The oldest distillery in the country started with a Chinese herbal wine. Now, it’s producing world-class liquor made with what the Philippines has to offer.
Many of the new breed of Filipino industry players have shifted from the mind-set of importation to one of exportation. A fundamental premise of “what can I offer the world that is uniquely Filipino?” has risen from the archaic concept of bringing the rest of the world to the shores of the archipelago. And after five generations of master blenders and distillers of liquors, Destileria Limtuaco is doing exactly that with Olivia Limpe-Aw at its helm.
Considered the oldest distillery in the Philippines, Destileria Limtuaco traces its roots back to Lim Tua Co (who later anglicized his name to Bonifacio Limtuaco), a Chinese merchant and Mandarin martial artist. An immigrant from Amoy, China, Limtuaco brought with him a secret formula for medicinal wine that took the name of siok hoc tong. Limtuaco set up shop in the country’s thriving Chinese community, Binondo, where he mass produced his formula as Vino de Chino. The blend of macerated Chinese herbs and sugar was marketed as a potion for vitality and stamina which became popular among Filipino men and women. Its fame found its way into the local vernacular and is now commonly referred to as sioktong, which also references locally made herbal wine.
Vino de Chino’s reputation trickled unto the next generations of the Limtuaco clan where Bonifacio’s nephew Lim Chay Seng was named successor after the former’s firstborn son met his demise early on. It was during this time that Lim Chay Seng made a move towards developing more Western spirits, which was in demand during the American Occupation. Thus, gin and rum became early mainstays in the distillery’s roster of spirits.
As the American Occupation persisted, the distillery was taken over by Lim Chay Seng’s US-educated son, James Lim, who added an extra syllable to his name because it had been fashionable at that time within the Filipino-Chinese community. Later known as James V. Limpe, the successor of the Limtuaco legacy continued efforts on importing Western spirits and marketing them locally.
Destileria Limtuaco found its breakthrough with a larger demographic through the iconic White Castle whisky, whose commercials of bikini-clad starlets on a white horse permeated the dreams of most adolescent Filipino boys. And surprisingly enough, this entire concept was based on a dream of the next successor, Julius T. Limpe. During his reign as head of Destileria Limtuaco in the ’80s, Julius Limpe focused his efforts on creating and marketing the distillery’s own brand, producing a line of locally produced liquors. This was the beginning of the paradigm shift that moved Destileria Limtuaco’s focus from bringing in imported materials to sourcing local materials in the rich agricultural sector of the Philippines. “We were using imported raw materials which we would distill and blend here. Now, we source the raw materials ourselves with local resources,” says Aaron Limpe-Aw, business development manager of Destileria Limtuaco and son of current head, Olivia Limpe-Aw. Using molasses from locally sourced sugar cane, Very Old Captain rum was made. Using mango from the islands, Paradise Mango Rum was created.
When Olivia Limpe-Aw took the reins, she wanted to create something uniquely Filipino. “The mind-set changed to what can the Philippines offer the world that is uniquely Filipino, no longer what the world can offer the Philippines,” expresses Aaron Limpe-Aw. And as the stronghold of colonial mentality that once pervaded the consciousness of the Filipino people slowly faded like a distant memory, more companies like Destileria Limtuaco turned inward in sourcing and production. “There was an emerging market for premium local which didn’t exist before because of colonial mentality,” says Aaron, “We went straight to the Department of Agriculture, who bought directly from farmers and at a market price, cutting out the middle man.” These efforts proved to be successful as their breakthrough premium local liquor, Manille Liqueur De Calamansi, was developed, and this then spawned a dalandan counterpart and many more diverse local craft liquors afterwards under their brand. One such is Julius James whisky, created with local ingredients, particularly yellow corn from Isabela, the first of its kind. But there is a growing market for such craft liquors, according to Aaron. “Craft distilleries are creating quality products and selling it expensively because people are now more open to buying a premium.”
While Destileria Limtuaco may be the oldest distillery in the country, it does not necessarily fall into the vat of profit maximization that many of the bigwigs in the same industry are accounted for, but caters instead to niche markets – whether it’s a midrange whisky blend or a craft liqueur. “We focus more on our own premise. Our direction now is to take the best of the Philippines and bring it to the rest of the world,” says Aaron. And along the lines of Destileria Limtuaco’s rich history with its stories of prevalence through the war and industrial turmoil encased in bahay na bato-turned-family museum, is a fervor for innovation and a real love for what is truly Filipino and what it means to return to one’s roots.
You may visit Destileria Limtuaco Museum in Intramuros from Tuesdays through Sunday, it’s open from 9am to 6pm. You may like them Facebook @DLCIMuseum.