Article By: LIZA WEISSTUCH
Macchu Pisco, the brand she created, was released in Europe in January 2OO5 and its United States availability is growing steadily. It hit the shelves in Massachusetts in June 2OO6. "It's been a long ride and adventure. I've always had an entrepreneurial mind," says Melanie, 31, noting that while all the other kids in school posted pictures of David Hasselhoff in their lockers, she hung Donald Trump's mug.
"I put it [pisco] in ice cream and thought, 'this will sell'," she recalls, recounting the moment when her life's path became clear. And so began the journey that has landed her in Bethesda, Maryland. From there she oversees, well, pretty much everything, unless, that is, it's harvest season and she's camping out in Peru. Asher is intrinsically involved in every aspect of her pisco, a brandy distilled from a single grape pressing. Not only did she develop the brand and the products, which include the premium Macchu Pisco, a single grape varietal, and La Diablada, a super-premium blend, she devised marketing strategies. She even participates in the production, involving herself in everything down to stomping the grapes. To hear Asher talk about the pisco industry is like listening to Diane von Furstenburg clarify the impact wrap dresses had on women's fashion or hearing Lawrence Olivier wax rhapsodic about kings as they're portrayed by Shakespeare. "It's all about creating your own product and having your own stamp on the creation. I've seen Macchu Pisco and La Diablada grow from nothing. I was going through Incan language dictionaries to come up with a fun name that's easy to remember," she says. "There are so many regulations to making pisco in Peru, but there are ways to put your own signature on it - from how to cut the distillation to determining the grapes you use and when you harvest to how you actually select the grapes. We hand-select the grapes and press La Diablada by feet. Every little misstep you make affects the output so you have to put a careful touch on production."
She's so careful, in fact, that as a neophyte in the vineyards, the veteran grape pickers dubbed her "nima terrible" because she was ferociously selective about what was picked. "I liked getting my hands dirty, going out to fields at 5am with the pickers. When you harvest, you can just grab a bunch and there could be grapes that are rotten or infected in the bunch. I want the sugars in the grapes to be at a certain brix level. I'm very passionate that everything is done methodically because everything in the end is distilled." The name La Diablada, ended up not coming from a dictionary, but was taken from an Andean Carnival dance that translates as "Devil's Dance", which has its own built-in poetic ring. "It's traditionally a dance between angels and demons to achieve perfect harmony. And it's always a mystery in terms of achieving a perfect balance in a blend. There are seven grapes varieties in Peru from which you can make pisco. Each has its own personality. Muscatel is the Sophia Loren of grapes - it has beautiful fine aromas, but a very sharp bite, too. The Italia grape is smooth, but not too smooth. It's over-the-top fragrant. Quebranta is the 'macho man' of grapes because it's got a great body, which it really gives to the pisco." Or so goes the insiders' vernacular. Such explanations are only a small glimpse of the nuances to be learned about a spirit with an enormous legacy and not a little controversy attached to its name. In fact, clearing up that controversy has been one of Asher's motivating forces. Establishing her brand has been more than a business venture - it's a matter of national pride. "There weren't any piscos in the US when I graduated from business school except for Chilean counterfeits, so there's a patriotic sense I have of bringing pisco to the world," she says.
Any conversation with Melanie about pisco will likely include her spelling out the laws and regulations of Peruvian production. Those rules lend themselves to a product distinct from the spirit made in Chile, which also markets itself as pisco, much to Peruvians' chagrin. In short, Peruvians have been producing pisco from the same seven grapes for about 4OO years. It all began when the Spaniards brought grapes to Pisco, a Peruvian port city. The spirit gained popularity in America in the late 18OOs during the Gold Rush. Many pilgrims en route to the west coast had to detour around South America and often docked in Pisco, where they picked up laborers and the local spirit. It became popular in San Francisco thanks to a drink known as "pisco punch", which was created by a bartender at the popular Bank Exchange who turned his legions of followers on to the stuff. Importation, however, ended with Prohibition. During that same time, Chile used different grapes to produce their pisco. When Prohibition ended, political circumstances in Peru made it difficult to resume trade and Chile stepped in. Things only went downhill export-wise for Peru when Juan Velasco's military dictatorship ruled the country in the 197Os and wealthy landowners were forced to turn over their fertile fields to peasants who lacked farming skills. The peasants grew crops that were less expensive than grapes, like cotton and sugar. The pisco supply fell to the point that there wasn't enough for export. "Look where Pisco is on the map. Peruvians kind of sat on their laurels," explains Melanie. "They took it for granted because it was so inherently a part of the culture." So with a majority of the product consumed nationally, Peru didn't register pisco for denomination of origin status with the World Trade Organization.
Chile, meanwhile, got a jumpstart making sure its product was formally recognized by international trade acts. Both countries long claimed right of origin, but considering how Chile acquired part of Peru in a nineteenth century war, Peruvians allege the product was stolen. Famed Chilean writer Isabel Allende weighed in against her country's practice in her novel My Invented Country. She wrote, "We usurped the name of this liquor, without a moment's hesitation, from the city of Pisco, in Peru. If any wine with bubbles can be called champagne, even though the authentic libation comes only from Champagne, France, I suppose our pisco, too, can appropriate a name from another nation." In the Free Trade Agreement signed in 2OO3 between the US and Chile, the US recognizes Chilean pisco as distinct to that country. But Peru took the dispute a step further to the World Trade Organization's Intellectual Property Office, which, in July 2OO5, recognized the "pisco" denomination as a beverage of Peruvian origin. Today there are seven regulations controlling pisco production. They dictate that additives are prohibited, fermentation must be all natural, and no aging can take place. Under no circumstance is there any contact with wooden barrels, which happens in Chile and Argentina. "Their 'pisco' lacks body and viscosity. They put it in wooden barrels to give it extra body. We call that cheating," Melanie deadpans. She explains that when grapes are used to make pisco, the grape must is distilled and the pumice - skin, stems and stalks - are discarded. Some producers may add yeast and enzymes to aid fermentation. Outside Peru, the byproducts are often fermented and distilled and make a grappa-style product. It's a less expensive method of production, and often the spirit gets its body from time spent in barrels or wood chips added while it rests. In Peru, however, a good deal of the grapes comes from the Ica region, an isolated swath of land that's irrigated by the Andes that has managed to stay pollution-free. It's pristine terroir for growing grapes that impart enough body that no additives would even be needed. Melanie refers to it as nothing short of "privilege" that Peru has this naturally suitable landscape.
the path to the market.
Melanie's crusade began before the official recognition of nomenclature was granted. The path that took her from entrepreneurial pre-teen with a penchant for trend-spotting to market savvy brand owner has been long and comprehensive. She majored in history as an undergrad at Duke University, where she wrote her thesis on Prohibition and temperance and explored why governments around the world control the consumption of liquor. From there she went to Wall Street to work in investment banking in a consumer goods company. She hammered out deals with Skyy Vodka, Cuervo and Grupo Modelo. Seeing the great margins in the liquor industry made her realize it was possible to have a comfortable life while she lived out her childhood dream. (The realization of how substantially you have to invest in marketing came later.)
Her next stop was Harvard Business School, where she developed a business plan for creating Macchu Pisco. With its heavily international student body, Harvard also served as a forum where she could do a bit of informal market research. She held "pisco parties" in dorm rooms. "Most people heard of pisco, but didn't know much about it. They liked that pisco is made from grapes. It keeps the aromas of the grapes because it's made in copper pot stills," she says, implying how pisco can appeal to those whose preferences lean toward wine as well as those who favor white spirits. When she became president of the Harvard Wine and Cuisine Society, she organized International Pisco Competition at a Boston club. She invited Sascha Petraske, owner of the famed Milk & Honey as well as Little Branch and East Side Company Bar in New York, and Alex Turner, who at the time was part of International Playboy Bartenders, a British spirits consulting agency, to an "International Piscology Competition". The contest? Create a pisco cocktail. In other words, it was a demonstration of the spirit's versatility. She needed no further conviction that it was viable in the American market.
in the family.
When Melanie graduated Harvard Business School in 2OO3, she convinced her family to invest. They helped her find a distillery to rent that was no longer operational. Today the business is bolstered with her family's input. Her mother handles PR and her sister, Lizzie, is the brand ambassador. Truth be told, though, Melanie gives her sister a run for her money. "I do not go out without a bottle in my bag," she asserts. Only two months out of business school, she decided to set up an importing company. She created Macchu Pisco LLC so she'd be able to choose her distributor. In Massachusetts Macchu Pisco's distribution is being handled by United. When distribution reached this state, she turned to her alma mater again for further market research. In March of this year, with her product growing in availability, she organized the Second Annual International Piscology Competition. Wine and Cuisine Society members arrived at 33 Restaurant and Lounge in the Back Bay to see Boston bartenders Joey Farrell, now at Beehive in the South End but who worked at 33 at the time, and Ari Bialikamien of Aujourd'hui in The Four Seasons square off against Brit mix-master Angus Winchester and Chris Cunningham, who helms the bar at Dino Restaurant in Washington DC. The students tried each bartender's concoction and were asked to rate each drink for its marketability, profitability and sustainability, or how easily a bar staff could be trained to make the drink. The winner was Ari for his Peruvian Inspiration creation (see sidebar for recipes).
This is an ideal time, where the market is concerned, for Melanie to make waves. South American influences can be detected all over various markets, from home design to fashion to food. The spirits industry has recently been infused with South American flavors: Cachaca has taken the market by storm in the past few years with the release of several super premium brands, like Leblon, Agua Luca and Cuca Fresca. Inevitably, the public will put down their caiphirinias and try something new. Macchu Pisco is already on the shelf for when they do. "It all started with the idea that there's this marvelous product that makes everyone happy, why is it not here in the US?" she says. "This is a cool time because it's a relatively unknown product, but it's something authentic. We're very hardcore about pisco."