John Anton is counting on you feeling a bit sluggish after celebrating one of America's richest culinary traditions this week. His remedy is pisco, a potent palate cleanser from Peru.
Pisco ("peesco") will be the starring ingredient of a special dinner Sunday night at Mandolin restaurant in North Raleigh. Anton, the wine and beverage director, and chef-owner Sean Fowler are collaborating on a four-course meal that will feature Peruvian dishes and paired cocktails, including the classic Pisco Sour.
All beverages will be made with Campo de Encanto Pisco, a premiere label whose product is first fermented into wine and then distilled into a clear brandy. The company's president, Walter Moore, who grew up on the Outer Banks and is a graduate of Duke University, is scheduled to attend.
With Moore's support, Anton has become something of a pisco expert in the two years since he first tasted the white spirit. He's traveled to Peru twice, most recently in September, at Moore's invitation.
"It was an absolute crash course," Anton says of his first trip. "It was a lot of fun, but it also was a lot of work—with copious amounts of pisco consumption thrown in."
Campo de Encanto (Land of Enchantment) brand pisco is made in the Ica Valley of Peru, a bumpy six-hour bus ride from the capital city of Lima. Anton won the chance to learn the ropes there through a cocktail contest, where he was one of eight national winners—and the only representative from the entire East Coast. The following trip in September resulted from an impromptu invitation from Moore, who was impressed by Anton's work ethic and passion.
"The thing I really love about pisco is its sense of place," Anton says. "It's like drinking fine wine and understanding where it comes from, even if you're never been there. I felt that way immediately about pisco, and I feel it even more deeply now that I've experienced the process of blending and distilling it in Peru."
Campo de Encanto is almost entirely handmade using sustainably rustic techniques. Not a drop of water or sugar is added and the product is distilled only once to retain its essential flavors.
The process is not far removed from the method of local villagers who started making it in the 1600s, including stomping sticky grapes with their feet. Pisco's popularity, Anton explains, was rooted in political oppression. Ruling Spaniards taxed local wines to increase consumption of their imported casks. Industrious farm hands discovered they could distill wine and create something that not only skirted the tax but was more potent and appealing.
"It became the drink of a nation," Anton says. "Once you try it, you'll understand why."
Pisco is sometimes confused with grappa, a distillate made from salvaged byproduct of the winemaking process. Compared to pisco's lightly floral note imparted by whole moscatel grapes, grappa can be a bit biting. "It tastes like paint thinner," Anton says dismissively. "It's purely a digestif; not something you'd want to sip."
At around $40 a bottle, Campo de Encanto's top-shelf Grand & Noble is a costly bar pour. Fine pisco is well enjoyed straight, at room temperature, or chilled without ice. Anton believes its clean flavor makes it an ideal cocktail component, such as his winning Mandolin Winter Pisco Punch. Made with pineapple juice, rosemary and a syrup of vanilla beans and charred jalapeños, it is a popular choice among Mandolin regulars.
"Pisco is extremely versatile. You won't make a Pisco Martini, per se, but you could make a Pisco Vesper," Anton says, substituting pisco for gin or vodka in the cocktail spiked with lillet, a type of dry vermouth famously favored by James Bond. "If I didn't firmly believe it was going to be one of the next great white spirits, I wouldn't put this kind of time in it."
The Pisco Sour is unquestionably the king of pisco cocktails. While its origins are contested among Latin Americans, especially Peruvians and Chileans, it is generally credited to an American bartender, Victor Vaughen Morris. Morris owned a bar in Lima in the 1920s that catered to upper-class Peruvians and English-speaking foreigners.
Anton says the drink is a "point of honor among bartenders in Lima," where it is celebrated as a national holiday the first Saturday in February. "It is," Anton adds, "one of life's great treats."
1) 2 oz. Campo de Encanto Grand & Noble Pisco
1 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice
1 oz. simple syrup
1 egg white at room temerature (roughly 1 oz.)
2-3) Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously for roughly 10 seconds (dry shake).
4) Add a small amount of ice to mixture and 5) shake again for roughly 2-3 seconds (wet shake).
6) Double strain mixture into a rocks glass (no ice!). 7) Pour two drops of Angostura Bitters into the bottle lid, then carefully pour into the center of the drink.