The reputation of Philippine liquor was once relegated to beers, local spirits, and our version of gin, whisky, and other foreign libations. But recently, there has been a surge in all things Filipino, and we now have high-end spirits to call our own. At the forefront of this movement is Destileria Limtuaco, the country’s oldest, which has started turning some of our best produce into worthy liqueurs, and refining our liquors into premium products. Today, we ask CEO Olivia Limpe-Aw and son Aaron how they’ve turned centuries-old tradition into innovation.
As the oldest destileria in Manila, how do you innovate and come up with new products that cater to today’s market? This is remarkably different from what you were founded on, and what you have become known for.
Olivia Limpe-Aw: We look at trends worldwide. This is really expanding the craft spirits. We started in 2002 with the Paradise Mango Liqueur when craft spirits weren’t in fashion yet. It was only in the last 3-4 years that we added more, because there is a clamor for it internationally, and because one of our thrusts is in export development. So we have to think of products that can cater to mainstream markets abroad. By doing that, we have to create all these products not just for them, but you know that the local market will also benefit because we have to introduce it first locally before we can export.
Aaron Aw: We’re creating a movement of uplifting Philippine products and making it cool and making it something that our A-B market will also enjoy. Because before—sadly, I think there was this perception that Filipino products did not really equate to quality products. But now, we have proven that Filipino products can be (and are!) quality products. It’s a matter of how you conceptualize the product, how you make it, how you brand it, how you package it, and how you market it.
That’s actually one of the problems we had before with Paradise. Back then in 2002, it was local, it was cheaper—everybody wanted more expensive drinks. And then, during that time, my mom actually came out with Paradise because when she’d go abroad to visit her friends, they’d always look for something that’s uniquely Filipino. All they offer there is rum, gin, vodka, brandy. There was nothing special about the spirits that we brought out. So now, we’re trying to develop more spirits and liquors that are uniquely Filipino like our coffee liqueurs made with four different kinds of Philippine coffee beans. We don’t import our ingredients.
O: Yeah, we don’t import our raw materials. It’s really something that we’re proud of because we don’t need to import, but we’re exporting. It gives us some sort of Philippine pride. You know that the products are now being sold abroad. It makes you feel good ‘di ba? And the thought that it’s not only us drinking it, but [being in the] mainstream market makes it even more satisfying and gratifying that you went through the whole process no matter how difficult, because you want to bring forth the best Philippine products. And now, we’re happy because we have a range of products to be proud of. So if you like coconuts we have Lambanog; if you like mangoes, we have Paradise; if you like coffee, we have Amadeo; if you like something like limoncello we have our citrus line which is the Manille—our calamansi and dalandan liqueurs. And then, the cacao—now these are things that um… I don’t know if there’s a demand, but people love chocolate, so when USec Berna of the Department of Agriculture said, “Oh, why don’t you work with cacao?” I said, “Okay! I’ll try.” So, it’s something that was very well-accepted during Madrid Fusión. We actually just rushed it for our presentation during the event!
Does the Department of Agriculture play a big role in developing the liquor usually?
O: Usually, the DA will come and tell us, “No, do something for us naman! We want to promote this. We want to do something about this, you know…” So we’ll work with them, we’ll collaborate with the Department of Agriculture for whatever, like new finds that they have, or new directions for promoting certain local produce.
Is that a process that you usually do? Do they give you a particular ingredient then you have to develop something?
A: Well it’s give and take. Sometimes, there’s something that we want, like for Manille, calamansi. We were the first ones to approach them, and then they helped us find a source for them even though we just needed the rinds.
O: In the beginning, it was us going to them. It was more like us asking them for assistance to source certain ingredients, or to introduce us to farming communities that can supply. But now, it’s vice versa. They also come to us and tell us, “Can you work with this?” Since we’ve developed that working relationship, and they’re happy with what we have come up with, there’s a stronger collaborative effort between the government and the private sector.
How much does your tradition play into making these innovative products?
A: It’s always been more innovation than tradition.
O: Definitely more innovation. It’s more of a Western process. We follow the Western standard, but we give it a twist by using Filipino ingredients.
A: We really want to heighten the standard using US methods and use new standards at the same time so that we can export it to them. But, let’s say something like lambanog and basi, where there’s a tradition to making it—we still stick to that.
O: We try to learn the traditional way of making it, and then we choose those [processes] we wish to keep so that we can comply with international standards. And then, we further improve the processing. We don’t stick to a hundred percent tradition. But, as much as we can, we still try to stick with the tradition so you still know that when you taste it, it’s a lambanog, it’s a basi. But, it’s much better because we introduce our standard processing that’s of an international standard…
A: …that passes quality control.
O: Yeah. That’s internationally accepted standards of making wine and spirits. So, like in basi, we still use the sugar cane juice. We press it, and then we use the local herbs and barks for flavor. You’ll have your samak leaves, and your kariskis bark that gives it that unique basi flavor. And we ferment using a more sanitary and internationally-accepted wine-making process.
Is that what sets you apart from other destilerias in the Philippines?
How about the processes?
O: Yes, definitely. Because we know how to make it the proper way, but still keeping it true to tradition.
A: Well, against the big ones, we’re more willing to go into this because we’re really pushing more for export.
O: And we support farming communities. We buy from farmers.
A: It’s at market price already. We go to the farmers, but we pay the price we’d pay a trader. Because the farmers, they go through traders. And when they go to traders, they settle with traders lower than the market price, of course, because the traders have to make money also.
O: So we don’t mind going through the difficulties of sourcing because we know that the direct beneficiaries are the farmers. It’s really tedious but worth it.
A: But of course, there are more costs involved, especially on the logistics side because we’re going straight to them, and then we have to pick them up, then bring it back.
O: The logistics is also more complicated. There are more organized farming communities, but there are also some that are not so organized. For the not so organized ones, we have to go and pick it up from them. So that’s a lot of work. And then we do some initial processing onsite. Like, when we buy our coconut sap, we ferment onsite. We bring our containers there, we ferment onsite, and then we transport it back. So our toddy is really not the quality they do, because normally the traditional way is instantaneous fermentation. So you just let it ferment naturally. And if you see it, it’s not…
A: There’s no control.
O: Yeah. There’s no control. You can have an infection and all that. But we bring clean containers. We bring our own containers, and then after we collect everything that needs to be collected, we put in our yeast.
A: So it ferments on the way back here.
O: So in the end, we get to control it. The main comment of the people who’ve tasted it— connoisseurs—say that it’s already like a tequila in quality. The complexity of the spirit is there, and there’s no flavors that are off-putting.
Would you say these products catered towards Filipino tastes, or are they meant more for palates abroad?
O: I’d say it’s a product for those who know how to drink.
Okay. That’s a good answer!
O: For connoisseurs. If you know how to drink, you will appreciate it.
Interesting. Which one has the strongest following so far in the Philippines? Which one has had really great reception?
O: The Manille, the calamansi.
Are there any difficulties that you’ve encountered when transitioning from what you were known for—White Castle, etc—to making craft spirits? Were there any difficulties in trying to introduce these to the Philippine market?
O: Yes. Actually, there were. The first product is the most difficult because you’re trying to find its identity. You know there’s no such category for it. You’re trying to break into the market. People are not familiar with it. My first one was a mango liqueur. Although we have the best mangoes in the world (and Philippine mangoes are world-renowned), they are plentiful and a familiar flavor in the Philippines, so we don’t really consider it super-special. And yet, we cannot take it for granted. But you bring it abroad, and it’s like, “Wow! Amazing!” People abroad love it. They love Philippine mangoes. It was really trying to break into that perception about local spirits—that was the difficult part. But now, you know, I’m very happy because people are really into Filipino. Even Filipino food, you know what I mean?
People are very into Filipino food. Basta I feel good that now, we’re getting due recognition for something that’s really, really unique. Actually Filipino food, Filipino drinks, they’re all unique because we are the most un-Asian in Asia. I’m happy that we’re getting our due recognition and appreciation from the market, especially from the Filipinos. I think that’s the biggest compliment—that our own Philippine people appreciate Filipino now.
So, what’s in the future for Destileria Limtuaco?
A: Well, we’re trying to get into more markets abroad. Expanding the range, getting into more states because right now we’re just in California. And so we’re trying to get into more markets there, getting deeper into the market.
O: And then there’s still other countries and we’re…we’re very thankful, actually, to the Department of Foreign Affairs and to the Department of Trade because they really, really are promoting our products. They’re really pushing us to get into the countries they’re operating in. So, I guess, it’s part of Philippine pride. It makes you want to see your Philippine products on the shelves of these foreign countries. I’m very grateful for the support we’ve been getting.
There was a lady who told us in the Madrid Fusión Trade Fair that there are very few instances where they see this actual collaboration between government and private companies, and we’re so lucky that we’re one of those that experience it firsthand because it really helps. It helps a lot, you know? And, of course, it requires cooperation also with them. It’s really, as you said, a give and take. So if you know how to give and take, you will go places.