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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Chile, known for its wines and piscos, turns to gin

Jorge Sepulveda, who created the recipe for Gin Elemental, at his distillery on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile, in October 2023. Distilleries are popping up across the country as Chileans use the versatile spirit to showcase their country’s unique botanicals.

By Amelia Nierenberg

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,” 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.

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.”

‘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,” 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 Undurraga, a founder of the distiller Destilados Quintal. “We want to spread our flavors.”

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, 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, Smith said, which is partly why the industry in Chile grew so quickly.

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 high-hats, neons, easy to recognize and understand. Even the most unstudied reporter, drinking a gin and tonic after a dayslong Patagonian backpacking trip, can taste the different flavors — many of which come from ingredients that were grown near the distillers’ homes.

Carvallo 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.”

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