Nobody has ever heralded La Paz, Bolivia, as a great place for a night on the town. But it’s about time somebody did.
Sure, it’s a mess of a city located in South America’s poorest country (or “plurinational state”). Sure, it’s historically lacked the types of bars outsiders might deem worthy of traveling for. And yes, it’s placed haphazardly in an Andean valley, 13,000 feet above sea level at its highest point, with air so thin you can barely walk up one of its unavoidable hills without gasping, much less drink a cocktail on your first day in town without expecting the inevitable hangover.
But the city’s absurd geographic quandary is also part of its charm—and the very reason Bolivia’s de facto capital has emerged as a quixotic wonderland for sampling everything from high-altitude wines to altitude-alleviating coca liquors (yes, that coca) to beers made from the most beloved of Andean grains, quinoa.
If there was a “eureka” moment that put La Paz’s drinking scene on the map, it came in 2013 with the arrival of GUSTU, the surprise second restaurant from Danish chef Claus Meyer (whose Copenhagen outpost, Noma, has been named Best Restaurant in the World four out of the past five years). Things got even better when GUSTU converted the space above it into a separate bar and lounge, where every detail—from the wood furnishings to the Technicolor fabrics—is made in Bolivia, from Bolivian products. Having opened in July, the lounge is a welcome respite from the hectic streets, the kind of place you might go to sit back on a llama leather sofa, order a drink you can’t pronounce and mull the complexities of the city on the far side of the windowpane, the one with both the cliff-clinging shacks and futuristic cable cars that seem very much at odds with each other.
GUSTU Bar & Lounge is the world’s first (and, as yet, only) bar dedicated to singani, a spirit made from Muscat of Alexandria grapes grown in the toothy Andean plateau. “Singani is an aromatic and smooth spirit that packs a whole lot of personality,” explains GUSTU’s sommelier, American Darren Armstrong. Though it holds its own neat, at GUSTU, singani is mixed with everything from aji peppers, lemon, cilantro and salt (the La Llorona) to tamarind syrup, sugar and homemade bitters (the Rosita Camba). The bar also makes its own singani-inspired renditions of an Old-Fashioned and Mint Julep, which complement the space’s overall vibe of upmarket familiarity and Andean otherness.
The international profile of this eau-de-vie-like spirit is on the rise thanks to a rather unlikely celebrity backer, Steven Soderbergh. The American director fell in love with singani on the set of Che, muchas gracias to his Bolivian casting director. When the one-time vodka drinker realized his new go-to spirit wasn’t available in the U.S., he did what everyone else in Hollywood would do faced with such a predicament: He launched his own label, Singani 63, which has swooped into bars across America since its debut last year.
Singani 63 shares a shelf with 23 other singanis at GUSTU, and though the venue follows a “zero kilometer” philosophy of only local goods, it’s hardly the lone spirit on offer. Bar manager Alejandro Villanueva points to 1825 vodka, the happy marriage of Amazonian wheat and Andean water. There’s also the gin La República Andina, which Villanueva says incorporates eight Andean herbs and is the end result of an idea birthed in GUSTU’s basement laboratory, where chefs race against the clock identifying Bolivia’s endemic ingredients (like its 4,000-odd potatoes) to save them from cultural extinction. La República also produces an Amazonian gin inspired by Bolivia’s wetter half and a spicy aguardiente made with locoto chili peppers.
Gustu’s influence on the local drinking culture extends yet further into craft brewing, a scene that’s thriving in this most unlikely of planetary pockets. Though a number of interesting brews already exist—like coca, quinoa and amaranth beers—Armstrong is working with Corsa, a brewery based in Santa Cruz, to create even more uniquely Bolivian beers out of things like huacatay (a minty herb) or molle (a pink peppercorn). He’s also particularly excited about brewing with a variety of fruits available in the Amazon basin, like achachairu (a relative of the mangosteen). “There is a ton of potential to unlock with things like fruit beers,” he says. “We just need to play around with it and work as closely as we can with our producers and suppliers to help them give us what we need, and, in turn, introduce something new and interesting to the market.”
Gustu has 29 beers on its menu and a whopping 120 Bolivian wines—most of which come from the emerging Tarija wine region near the Argentinean border. Like many things in Bolivia, its centuries-old vineyards (home to an increasing number of Bordeaux varietals) are said to be the world’s highest.
You’ll find even more wines across town at Hallwright’s, “the world’s highest wine bar,” and craft beers at Diesel Nacional, a funky bar with a steam punk theme. While GUSTU may be the most vocal advocate for Bolivia’s lesser-known liquid larder, these two spots are yet further proof of an overlooked town finally championing its native goods.