There's Nothing Sour About Her Success
A woman walks into a bar. It sounds like the setup for a joke, but it's the way almost all of Melanie da Trinidade-Asher's business meetings begin. Instead of ordering a drink, she pulls out a bottle, pours a shot, and invites the bartender to take a sip of what is probably the best pisco he's ever tasted-and very likely the only pisco he's ever tasted.
The brandy that's the pride of Peru is a clear spirit that can be enjoyed straight or in a mixed drink (most notably, the pisco sour), and Asher has dedicated herself to getting a bottle in every bar in America with her company Macchu Pisco. "Pisco is like a sleeping beauty right now," says the 31-year-old Asher, who moved to the United States from Peru while in elementary school.
After working with large spirits firms as an investment banker and developing her pisco plan at Harvard Business School, Asher headed to Peru to perfect her product. She handles virtually every aspect of production herself, from selecting the grapes-the sturdy quebranta for her premium Macchu Pisco and a blend including muscatel and italia for her superpremium La Diablada-to distilling the fresh-pressed juice. It's a classic family business, launched with her relatives' financial and personal help: Asher's boyfriend acts as general manager in Peru, her mother handles marketing, and her sister in New York works on product placement.
Her first bottles arrived in the United Kingdom in January 2005, and after wrangling with tricky U.S. laws, she broke into the American market a year later. "It's like penetrating 50 countries to deal with federal, state, and local licenses," Asher says. Her pisco is now available in Maryland (her home base), Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., where it's hitting the shelves at some of the classiest bars in town.
Waking American tipplers up to pisco, however, presents a major challenge. The only brand that's readily available nationwide is Capel, but that's of Chilean origin (and don't get Peruvians started on why Chilean pisco is an entirely different drink) and still fairly obscure. Only 17,000 cases of pisco of any brand were sold in the United States in 2004, compared with 40,000 of the Korean soju and 1.4 million cases of Tanqueray gin.
Menu makers. But it may be pisco's exotic quality that helps it elbow into the crowded spirits market, says Daniel Mahdavian, president of Refuel Consultants, a firm that develops bars' beverage concepts. "I'm always traveling to find the next great spirit," he says. He has taken a shine to La Diablada, which he placed on the cocktail menu in a Peruvian pink lemonade at D.C.'s sleek lounge Lima. For the Black Fox, a cocktail lounge opening in Washington early next year, he's concocted a pisco bloody mary, the "Pisco Inferno."
For Asher, the goal is not merely to become profitable. She wants to put pisco into glasses and keep it there. So although she initially targeted Latin concept restaurants, she's also eager to encourage more creative uses, like the Pisco Alejandro (a twist on the Brandy Alexander) offered at the Four Seasons' hotel bar in D.C. And she's expanding deliberately to ensure she can cultivate the success of her product, which means many more of those one-on-ones with bartenders to spread the word: "The people I deal with are sophisticated. So they might not know much about pisco, but they know what a good spirit is." The role model in her quest for barroom domination? Vodka. "Thirty years ago, it was a completely ethnic drink," she notes. "Now it's coming to the point where the market is oversaturated." With Asher's help, pisco is ready to pounce.
This story appears in the December 18, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.