A spectacular sliver of South America – better known for its towering peaks, plunging into the dense gnarl of jungle – isn’t the place you’d expect to find one of the world’s best gins. But La Repúlica Amazónica, rich with the flavours and scents of the world’s most spectacular landscape, is just that. Discover the spirit of the Amazon rainforest.
La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, is a whirl of madness and wonder. In its centre you stand at the bottom of a valley; look up to see the city sprawling up the sides of a mountain, to the peaks of the austere Andes.
To drive here is to zigzag through packed streets set at mind-boggling angles on the mountainside. To eat here is to feast on locally-grown quinoa and freshly roasted coffee. To do anything – from taking a test at school to getting married – is to visit the line of witch doctors who have set up shop on the ridge of the mountains, handing out blessings in the 30 indigenous traditions of this melting pot nation.
It’s this place – La Paz, the political centre of Bolivia, spreading from mountain to valley to plain – which Daniel Lonsdale calls home. “People call it beautifully chaotic,” he says. “It’s a hard city to live in – the highways zigzag up the mountain, the altitude is tough on the body – but it’s very authentic.”
You can’t pop to Starbucks in La Paz. You can’t stop for a KFC. What you can do is drive from the city centre to heights of the Andes Mountains, to the edge of the impenetrable Amazon rainforest, seething with life from the soil to the sky.
“Bolivia is so biodiverse,” Daniel says. “We have the Andes all the way to the deep, deep Amazon. There’s so much that we’re learning and finding. We want to export that through our spirits, so that people can imagine themselves here.”
Daniel and Joan, the two men behind the January Gin of the Month, have done that by creating a gin with botanicals pulled directly from the rainforest, harvested by the people who live in and care for this unique climate. Prepare to be transported to the world’s most awe-inspiring place on the planet.
The La República Amazónica Gin in January’s Gin of the Month box did not have an auspicious start. Daniel was 28 years old and working in the family business when his father unceremoniously fired him. He laughs, “We saw things very, very differently on how we should run the business. He was like, ‘Go back to La Paz and finish your degree.’”
But Daniel had a wife and a child; he was used to travelling all around South America cutting deals for his parents’ refreshment factory. Being back at university in his home town, fielding calls from disgruntled administrators about his absences and rubbing elbows with students a decade his junior, wasn’t exactly inspiring work.
Enter Joan, student of oenology, or winemaking, who happened to fall in love with one of Daniel’s closest friends, who was finishing up a Masters in Barcelona and planning to move back to La Paz.
Daniel recalls, “He found the perfect excuse for his thesis: high altitude distillation versus low altitude distillation. He used that to chase her to Bolivia, and one night she was like, ‘I want you to meet my boyfriend!’ And he hated me.”
Joan and Daniel got off on the wrong foot. But by the end of a night talking, laughing and eating pizza, Joan trusted his girlfriend’s old amigo enough to confess his dream: distilling spirits at high altitudes, creating distillates that would capture the beauty this Catalonian had found in the New World.
Because, while born-and-bred Bolivian Daniel had been longing for the Twinkies he had seen in American movies and dreaming of European landscapes, Joan was able to see Bolivia with fresh eyes. He was enchanted by the landscapes, the scent of the deep jungle in the rainy season and the exhilaration of blue skies on the high planes. He revelled in all of the amazing produce that Bolivia had to offer, from barks to fruits to herbs he had never seen anywhere else in the world.
A passionate distiller, Joan told Daniel that he wanted to use Bolivia’s natural wonders – both the amazing array of botanicals and the high altitude, which fundamentally alters the process of distillation – to create a ginny tribute to an incredibly beautiful country.
“It’s kind of embarrassing that it took a Catalonian to show me how many amazing things my country had to offer,” laughs Daniel. “But I loved the idea, and it was a perfect excuse for me to start working on something that I felt passionately about.”
Not only was Daniel looking for something new to direct his energy towards, but he was also a natural fit for the project. In the 1960s, his family had made a name for themselves by producing spirits to distribute all around South America; political unrest had forced the distillery to close, but Daniel knew all about what it took to make and sell spirits. And he was ready to transform the world’s impression of Bolivia.
He says, “We’ve always been seen as a banana boat country with no added value; the world takes out minerals and soil and resources, but not many people were concentrating on making really good, value-added products. We wanted to be the first to do it in a craft way.”
Using Daniel’s severance package and Juan’s life savings, the pair bought bottles and alcohol – they couldn’t afford a still. They made an amazing spirit, a spicy Limoncello, to prove that their idea had legs. A friend was suitably impressed, and invested enough to get their first still.
It was game on for Daniel and Joan’s ginny dreams.
The Lungs of the Earth
If Daniel is the business brain behind the República Amazónica Gin in this month’s Gin of the Month box, Joan is the master distiller – the man with the vision strong enough to bring the landscape of the Bolivian wilderness into a bottle. Daniel says, “He’s our artist. All he does all day is create crazy ideas.”
One of Joan’s crazy ideas had secured enough investment to purchase a still, a beautiful copper beast airmailed from Europe. But there were still some basics to work out – and in their rush to get to work, Daniel and Joan may have skipped some of the groundwork.
“Everything that could go wrong, went wrong,” laughs Daniel. “We tried to rush things too much!”
First a shoddy packing job destroyed their still during its flight over from Europe. Insurance replaced the broken equipment, but no amount of insurance could teach Daniel and Joan how to use the newest addition to their distillery, and it didn’t come with a manual. The first time they ran their new pot still – like the little stills home distillers experimented with on the stove, but fifty times bigger – it caught on fire.
Once Daniel and Joan got their distilling up to scratch, they were ready to start making the premium Bolivian gin of their dreams. They started with La República Andina, an expression designed to capture the crisp mountain air of the Andes. It was a smashing success, and so Daniel and Joan turned their attention to the world’s most complex and intriguing landscape: the Amazon rainforest, a rainforest so dense that it’s called ‘the lungs of the Earth’.
“Joan really got inspired by the flavours and the smell of the jungle – humid, intense flavours, the smoothness and the almost overripe flavour of things,” Daniel says. “When anything falls it starts to rot, so the fruit tastes almost fermented. We were trying to rescue those flavours, to replicate what the trees smell like.”
Joan had a million and one ideas about how he could use the local botanicals of the rainforest to recreate the atmosphere of the jungle – at one stage, he was intent on bringing vines back to La Paz so that he could use water drained from them. Daniel had to step in – he describes himself as the string to Joan’s wildly dreaming kite – to make sure that they chose botanicals that would be, while not easy to find, possible to buy in the quantities necessary for distillation. Because, when you’re dealing with the densest jungle in the world, finding a supplier isn’t merely a question of the right quality at the right price.
Daniel explains, “If we need something for the Andina Gin, we can drive and get it. But with stuff from the Amazon, the supply chain was very complex. I think that was our biggest challenge. Getting a sample of something is easy, but you can’t always get what you need longer-term.”
In the end, Joan settled on a marvellous selection of eight Amazonian botanicals to complement the classic ginny flavours of coriander seed, orange and lemon peel and juniper. Daniel works with suppliers he meets through local farmers markets, Non-Governmental Organisations and the Wildlife Conservation Society to source these beautiful botanicals in the most environmentally-friendly way possible, supporting local farmers and indigenous tribes while he does so.
Some of the botanicals in La República Amazónica will be familiar. Açaí and cacao, both of which Daniel and Joan buy foraged from local farmers, are well-known in Europe now as the foundational elements of smoothie bowls and chocolate, respectively. In fact, the popularity of açaí in the west has helped prevent deforestation of the Amazon, as local communities have fewer economic incentives to chop down indigenous trees to replace with palms.
Less well known are the three trees used in La República Amazónica: Palo Santo branch, chuchuhuasi bark and canelón bark. Each tree has a unique place in the mythology of South America, and indigenous tribes have been using them in a variety of ways for centuries. It’s only natural that Daniel relies on these indigenous tribes to make the long journey into the jungle, where a few times a year they collect the branches and bark in bulk, delivering them in aromatic bundles to the distillery.
Joan and Daniel also use copoazú, a fruit whose pulpy flesh tastes like an intriguing combination of passionfruit and banana, ají gusano, or worm chilli, with its chocolatey heat, and sacha cilantro, a leafy plant that tastes something like a richer coriander (head to page 26 to learn more about these amazing Amazonian botanicals).
All of these local ingredients go into the still, where another happy aspect of Bolivian topography gives the La República Amazónica in the January Gin of the Month box its incredible flavour: the altitude.
At 3,640 meters above sea level, Daniel and Joan’s distillery in La Paz is the definition of high altitude. So, when all the amazing Amazonian botanicals go into the still, they distil in a very different way than the same botanicals would were they flown to Europe or the USA.
At high altitudes, the boiling point of all liquids, including the water and alcohol used in the distillation process, is lower. This allows distillers to achieve results similar to stewing or slow-cooking, enhancing the botanical flavours by extending the distillation process.
As Daniel explains, “We get really good results, intense flavours – they die down less with this high-altitude distillation. And it’s free – we just have to live here!”
By combining native Amazonian botanicals with a distillation technique only possible in the heights of the Andes Mountains, Danial and Joan have crafted a gin that not only captures the beauty and diversity of Bolivia, but would be completely impossible to make anywhere else. La República Amazónica is truly the spirit of the Amazon, and every sip will transport you there.
“We want everyone who tries our gin to feel the Amazon,” Daniel say. “To taste these raw ingredients, the flavours, the humidity of being in the jungle.”
In achieving this, Daniel and Joan have accomplished one more thing, completely by accident: transforming how Bolivia thinks about and drinks gin.
Before La República hit the shelves, gin was far from a focus in Bolivia. Local spirits were well-crafted, and a gastronomic revolution had taken over the restaurant world, but drinking gin meant reaching for a white-label bottle or imported brand.
“Drinking gin in Bolivia was very strange,” says Marcelo Soliz, who works alongside Daniel and Joan. “People just didn’t know about gin. La República has done such an amazing job that the entire category has grown in Bolivia. It changed the way gin is enjoyed in Bolivia.”
When Joan and Daniel first released their gin, people told them that they were crazy to make a craft gin in Bolivia. But not only has La República survived, it’s thrived. And now, after sparking a gin revolution in Bolivia, they’re thrilled to bring their Amazon-inspired gin to the home of Mother’s Ruin.
“We’re a small brand,” says Daniel. “We might be the biggest gin brand in Bolivia, but being a big ant isn’t necessarily being big in the world. To be considered good enough to be a gin that can compete with other gins in the birthplace of gin is an honour.”
As our members discover this month’s gin, they’ll also be discovering the scents, flavours and atmosphere of beautiful Bolivia – and trust us when we say that it’s an amazing journey.
Marclo says, “We think that Bolivia has a lot to show to the world, and one of the best windows to showcase everything that Bolivia has is through our distillates. They encapsulate a lot of what we are – our scent, our essence, our spirit as a country.”
Salud, gin-lovers, let the adventure begin!