a vanilla bean. The full recipe is posted below.

Aside from Anton’s concoction, what will make more people want to try pisco? The answer might be bigger than the drink itself. According to a National Restaurant Association survey of U.S. Bartenders Guild members, small-scale artisan liquor and culinary cocktails (ones that use savory, fresh ingredients) are on the rise this year. North Carolina’s growing list of micro-distilleries backs that trend. According to the American Distilling Institute, there are now eight craft distilleries in the state. Thirteen years ago, there were only 24 in the entire country.

“People are really starting to appreciate drinks with a history, and that’s what pisco is,” says Anton. “You can taste where it’s from. I think you’ll see more of these spirits become popular.”

Anton heads to Peru on April 8th. When he returns in mid-April, he’ll share his experience (and photos) with WUNC for a follow-up story. Have your own pisco questions for Anton? Post them in the comment section below, and we'll ask him upon his return.

If you’d like to try your hand at Anton’s cocktail, here’s his winning recipe:

Winter Pisco Punch

1.5 oz. Campo de Encanto Pisco

1 oz. charred jalapeno & vanilla syrup

0.5 oz fresh lime juice

0.25 oz. Garnier chartreuse

Fresh rosemary

Laura moved from Chattanooga to Chapel Hill in 2013 to join WUNC as a web producer. She graduated from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in the spring of 2012 and has created radio and multimedia stories for a variety of outlets, including Marketplace, Prairie Public, and Maine Public Broadcasting. When she's not out hunting stories, you can usually find her playing the fiddle.
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