Interview: distiller Melanie Asher (Macchu Pisco)

Pisco Distiller

Melanie Asher brings business acumen and style to Macchu Pisco.


Josh Lurie: Why was it important for you to make the pisco personally, instead of hiring somebody to do it?

Melanie Asher: Quality control. Just being from Peru and just knowing the market in South America. There’s a saying in Peru that says, “Under the owner’s eyes the cow grows.” If you’re not around as the owner, people are not as cautious. You don’t have the American work ethic. You have the two-hour siesta time, and it’s a lovely lifestyle. I love going back there, but you know, I wanted a top-grade product. We got 94 points from the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, judged by Dale DeGroff and Dave Wondrich. Right after the excellent high rating, we got Wine and Spirits Magazine Spirit of the Year in 2009. To have a top quality product, you just need to be there, distilling it on your own and making it yourself. I make sure there are no added sulfites. It’s just the naturally occurring yeast from the grape skins. So no added yeast. No added sugar. We just use the sugar from the grapes, because the grapes grow in a desert climate. Because they grow in the sun, they get so much high sugar content. So it’s very much like a kid to me. You see it from birth. You pick the grapes, hand select them. Then you crush them by feet. We still do everything artisanal, but we’ve modernized a bit. We’ll do things like hand-selecting the grapes, or we’ll crush the grapes by feet, but I’ve modernized to make sure we have the best quality control by doing temperature control fermentation, so we keep all the aromas and have a refrigeration system. We have stainless steel tanks, as opposed to a lot of pisco, which will have plastic tanks. That way we’re able to mix the artisanal and historical part of pisco, keep it authentic, but also modernize it to get the best out of the grape.

JL: Would you say that you have any mentors?

MA: I think that from two perspectives, one great mentor is my mom, because she’s such a strong woman and so much a go-getter. She brought us by herself to the U.S., raised two daughters and was just a great example in terms of perseverance.

Then there’s a pisco producer in Peru, Juanita [Martinez], she’s a female producer. She’s around 80 years old and was one of the first pioneers in making pisco. There aren’t many pisco producers that are females in Peru. It’s a very macho culture…Her pisco’s called Tres Esquinas. She’s much older now, but when I started out, it was great seeing a woman in the pisco world.

JL: How did you decide on the name Macchu Pisco?

MA: Just historically, for background, everywhere the Spaniards went to colonize, they took wheat, and they took grapes for mass purposes. When they came from Spain, they forgot the grapes, so they had to stop off at the Canary Islands and pick them up on the way. They brought them to Peru, and the first spot where they were going to go to was Cuzco, because that’s where all the gold was. So they planted the grapes in Cuzco, near Macchu Pisco, but it was too cold, so the grapes didn’t survive. It’s a tribute to where the grapes were planted in Peru.

La Diablada is a carnival dance between angels and demons that’s danced in Peru in carnival season. And that’s a dance that’s performed to achieve perfect harmony. Similarly, with grapes, whether it’s wine or pisco, when you blend, each grape has its own personality. They’re each fighting each other, so I’m dealing with four grapes, so sometimes I go crazy. There’s no formula for La Diablada. I have my own outcome, that I want it to taste like. I want it to be sweet like the angel, but spicy like the devil. You’ll never get a very smooth La Diablada. It’s always going to have a little spiciness. That’s its trademark. I always mix up one grape, the grapes I use. The combination’s never the same, but it’s always sweet and spicy.

JL: What would you recommend eating with Macchu Pisco or La Diablada? Anything?

MA: I love ceviches. It’s not very sweet. The beauty of having it so sour is that it’s not too sweet, so you’re able to actually eat meals with it. Typical Peruvian fare, like ceviches. I really enjoy it with sushi as well. With Indian food, it’s really able to temper the spiciness of the Indian food. I love the spiciness of some Mexican food. It’s not too sweet. Some sweet things add complexity to the meal, but the citrus balances it out.

Pisco Cocktails
JL: What’s your ideal cocktail with the Macchu Pisco, and what would the recipe be?

MA: I just had one of the most crazy, amazing…I always have a favorite cocktail of the season. This is my first night, so I’m sure there are all sorts of L.A. wonderful cocktails, but two crazy, crazy cocktails. There’s one right now in Virginia, being made by Todd Thrasher in PX, which basically has duck sauce, Macchu Pisco, seltzer water, Don Julio añejo and pickled cherry bitters. And that is topped off with a shrimp cracker. That is fantastic because it pays tribute to a Peruvian food that we have called chifa, which is Peruvian Chinese food. So it’s really wonderful to see some of these mixologists getting into the food arena and making cocktails like an appetizer. Instead of an olive, it’s got the prawn cracker. It’s got the Asian influence with the cracker, and so many Peruvian foods are influenced by our immigrants, because Peru has one of the most diverse immigrant populations in South America. We have Indians. We have Africans. We have Chinese, Lebanese, Italians, Germans. Obviously Spanish. We have Japanese. Our ex President’s Japanese. The food’s very much a confluence of all of that, and many of the cocktails these days are trying to reflect that. In Peru, Pisco Sour’s a mainstay cocktail, but you also have a lot of mixologists who are very much marrying fusion foods in Peru as well.

JL: What was the second cocktail?

MA: That one was the La Diablada, which was a pisco punch. I don’t know if you know about pisco punch and the history of it, but it was invented in America during the Gold Rush. That was because there wasn’t a railroad between the East Coast and the West Coast. So a lot of the profiteers, miners and gold seekers would go from New York, they’d stop in the Cape, go to Peru, pick up workers and mining equipment and go to San Francisco. When they stopped in Peru, they’d pick up pisco in Peru and come to San Fran. And one of the best bartenders in San Francisco in the 1800s during the Gold Rush was Duncan Nichols. He was Scottish and the owner of the Bank Exchange, which was the foremost popular bar, hands down. There was a burning in San Francisco, and now it’s the Transatlantic Pyramid. He invented the Pisco Punch. People don’t know the exact recipe because he took it to his grave. His barback was literally deaf, dumb and mute, so he took it to his grave. All anyone knows is that it had pineapple juice, lime, gum Arabic and pisco. Some people think it had coca leaf. Everyone was addicted to it. It was like THE drink of the time. I had a modern rendition from one of the bartenders in London. With pisco punch, everyone makes their own recipe because no one really knew the original recipe. The great thing about Pisco Punch is that everyone can extrapolate their own recipe. This one was passion fruit, La Diablada, Velvet Falernum and rose champagne. It was like – whooo – you were on Cloud Nine. It was a very beautiful pink drink. It worked well because the La Diablada is much more fruity floral, and it worked with the champagne, which was a great base spirit.

JL: Do you remember the bartender?

MA: That was Milo Rodriguez.

JL: If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be?

MA: Pisco Sour.

JL: How come?

MA: Every liquor has its own buzz, but there’s something about the Pisco Sour that just makes you happy. And it just gives you a really nice happy buzz. You know, when I drink tequila, I’m hanging from a chandelier. When I drink bourbon, I’m very melancholic and cool. When it’s pisco time, it’s very much a very happy, bubbly buzz. I think it might be because of the egg white. This is my personal theory. I’m not a doctor, so don’t hold me to this, but I think the egg white adds protein and acts as an inhibitor for all the sugar to get into your bloodstream, so you get buzzed and don’t get wasted right away. So you have a longer lasting buzz. It’s very much a happy combination between the pisco, the lime and the sugar.

JL: So what’s the key to a great Pisco Sour?

MA: I like my Peruvian recipe, which is actually on the back of our Macchu Pisco labels. It’s 3:1:1. Three portions Macchu Pisco, one portion lime and one portion sugar. What we found is a lot of people were knocked out when I brought it to the U.S., so I Americanized it and it’s 2:1:1 now. I guess we’re just a bunch of alcoholics in Peru. It’s an excellent recipe. Use fresh limes and not lemons. Some bartenders like to use lemons because it’s easier to get here. If you use limes, use the Key lime. That’s the best lime to use. You can use Peruvian bitters, but I prefer Angostura bitters on top.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

[…] Q&A with distiller Melanie Asher (Macchu Pisco) What I actually recommend the La Diablada for is to drink it straight or to make a pisco punch with it, because when it's mixed with fruits, the aromas come out a bit more. The difference is that Macchu Pisco is rested for three months . […]

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