The Smooth New Spirits Boozing Up Bolivia
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the vodka is made from glacier water and the gin from Amazonian tree bark.
By Catherine Elton
From the distillery, where tall copper stills gleam in the sunlight that streams in through the over-two-story, all-glass facade, you can see the entire Cordillera Real, its craggy peaks smothered under deep snow and ice. But the glaciers do much more than provide a kick-ass view from what is likely the highest distillery in the world. They’re a key ingredient to the vodka made there.
“Vodka comes from the word voda, which means water” in Slavic, says Leonardo Diab, the commercial manager of Innobe, which produces 1825. “We have amazing water because it comes practically straight from the glaciers, which are very close.” The only other ingredient in 1825 Vodka is alcohol made from wheat grown in the Amazon region of Bolivia.
With the exception of the national drink Singani, which is distilled from the Muscat of Alexandria grape, Bolivia’s bars have long been populated with imported favorites and its stores stocked with low-quality, local hooch. In recent years, however, a small but growing clan of young Bolivian distillers have been testing the waters (and sometimes the fires), tapping the county’s rich, varied and unusual local ingredients to produce premium spirits.
It started with a wave of national pride in locally sourced products that began in 2013 when Claus Meyer opened his zero-kilometer, ultra-locavore credo restaurant Gustu in La Paz. This spurred a new class of high-end restaurants with menus based on local-only ingredients, which in turn created a new and urgent demand for local, premium drinks to stock their bars.
The intense flavors can also be chalked up to Bolivia’s geographic location.
The first Bolivian to respond was La Republica Gin, which launched its Andean Gin in 2014 and its Amazonian version the following year. Both gins, of course, include the requisite juniper. But there are also some 15 other ingredients from either the Andes or the Amazon — some are well-known, like orange peel, but there’s also cherimoya, tumbo and copo
The intense flavors can also be chalked up to Bolivia’s geographic location. “There is a lower boiling point at altitude, so it stresses the essential oils less, producing a less cooked taste” and more intense aromas, says Daniel Lonsdale, co-founder of Master Blends, which makes La Republica at a 3,500-meter-high distillery. The gins have won gold and silver international prizes.
The newbie on the Bolivian booze scene is Killa Andean Moonshine. It was founded by a pair of young, self-taught distillers, who after much trial and error — and a small fire that caused some minor burns— managed to successfully distill the first Andean whiskey, a clear and intense spirit made of local corn and malt. In December, Killa will launch a second whiskey that is dark and aged with burnt Amazonian oak. Future plans include a whiskey made from quinoa.
But if you want to sample one of these new spirits, you might have to do it at their places of origin. Killa ($20 a bottle) isn’t yet exporting, and 1825 only gets as far as neighboring Peru. La Republica is now exporting to five other countries in the region, along with Denmark and Sweden, and planning to market in the U.K. (£20 or $26) early next year. Wherever you drink it, you’ll be contributing to a movement that is raising spirits in Bolivia.
- Catherine Elton, OZY Author Contact Catherine Elton