It's Patagonian Negroni Season
There are certain cocktails that are so symbolic of their homelands that a quick sip can send your mind wandering across borders. A margarita might transport you to a colorful taqueria in Mexico City, a caipirinha to Rio's bustling Copacabana Beach and a negroni to some sidewalk café in Florence. Make a slight twist on a classic, however, and you can end up with drinks like the Patagonian Negroni, which'll have your taste buds roaming to another continent entirely.
This earthier riff on the Italian aperitif works by replacing gin with Träkál, a category-defying spirit from northern Patagonia that's made with seven native herbs and three local berries - all of which are sourced from within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the distillery in Osorno, Chile.
Once found only in select US markets like Denver, where it debuted in 2017, this South American novelty has recently snuck onto cocktail menus (and liquor shelves) in 21 states from New York to California. Its unique name is a combination of the words trä ("courage") and kál ("to act"), both from a regional dialect of Mapudungun, the language of the indigenous Mapuche of southern Chile.
The base alcohol for Träkál comes from local apple and pear varietals, making it akin to an eau de vie. Yet, the flavor profile is worlds apart. Thanks to all the wild botanicals it's much more herbaceous and floral, like drinking up the aromas of some loamy Austral forest.
"We say it's like gin and whiskey had a baby in Patagonia," explains founder and master distiller Sebastian Gomez, noting that Träkál "plays like a gin but sips like a whiskey."
Born in Argentina, but raised in the UK, Gomez worked at the multinational alcohol company Diageo before parting ways to create his own spirit in southern Chile. "I figured the only constant in the history of booze is the pot still, so let's just put one in Patagonia and see what comes out," he recalls, saying it was important for him to "move the distillery to the ingredients and not the ingredients to the distillery."
If piney juniper is the defining characteristic of gin, then the citrusy evergreen tepa is that of Träkál. It's also got two laurels, two mints, canelo (winter's bark) and paramela (a fragrant medicinal herb) - all of which are blended into essential oils and vapor-infused on the third distillation, giving the spirit a distinct Patagonian perfume.
Like gin, Träkál is well suited for a Negroni because it has complementary herbs that can stand up to the hundred-plus varietals found in Campari and vermouth, the classic Italian cocktail's other two components.
Though the Patagonian Negroni has popped up on menus across America, it traces its origins to one of the most renowned cocktail bars in Santiago, Siete Negronis, where low vermillion lights bathe barflies in a signature Negroni hue. It was bartender-owner Matias Supan who first mixed up the drink four years ago to put a distinct Chilean stamp on the beloved Italian bitter.
"The Patagonian Negroni contains not only all of the DNA of a Negroni, but also the aromas of southern Chile," Supan says. To sip it, he adds, is to take a journey to the temperate rainforests, crackling glaciers and foggy fjords at the end of the Americas.
While the classic Negroni recipe calls for equal parts gin, Campari and vermouth, Supan makes a slight alteration with Träkál, adding a bit less of it than the others. That's because when compared to a London dry gin, the Chilean spirit has a rounder profile with a hint of sweetness due to its base of fruits (gin is typically made from wheat or barley).
"Träkál has a much stronger flavor than a classic gin," the award-winning bartender explains. "So, you have to be careful because it will try and overpower the flavors of the botanicals from the Campari and vermouth."
It's also important to pair the aromatic spirit with a sweet vermouth of equal worth. "If you put in a low-cost vermouth it's a bit like buying a luxury car and then getting cheap paint for it; all the products have to complement each other and be made with the same quality ingredients," Supan says, recommending Martini & Rossi Rubino instead of the standard Martini & Rossi Rosso.
The Negroni may be considered a before-dinner drink in Italy, but on the far side of the Atlantic, many think of it as more of a midnight sipper. That's why Supan serves the Patagonian Negroni two ways, including the classic lowball cocktail and an afternoon-friendly highball that's lower in alcohol thanks to the addition of club soda.
"Träkál makes an already complex drink that much more complex, so the club soda really helps all those botanicals pop," he says, adding that you can play around with the amount to bring out different flavors.