Chile, Known for Its Wines and Piscos, Turns to Gin

Last Hope Distillery is one of the only real cocktail bars in Puerto Natales, a horseshoe of a city that wraps around a windy inlet in Chilean Patagonia. To enter, visitors buzz, speakeasy-style, then hang up their coats and settle in at the bar. A server sets a glass down.

“Hi,” the server says. “Have you ever tried gin?”

The question can surprise international visitors, most of whom, familiar with the juniper-flavored spirit, have come for a hike in nearby Torres del Paine National Park. But gin is new to some Chileans, so Last Hope’s servers don’t make assumptions.

The approach started out of necessity, said Kiera Shiels, who moved to Chile from Australia with her partner, Matt Oberg, and opened the bar. Guests would turn up, unsure of what to expect. “They hadn’t had gin,” Ms. Shiels said. “They’d barely had cocktails.”

Last Hope, which began selling gin in 2017, was one of the first gin distillers in Chile. But in the past few years, the country’s gin industry has exploded. From Last Hope (in the south) to Gin Nativo (in the north), there are now about 100 gin brands across the country. And many are winning international recognition.

Botanicals prepped for use at Gin Elemental’s distillery on the outskirts of Santiago.Credit…Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Just last year, a gin made by Gin Elemental, distilled on the outskirts of Santiago, was awarded a gold medal at the SIP awards, an international, consumer-judged spirits competition, among others. Gin Provincia, made in Chilean wine country, earned the second-highest score at the London Spirits Competition, just one of its honors. And Tepaluma Gin, in the Patagonian highlands and rainforests, won a gold at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, one of several awards.

“You will see a lot more coming from Chile,” said Andrea Zavala Peña, who founded Tepaluma Gin — one of Chile’s first distilleries — with her husband, Mark Abernethy, in 2017.

“Whether the world knows it or not,” she said, “we’re coming.”

Camila Aguirre Aburto, a brand ambassador for Gin Provincia, prepares cocktails at a bar in Santiago.Credit…Tomas Munita for The New York Times

‘The wild has a particular taste’

Fifty years after a coup established a brutal 17-year dictatorship, and just four years after an eruption of mass protests, Chile continues to struggle with deep social divisions. But the country is also working hard to remake its international reputation.

Long known for its wine, Chile is now an established destination for adventure travelers after it expanded its natural parks and enticed more visitors to Patagonia. Chilean gin, its makers say, can act as a bridge between these two marketing pitches, building on Chile’s reputation for producing distinctive alcohol and effectively bottling its wilderness.

“We have one of the last wild areas of the world,” Ms. Zavala Peña explained. “And the wild has a particular taste.”

Capped by the Atacama Desert, shod by Patagonia, and squeezed between the Andes and the Pacific, Chile has no shortage of natural diversity. The country’s gin distillers aren’t only interested in making the best London Dry, said Teresa Undurraga, the director of the Chilean Gin Association. Instead, they are also trying to make gins that taste like Chile.

“This is why we are using native herbs,” said Ms. Undurraga, a founder of the distiller Destilados Quintal. “We want to spread our flavors.”

A tray of botanicals used to prepare gin at Destilados Quintal, in Santiago.Credit…Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Gin is an ideal base; the neutral, juniper-based alcohol takes on the flavors of added ingredients. Chile’s distillers hope that the herbs and berries they infuse can serve as a passport — an invitation to visit, taste and see. In fact, many Chilean distillers import the alcohol. It’s easier and cheaper. The add-ins, they say, are what counts.

“It’s like a painting,” said Gustavo Carvallo, the co-founder of Gin Provincia, looking out at the famous Colchagua Valley, which surrounds his distillery. The corn alcohol, which he imports from the United States, serves as the canvas. “All the botanicals are the colors.”

Beyond the ‘Ginaissance’

Chile’s booming gin industry comes at what might be the tail-end of a global revival, sometimes called the “Ginaissance,” which began in Britain over a decade ago, partially under the influence of the American craft distilling movement.

The spirit was once seen as fuddy-duddy — a relic of colonial Brits trying to dodge malaria. But international experiments have aired out its reputation. There are distillers in Spain, India, South Africa, Australia, Brazil and Vietnam, among a slew of other countries. And gin is now seen as sophisticated, even worldly. The old-world quinine chaser has been reinvigorated by its new cosmopolitan devotees.

Like many alcohols, gin can “capture a sense of place,” said David T. Smith, the chair of the World Gin Awards and the author of several books about gin, including “The Gin Dictionary.” But it’s often easier — and cheaper — to make gin than it is to make many other spirits, Mr. Smith said, which is partly why the industry in Chile grew so quickly.

Jorge Sepulveda, who created the recipe for Gin Elemental, at his distillery on the outskirts of Santiago.Credit…Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Jorge Sepulveda, who created the recipe for Gin Elemental, which also won gold at the London Spirits Competition this year, learned the basics on YouTube in just a few hours, he said. He started in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic after being encouraged by a friend, Ariel Jeria, who works in advertising and noticed the rising interest in Chilean gin.

Mr. Sepulveda was already a talented cook, he suggested. Why not give gin a try?

But Mr. Sepulveda had barely tried gin before. So, in lockdown, he began experimenting in a tiny countertop still. “I studied for two days,” Mr. Sepulveda said, standing near the still in his distillery. “I said: ‘OK, I can make it.’”

The first few tests, he admits, weren’t perfect. So Mr. Sepulveda reassessed, settling on a method that uses the Fibonacci sequence to determine the ratios of his ingredients.

“That is the number of God,” said Mr. Sepulveda, a geophysicist, who has since made other gin recipes using a similar philosophy. “Nature is physics. So it has to work.”

Gin vs. pisco, whiskey and wine

Chilean gin faces stiff competition with the country’s three most beloved alcohols: pisco, whiskey and wine. But the production of gin has practical advantages.

The first is accessibility. Pisco comes from specific regions of Chile and Peru. (In that way, it’s a little bit like Champagne or Parmesan.) Gin doesn’t. It is an everywhere alcohol, which makes it an anywhere alcohol. Anyone can make it.

“The recipe for gin is endlessly adaptable, so you can do whatever you like,” said Henry Jeffreys, a British drinks writer.

The second is time. Whiskey, which is considered the most high-end alcohol by many Chileans, takes years to mature in barrels. But gin can be ready days after it’s made.

Visitors to Last Hope Distillery, for example, can sip Last Hope gin cocktails while bending over oak barrels out back to sniff the first batch of Last Hope whiskey — which has years to go before it’s on the market.

The third is a lack of pretension. Wine, like whiskey, demands refinement. Only a drinker with a certain training can tease out the differences in origin from a single sip. Not so for gin. The botanicals are hi-hats, neons, easy to recognize and understand. Even the most unstudied reporter, drinking a gin and tonic after a days-long Patagonian backpacking trip, can taste the different flavors — many of which come from ingredients that were grown near the distillers’ homes.

Mr. Carvallo, of Provincia, harvests boldo from a shrub mere steps from the distillery. (Chileans use tea made from boldo leaves as a folk medicine to soothe a range of ailments, including stomach aches.)

“This is what moves us,” he said, rubbing a leaf between his fingers. “We’re trying to show what Chile has in botanicals and in its culture.”

The botanicals used to make gin at Zunda.Credit…Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Urban flavors

In the heart of Santiago, Eduardo Labra Barriga is trying to make a gin that tastes like the city itself: “A Santiago gin,” he said. “An urban gin.” He called it Pajarillo, named for a little bird that flies everywhere in the city. And he relies heavily on lavender, rosemary, pink pepper and cedron leaves, which grow in bushes across the capital. He and his wife have set up a trade program: Neighbors exchange leaves for a cheaper refill.

Elsewhere in the capital, artisanal gins are still just starting to catch on in the hottest bars. Even among the city’s social elite, many prefer to stick with the familiarity of a high-end pisco or an imported whiskey.

As a result, some distilleries are hiring representatives to help promote their products.

Camila Aguirre Aburto works as a brand ambassador for Gin Provincia. Before she designs a custom cocktail for a bar, Ms. Aguirre starts with a lesson; she knows that for Chilean gins to catch on, bartenders need to teach people about the gin’s terroir.

First, she shares samples of dried juniper, to explain the gin’s base flavors. Then she shows off the botanicals, like boldo, that give the gin flavor. Only then does she allow her clients to taste the spirit.

“Close your eyes, smell the gin,” says Ms. Aguirre, who learned English by watching the “Scream” movies and speaking to friends. “Feel the forest after the rain.”

At first the invitation feels like a tease. But then, just maybe — is that a lush valley at the roof of one’s mouth? Or, maybe, in the tickle of a nostril, the winds of Patagonia? Is that Chile on the tip of a tongue?

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