The gin revolution is alive and well in Chile so we were only mildly surprised to learn of an award-winning gin distillery on the Carretera Austral in the southern Patagonia region of the country. However, a tour of the Tepaluma Gin distillery unveiled many other truly surprising facts about the history and future of this unlikely project.
The history of Tepaluma Gin
When we arrived at the Tepaluma Gin distillery near the town of La Junta, Co-Founder Andrea Zavala handed us a leaf from one of the tepa trees on the property. The leaf looked and felt like a bay leaf, but smelled of citrus, pepper, and a vague sweetness. “The scent makes us happy,” Andrea said, adding that the name of this tree forms the “tepa” part of the Tepaluma name (luma is the name of a different endemic tree).
Remarkable projects like Tepaluma Gin–which was the first Chilean spirit to earn a gold medal at the IWSC Spirit Awards–usually have a remarkable backstory. In this case, the backstory of Tepaluma Gin involves lightning, serendipity, and ongoing determination.
Mark Abernethy, 51, was born in London and his wife Andrea, 47, was born in Chile but raised in Europe. They had a lovely life in Antwerp with their daughter Laura where they experienced and enjoyed the gin boom. Andrea told us they particularly admired Gin Mare for its ability to transport them to the Mediterranean with its flavors and they began dreaming about ditching their high-powered careers, finding a bucolic setting, and becoming distillers whose work would transport sippers similarly.Then, in 2008, Andrea was struck by lightning and nearly died. Two years of rehabilitation clarified the couple’s priorities and their “silly dream” to begin distilling suddenly seemed like something they needed to pursue. So they began narrowing down locations for their new distillery and their new life.
The UK, New Zealand, and Chile were all short-listed and after an exploratory visit to Chile in 2015 to confirm that Mark would feel at home, they began looking for the right spot. They spent two years scouring the country trying to find a rural place that had the necessary infrastructure including pristine water, green spaces, a school for Laura, road access, and an ephemeral feeling that would make them know they were home.
They searched as far south as Puerto Montt and did not find their spot. Feeling defeated, Andrea was looking for flights back to Europe when Mark took one last look at real estate listings. That’s when he saw photos of property near Palena (even further south and even more remote) and they fell in love with the southern Patagonia region of Chile, ultimately renting a cabin in La Junta from which to continue their search.As the search continued, the couple was anxious to begin distilling so they asked the owner of their cabin if they could rent a small shed and put a small still in it. He said no, but showed them a property with a very large shingled house on it that he said he’d sell to them if they promised to maintain the structure. Sold.
Andrea and Mark built a distilling facility near the house and bought a 500-liter copper still from Portugal with a vapor infusion basket to begin making gin in the London dry gin style using water from a natural source within the neighboring Queulat National Park. They even got a grant that required them to produce gin within six months. The still, however, did not arrive until one month before the production deadline. Andrea says they distilled day and night for 30 days to meet their grant deadline. “We were like Dr. Frankenstein.”Semi-settled into their new home and new workspace, Tepaluma Gin started in earnest in 2017. They now claim to be the second Chilean gin (the first is Last Hope Gin produced in Puerto Natales which we also love) and estimate that there are now about 100 gins being made in Chile. Being a pioneer in the market hasn’t been easy, but “We chose our problems because we chose our dreams,” Andrea said with a shrug.
The future of Tepaluma Gin
With a few years and a few awards under their belt, Andrea and Mark are ready for new challenges. Currently producing about 30,000 liters of their original London dry gin, the couple is now aging gin in used red wine barrels which impart an amber color and rich flavors and aromas. During our tour, we tasted a bit from the barrel which reminded us of an adult version of cream soda.They also began making whisky after an arduous search to find suitable barley in Chile. One barrel is currently aging in US oak originally used for bourbon but it won’t be released until at least 2027. Because harvesting natural peat is so environmentally destructive, Andrea and Mark smoke their product using the wood of the luma tree (the name that forms the second half of Tepaluma). They’re also considering making their own whisky aging barrels using native woods. The couple also plans to make a navy strength gin and aims to operate using 100% renewable energy by 2027. And now that they feel fully part of the La Junta and regional community, Andrea and Mark also look for ways to give back such as sharing tourism best practices with local tourism groups, organizing grassroots recycling projects, and trying to help emerging communities, including charming Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda, to put sustainable practices and protections in place as local tourism grows.
Tasting Tepaluma Gin
Tepaluma Gin is flavored using 14 botanicals including seven traditional flavor elements (like juniper) and seven hand-harvested botanicals from Patagonia (like pepper from the canelo tree). We may not have tried all 100 or so gins being produced in Chile, but we’ve sampled quite a few and Tepaluma stands out for its silky mouthfeel and its clarity–simple and sophisticated at the same time, which makes it easy to sip and to mix. The brand’s oft-copied slogan “Patagonia in a Bottle” is fitting.Sitting in the distillery’s charming patio bar after the tour, we had the chance to try Tepaluma Gin in a few different cocktails including a classic gin and tonic (almost universally called “gin tonic” in Latin America) and in more proprietary creations like the Chilco Tonic made with Tepaluma Gin, Fever Tree tonic water, and a syrup made from chilco flowers (what we call fuschia in the US) garnished with a rose petal and a fuschia flower.
Tepaluma Gin Tour Tips
The Tepalulma Gin distillery and bar is located on the Carretera Austral (Ruta 7) just south of the town of La Junta and is open every day between 10 am and 8 pm. The 1-hour Tepaluma Gin distillery tour (22,000 CLP/US$25 per person, tours offered at 11 am, 2 pm, 3:30 pm, and 5 pm in Spanish and English) includes the history of Tepaluma, information about gin styles, botanicals, the distilling processes, and a tasting plus a 10% discount on bottles of Tepaluma Gin (42,000 CLP/US$48) and other products. Reservations are required via the Tepaluma Gin website.
Here’s more about travel in Chile
Here’s more about Carretera Austral Travel
Here’s more about Patagonia Travel