Friday, January 24, 2014

Meet the R&D: Sean Cunningham

Sean Cunningham, an artist in this year's R&D group, blogs about his recent trips to Peru, and shares his thoughts on "Making Americans Drink Like Peruvians."

I enjoy drinking. Indeed, with composer extraordinaire Michael Friedman I once wrote a song called "I Enjoy Drinking" for the show God Hates the Irish. (The song was ironic... but not that ironic, if you catch my drift.) So when I get a chance to experience a new culture and learn about international marketing while my hosts not only allow but actually encourage me to have another drink and then a few more after that, I'm there.

In 2013 I went to Peru twice. The first visit was with my then-girlfriend and some mutual friends. We visited Peru's current capital, Lima, before heading to its capital during the time of the Inca, Cuzco, and spent four days hiking the Inca Trail to reach the ruins at Machu Picchu. Click HERE for a recap of the lessons learned on that journey. 

It was something of a transformative experience for me, both because I was concerned enough about being in shape for the Trail that I started jogging (inexplicably, I continue to do so to this day) and, far more importantly, it was the first time I encountered Pisco.

Pisco is a brandy made from grapes beloved in Peru and in Chile, inspiring an epic rivalry over which nation is its true birthplace: since I’ve gone to Peru twice and only visited an airport in Chile, I say Peru. The most famous cocktail is the Pisco Sour, consisting of lime juice, simple syrup, egg white, ice, and Angostura bitters. There are assorted variations, such as the Coca Sour, which I favor because of the extra touch of bitterness. (Sadly, the U.S. bans coca for its connections to cocaine even in this decidedly non-Tony Montana-esque form, meaning one of the minor casualties of the war on drugs is my ability to get my pisco cocktail of choice.)

At this point I should note that, as someone who’s written for an odd mix of publications ranging from Maxim to The Knot, I have wound up on a diverse collection of PR lists (and wound up friends with other people on even more wide-ranging lists), with the result I periodically receive offers to fly away somewhere utterly unexpected for a bit.

And that is why I was pleasantly surprised when, not long after my return, I received an invite to a press trip organized by Pisco Portón. 

This time Pisco wouldn’t just be an aspect of the trip: it would be the focus. That was particularly appealing to me because on my first trek I acquired a taste for drinking Pisco straight, which requires a better class of Pisco. Portón was one of those Piscos that caught my eye -- seriously, it is an impressively cool bottle -- but for the most part it remained defiantly out of my price range. Click here for some quick info about the brand.

Throw in that the journey would take me to a part of Peru I’d yet to visit (in the Ica Region along the southwest coast), and I quickly signed on.

I again flew into Lima before going south to the coastal town of Paracas and finally reaching the Hacienda La Caravedo. Founded in 1684, the Hacienda is the oldest distillery in the Americas (every bottle of Portón pays tribute to it), and this was where I had the chance to chat with Johnny Schuler/consume a huge amount of really choice Pisco.

Johnny -- @piscojohnny -- has been a tireless champion of Pisco for decades, as well as a restaurateur and, as one article in Peru This Week noted, a general “Renaissance man.” (After an American who made a fortune in Peru and married a Peruvian woman purchased Portón, he had the company approach Johnny to see if he would sign on with them. By Johnny’s account, he said he would do it… if his new boss immediately invested an eight-figure sum in the company. The check was written and Portón acquired a master distiller.)

Johnny and I wound up discussing the long-term objectives of Portón: most notably, they want to crack the American market. (This goal is shared by a handful of other Pisco makers.) Indeed, they seek to gain a large enough wedge in the market so that, instead of seeking gin or vodka or another clear liquor, there will come a day when an American can walk into a corner bar and ask, "Do you have Pisco?" and it won’t be strange at all.

(Ideally, they’ll then ask for Portón.) 

Johnny said there would be differences between the American and Peruvian markets, starting with the obvious fact that everyone in Peru knows what Pisco is -- the Pisco Sour is the national drink -- and virtually no one in the U.S.A. has a clue.

Beyond this, since Pisco usually is served as an ingredient in a cocktail in Peru, Peruvian bars often give in to the temptation faced by speakeasies all over the globe: get the cheapest brand possible, based on the theory the other ingredients will hide the low cost/quality.

An example of a "less" upscale Pisco brand
Finally, Peru is a nation where only a small percentage of the population has the disposal income necessary to indulge in top-shelf liquors: the per capita income is $6,796, compared to $11,340 for its neighbor Brazil or $51,749 for the United States.

The U.S. Pisco approach is different.

To crack the American market, the initial outreach would be aimed at tastemakers in select cities as something for the sophisticated and adventurous palette. (Indeed, ideally it would be taken straight so people could learn to appreciate and enjoy the nuances, just as they do with scotch.)

It would also be put forward as a decidedly upscale product, which is why a press release for “Portón Pisco” described it as an “ultra-premium brand made specifically for the U.S. market.”

And thus America would get to experience the most Peruvian of beverages…only not in the most Peruvian of forms.

I’ve been exploring the question: can Pisco manage this conquest? It’s certainly established a foothold with me personally. I even brought some back and shared a bottle with my coworkers, which they enjoyed far more than they expected.

That said, to the best of my knowledge none have consumed any since then, despite the fact we’re one of the rare American offices located within a block of a Peruvian restaurant. (I’ll be at your sensibly priced Happy Hour again soon enough, Raymi.)

And yet…

I still remember as a 7th-grader in Carson City, Nevada having a teacher bring in this exotic treat called “sushi” -- “Come on, Mrs. Pown, we know it’s not really raw fish” -- and being one of the few students crazy enough to eat it. I was pleasantly surprised to discover I didn't mind the taste, but I also assumed it was something I wouldn't experience again unless I unexpectedly found myself in Tokyo.

Now it’s my comfort food.

I have no idea if Peru will equal Japan’s achievement and a significant number of Americans will reach the point where, after a tough day, they get home and instinctively reach for the Pisco bottle, but the attempts of Pisco Portón and other Pisco makers to make that a reality are oddly inspiring to me.

Maybe they’ll be a huge success, and Portón will find itself with the equivalent of an iPhone in liquid form.

Maybe it won’t ever quite mesh, and it will turn out to be a drinkable DeLorean.

Maybe America will change it into something so heavily modified for our tastes it will be rendered unrecognizable by the nation that originated it.

And for me, the challenge is locating the core to all this so it isn’t just an accumulation of data: I’ve increasingly found I’m combining aspects of my two trips together, so that while the story is about the challenge of taking something central to one culture and trying to make it palatable to another culture all the while turning a profit (which I learned about on my second visit), the action takes place on the hike to Machu Picchu (which occurred on my first).

Machu Picchu was a magnificent experience, but also at times a grueling one (and a humbling one, particularly watching the porters literally sprint up the mountain ahead of us to set up the base camp before we arrived), and I’ve found there’s something nice about having people talk about matters of finance and national identity while what they’re really thinking is, Holy shit do my knees hurt…

Finally, all this is shaped by the fact that on my first visit I was in a relationship with one of my traveling companions, on my second I was traveling alone (and we were essentially separated) and now I look back on all this knowing that we’ve gone our different ways, giving the whole thing a pleasantly bittersweet quality, which I tend to enjoy in theater (if not my personal life: nothing but unadulterated sweetness for my personal life, please).

Whatever the future holds for Pisco, it’s a fascinating journey and I remain appreciative of Portón for letting me take a few of the steps with them, as well as to my ex for booking a trip to Peru in the first place.

I’ll be at the bar if you need me.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sean. For other posts about our R&D Group artists, please click HERE!

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