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The Gin Distillery at the End of the World

By Emily Gillespie

10.31.19

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After trekking in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, Australian couple Kiera Shiels and Matt Oberg wanted a stiff drink. Little did they know then what extremes they would go to to find one.

Courtesy of Last Hope Distillery

After trekking in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, Australian couple Kiera Shiels and Matt Oberg wanted a stiff drink. Little did they know then what extremes they would go to to find one.

At the gateway to Chile’s remote Torres del Paine National Park, the Last Hope Distillery rewards adventurers to Patagonia with craft spirits and conviviality.

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Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park is already out there. It’s an adventure just to get to this southwestern stretch of Patagonia, although it has long lured intrepid hikers with its sheer granite mountains, massive glaciers, and milky green lakes. And after a 16-mile round-trip hike, it’s hard not to want to put your feet up and savor a stiff drink—somewhere, anywhere. However, in this far-flung region that touts itself as “the end of the world,” it would certainly be understandable to come up short in the quality cocktail department. Thankfully, countless hikers have recently found reprieve in the small city of Puerto Natales, gateway to Chilean Patagonia and home to the southernmost distillery in the world: the Last Hope Distillery.

Aside from a few boutique hotels and a handful of solid restaurants serving park visitors, Puerto Natales is hardly a destination unto itself. Still, thousands of park pilgrims amble its streets each year in search of something to satiate their fatigue-fueled appetites.

That’s the exact situation that distillery owners Kiera Shiels and Matt Oberg found themselves in back in 2015. Tired and chilled from five days of hiking the park’s famous W-trek, which delivered freezing temperatures and sideways rain, the Australian couple began hunting for a smoky whiskey or well-mixed gin drink to warm them up. After their search came up short, a thought was born: They could start their own distillery in Puerto Natales.

Last Hope Distillery proprietor Matt Oberg relies on regional ingredients for their gin’s distinct flavors: The Calafate Gin, for instance, incorporates the native, deep-purple Calafate berry.

“Could we? What if we could?” Shiels said. “Imagine how much we would learn. Could we live in Patagonia? What an adventure it would be.”

It could have ended there—a fun idea born from an exhaustion-filled moment. But the thought persisted. The pair was already in a place of transition in their lives. Both had worked as engineers for coal mines, but Shiels had recently been laid off, Oberg had quit his job, and the couple took the opportunity to buy one-way tickets to Santiago, Chile. Despite being complete novices, making alcohol sounded like the adventure of a lifetime, so they took six weeks and developed a business plan.

“A key change in our plan during that period was when we realized that we needed to be both a bar and a distillery,” Shiels said. “How was anybody going to find out about us? How would two friendless foreigners entice anyone to try our products? We needed a bar to be the face of our distillery.”

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Back in Santiago, the pair used their work visas to spend a few months working in bars and nightclubs, honing the art of making the perfect pisco sour (and other mixology tricks of the trade) and practicing their Spanish, as they wiped counters. They also spent two months traveling the United States, in cities like Seattle and Chicago and across Tennessee and Kentucky, which gave them the opportunity to research American distilleries firsthand. They visited 55 in total, taking notes about still equipment, taste-testing different stages of gin fermentation, and otherwise devouring industry knowledge along the way.

As they suspected, the logistics of setting up a bar in Patagonia ended up being their biggest hurdle, and more than one person tried to sway them from opening a distillery in such a remote spot. They entertained the idea of relocating their newfound dream and visited other towns in southern Chile, but they ultimately realized that Puerto Natales was the only match for their vision.

“While we found some beautiful towns and cities in Chile’s south, nowhere had the sleepy-town-meets-world-class-tourism magic that we loved about Puerto Natales,” Shiels said. “For us, it was worth the challenge.”

The distillery’s copper pot still is used to steep ethanol overnight with a dozen select ingredients.

A few years down the road, it has proved a challenge indeed. Getting ingredients comes with a higher cost and increased lag time. The ethanol they buy, the base alcohol for the gin (which they steep with a dozen ingredients before distilling it), comes from Santiago and, with some 1,800 miles of roadway between the two cities, arrives in about a month. Juniper berries, essential to making gin, come from California, taking about four months for delivery. And they’re currently hoping their next shipment of glass bottles from Italy will mean no more than three months of waiting.

They also funded the venture themselves with help from friends and family. By July 2016, they had bought a century-old, one-story house, converting the living room into a bar and building a warehouse in the backyard for the distillery. It was then time to start playing with gin recipes, which was the alcohol the couple decided to anchor the distillery on, thanks to its approachability. The following year, they sold their first bottle and opened their doors to customers, welcoming both locals and travelers. In between managing alcohol production and bar service, they’re working on building a house for themselves next door. At the moment, however, they sleep in the bar once it’s closed.

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“It was always fun,” Oberg said. “It looks like a pretty big undertaking if you look at the whole thing at once, but it was just a lot of small steps and there was never a ‘no’ . . . it was never impossible.”

Everything about their business and product is a nod to the area they now call home. The distillery name comes from the region’s past. Puerto Natales sits along the Last Hope Sound, which a 16th-century Spanish explorer felt was his last chance to find the western end of the Strait of Magellan (he ultimately did go on to find it, but the name stuck).

At the Last Hope Distillery, pair gin-based cocktails with a regionally inspired bar menu.

The two gins Last Hope Distillery produces each boast ingredients that are sourced from the region. Its Patagonia Dry Gin includes yerba maté, a bitter tea that is a staple of Patagonian life, and winter’s bark pepper from trees in nearby forests. The Calafate Gin prominently features the tart, deep-purple Calafate berry native to the region. A light bites bar menu includes jerky made from beef marinated with Chilean wine, hummus that features a Chilean species of hazelnut, and a Reuben sandwich filled with pastrami made of guanaco, a South American camelid common in Patagonia.

While their gin cocktails bring in a steady stream of customers, Oberg and Shiels are now looking to expand to whiskey. They’re testing recipes and have 18 American oak barrels for aging once they’ve found the right mix. One ingredient they’re excited to include is peat from the prolific bogs in the area. It’s ultimately poetic, Shiels pointed out, because peat is made from the same process as that of coal.

“It’s also endemic to this area,” Shiels said. “Our peat here is going to be different to Australian peat, which is different to Scottish peat, which is different to a North American peat. We’ll have a peat that will taste like nobody else’s.”

After two years in business, Oberg and Shiels say they’re still in it to have fun and plan to accomplish their tongue-in-cheek mission: “prevent the joyless ends to Patagonian adventures.”

“We love outdoor activities,” Shiels said,“but for us they’re even more enjoyable when celebrated with a local drink in a cozy bar.” 

Editor’s note: Despite recent protests that have turned violent in other parts of the country, Puerto Natales reportedly remains safe and accessible via flights (with transfers from Santiago or Buenos Aires) and roadways. For the most up-to-date information, follow local news reports and government travel advisories.

>> Next: This Picturesque Chilean Wine Region Pairs World-Class Reds With Luxurious Digs

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