Bartenders & Business: Duggan McDonnell

by Paul Clarke

Bartenders and Business focuses on bartenders who have taken the professional skills and interests they’ve developed behind the bar, and applied them in an entrepreneurial direction, introducing products and brands designed to create an exceptional experience for guests.

San Francisco barman Duggan McDonnell already had one entrepreneurial venture under his belt—ownership of Cantina, which recently marked its fifth anniversary—when he and his partners launched Campo de Encanto Pisco in 2010. Marketed as a spirit “for bartenders, by bartenders,” Campo de Encanto developed an ardent following in the Bay Area and, less than a year after the brand’s introduction, was awarded the Gran Medalla de Oro as the best pisco in Peru. I recently spoke with Duggan about being an owner and partner in both a bar and a brand.

PC: From your experience as a bartender, what need did you see in the marketplace for a product like yours?

DM: Both Campo de Encanto and Cantina are completely rooted in my being a San Franciscan, with a strong passion for its glories and lore, as well as having a singularly Californian palate.

Pisco’s most glorious moments reside in San Francisco. I’m a lover of Latin cultures and their spirits, but more so, I love drinking from the grape. For me, to have started a bar with a focus on Latin spirits and fortified wines—there are six different bottlings in the speed rail alone—and with a focus on fresh California technique, and then to launch Campo de Encanto from that experience is pure kismet. And these factors couldn’t be repeated in any other way. It’s a genuinely blissful connection.

Now, did I study the marketplace for years prior to launching Encanto? Yes. Did I acquire expertise, and then position myself as a “tastemaker” so that I could gain access to focus groups and gigs consulting on the launches of other brands? Yes. Did all of this impact my technique when releasing Encanto…?

Make as many mistakes as you can with other people’s money.

PC: Larger companies may hire a marketing firm to do research or have specialists develop a strategy for introducing a new product. From your perspective as a small startup, what kind of preparation and consultation did you do with other bartenders to make sure you’d have people who’d actually buy and use your product?

DM: None.

For obvious reasons, I’m the bartender that knows and has worked with every facet of pisco more than any other. In this regard, I have no colleagues with whom I can swap stories or glean wisdom from. Everything that is Campo de Encanto was born out of imagination based on experience, and then modified via conversation with my partners, Carlos Romero and Walter Moore. [Bartender and Aviation Gin partner] Ryan Magarian and I do share war stories from time to time, plus the fellows at Leblon cachaca enjoy talking about the quirks of doing business in South America.

There’s a two-fold thing we all have in common: we were all intensely interested in these products before we started our own brands—there’s a real deep, abiding personal connection. And the consumer trends were already starting—if you look at Ryan Magarian with Aviation Gin, he was both driving and responding to the growing interest in gin cocktails; as more gin gets used, and as more consumers enjoy that, there’s an opportunity—a business opportunity for a gin brand. For Jen [Colliau]’s syrups, she started making them for friends, and it took off—that forces you into a position, but it creates a business. Or look at Neil [Kopplin, with Imbue Vermouth]—there’s a fortified wine and aperitif renaissance going on; if you look at Cocchi [Aperitivo Americano] and the imported aperitifs, there’s a rise in interest among the trade. Somebody like Neil has a connection with the trade, and he has a connection with the wine growers.

Five years ago at Cantina, we were using 16 bottles of pisco a week in our punches; people asked how we did that, and I said, “I don’t know! People must like it.” And eventually that turned into Encanto.

PC: Producing, packaging and marketing a product--not to mention all the mundane tasks that come with running a business--can take up a substantial amount of time and energy. How have you managed to balance your business with your continuing work in a bar?

DM: Producing a world-class distillate is easy. Getting the glass bottle manufacturer to deliver your bottles on time is extremely difficult!

I recommend living a robust life, which includes staying behind the bar as long as humanly possible and as long as it keeps the individual healthy. Not that long ago, most bartenders looked at bartending as a transition gig; transitioning into a film career, through college, into management, ownership or working for a spirits company, a distributor, etc.

Not me. I say, Play as long as you can--stay in the game, keep at the sport, the task of squeezing limes day in and night out. In thirty years, will it matter more to an individual that she quit slinging drinks on-shift for an easier gig, versus the pride that always comes from knowing that she stayed in as long as possible? I hope the latter is what matters.

To answer your question, it is in fact a very opposite life, as slinging drinks till 2 a.m. in the Pacific time zone does not allow one to be up and enjoying conference calls at 9 a.m. Eastern--or in the case of Encanto, many different time zones across the globe. I haven’t found a balance, and I look forward to hearing your advice. 

PC: No matter how much you prepare in advance, there's no substitute for hard experience. Is there anything you've learned that you wish you’d known when you first started on your business?

DM: - Accept your mistakes and move on.

PC: Many bartenders have ideas for a kind of spirit, liqueur, tool or other product that they think would work well in a bar. From your experience, what should they know before they head down the path of actually putting that idea into effect?

DM: - Ask yourself, “Is there room for this product?” Do not ask yourself, “Do I want to do this?” Ask yourself again, “Is there a paying consumer base for this product?”

You have to ask, “Where’s the connection”—what do you have a passion about, but also, what’s going to make fiscal sense.

PC: Any final points?

DM: If you haven’t tasted our Distiller’s Reserve bottlings, you’re missing out: we have a Single Vineyard Quebranta and Single Vineyard Moscatel. There’s nothing like them in the world of pisco, as they share more in common with the small batch eau de vies of France, or single-barrel expressions of whiskey. Also, we’re about to release the fifth blended batch of our original expression of Encanto: the ‘Grand & Noble’ Acholado. It’s the same but… just better. And that makes me quite happy.

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