Scotland had Johnnie Walker, the United States had Jim Beam, France had Richard Hennessy and now Peru has Melanie Asher. The 34-year-old has probably done as much in a decade to elevate the profile of pisco, her native country’s signature spirit, as any booze pioneer did in his time for Scotch, bourbon or Cognac.
Granted, if like most Canadians you pronounce pisco with an implied question mark, that may not sound like much. But the clear, unaged brandy with a 400-year history is the hippest sip of the moment. Asher’s fledgling offering, Macchu Pisco, is pretty much the It brand, carried at some of the best American restaurants and bars, and featured in numerous press articles. Her excellent entry-level offering just crossed the border into Ontario, where it sells for $44.95.
Asher, who moved to the United States with her mother and sister when she was 10, founded the company in her early twenties based on a plan she wrote while at Harvard Business School. An exploratory backpacking trek to Peru saw her enrolling in a government-sponsored pilot project aimed at improving the quality of local distilling. “At the time, farmers and people in the countryside liked it above 45 degrees alcohol, and if it didn’t burn your throat, it wasn’t considered of good quality,” she told me over the phone from Washington, D.C.. She was doing more of her hands-on missionary work, pouring pisco sour cocktails at the Smithsonian Institution’s sprawling annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall.
Dividing her time between Peru and Maryland, she runs every detail of Macchu Pisco’s production personally, from selecting organic grapes to distilling the freshly fermented wine for three separate products. When she’s not making it, she can often be found on the road, securing face time with bartenders who are likely to get an education – if need be – on Peru’s more stringent rules governing pisco distillation versus those of neighbouring Chile (where, among other things, the spirit may be diluted with water). Among her elite accounts: Daniel in New York, The Aviary in Chicago and The Bazaar by José Andrés in Los Angeles. “Some of our best clients are on the 50-best-restaurants list of the world,” she said.
Asher credits her 100-year-old grandmother with honing her palate to tease out the “feminine, floral” notes from the distillate. Aside from flowers, good pisco can subtly suggest the sort of herbal-citrus aromas associated with gin and the tropical-fruit nuances of tequila, carried on more rounded viscosity than most grappas. True, a fan of wood-matured, velvety Cognac would likely find it rustic, but to a pisco lover, that quality is half the charm.
Named with a nod and wink to the famous Inca settlement of Macchu Picchu, Peru’s biggest tourist attraction, Macchu Pisco is a female-operated anomaly in what remains a heavily male-dominated spirits industry. Asher’s older sister Lizzie – a Harvard-trained lawyer – is president, and oversees exports to 10 foreign markets. Back in Peru, the company relies on a co-operative of women pickers and farmers. “We’re one of the first to offer higher wages for these women, and we offer fair-trade practices,” Asher said.
On July 17, Asher will be honoured in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail, a prominent annual drinks festival, with the marquee Pioneer of the Year award as well as an induction into the Dame Hall of Fame, which celebrates women in the cocktail industry. No doubt her grandmother will lift a drink to that.
Macchu Pisco (Peru)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $44.95
The entry-level offering from Macchu Pisco’s three-tier lineup, this is a so-called “puro” style made from a single grape variety, quebranta. Smooth and slightly oily in texture, it’s herbal and earthy, with an aroma of freshly fermented grape and a flavour profile that includes suggestions of lemongrass, citrus, root vegetable and pear. Perfect for a pisco sour (pisco, lime juice, sugar syrup and egg white shaken with ice, topped with a dash of Angostura bitters). Available in Ontario.