When Olivia Limpe-Aw reaches for a liquor shot first thing in the morning, it means she is working.
“If I’m developing something, I like to try it in the morning when my taste buds are fresh,” said the first female chair and chief executive officer (CEO) of Destileria Limtuaco and Co., Inc.
Limpe-Aw drinks at work, and with good reason. She is very involved in the creative process of distilled spirits and alcoholic beverages produced by the country’s oldest distillery.
“Drinking is work,” she stressed, and this is especially true when she is at the point of “finalizing” a product.
For several years now, Limpe-Aw, the destileria’s fifth-generation captain, has been gathering buzz over her efforts to highlight indigenous Filipino agricultural products in the liqueurs produced by the 162-year-old company.
Paradise Mango Rum Liqueur, released in 2002, is now considered as the “official drink of Boracay and Palawan.” It has also won numerous international and local excellence awards.
Amadeo Liqueur, released 10 years later, is the company’s take on the coffee-based Kahlua, and was named after the Cavite town known as the country’s coffee capital.
Last January, the company launched Manille Liqueur de Calamansi that foreigners consider at par with southern Italy’s limoncello.
Paradise and Amadeo are rum-based while Manille is vodka-based. Each has its unique conception story. Limpe-Aw noted that the common denominator is the destileria’s attempt to level up a Philippine-sourced drink and put it on the global map.
“We put the drink on a pedestal and share it with the world,” she said. “We make really good drinks that you can relish. That’s our message.”
Limpe-Aw added that the times call for “craft spirits,” given the trend in the US and Europe for artisanal products made with natural ingredients. So far, Destileria Limtuaco has gotten “very good feedback” about its new and small-batch distilled lines, Limpe-Aw said.
Paradise mango rum, for example, enjoys brisk sales from tourists and the expat community.
“Philippine mangoes have a distinct and very delicate flavor that is best enjoyed fresh,” she said. “The flavor is [a blend of] sweet with a hint of sourness… The only way to capture it is to use the real fruit.”
Limpe-Aw said there were difficulties in developing a mango liqueur. Predecessors available in the market were made with mango flavor but not the fruit. The company had to start from scratch.
“When you pioneer a new product, there are more challenges in the beginning [until the point of] establishing and building the brand,” she said.
An open mind is also important.
Destileria Limtuaco, from the time of Limpe-Aw’s great great granduncle Don Bonifacio Limtuaco, had produced brands considered “macho” and clearly marketed for the heterosexual male, including White Castle Whisky, Old Captain Rum, Napoleon VSOP Brandy and Ginebra Kelly.
Limpe-Aw, who took over in the mid-1990s, thinks her gender became an advantage at one point since her domestic role as nurturer exposed her to the kitchen and its countless mixing possibilities.
It would be hard to imagine Limpe-Aw’s father Julius, or her grandfather James, or another grandfather, Lim Chay Seng, who took over from uncle Limtuaco, to think of something like Paradise mango rum liqueur. (Julius Limpe’s brainchild Maria Clara Sangria would probably be the closest.)
Limpe-Aw did not plan to succeed her father Julius, known to the destileria’s insiders as the resident master blender during his prime.
But the fifth of seven daughters was just as exposed to the business as the rest of her sisters. Limpe-Aw was taking Economics at University of the Philippines Diliman in preparation for a law degree when the family engaged in serious thought about who would succeed Julius Limpe.
Limpe-Aw said her elder sisters already “underwent training but… decided to take other paths” while the sixth is an artist.
“I’m number five na. I thought, ‘If I don’t take the responsibility, what would happen to the family business?’” she noted. “Just because my father had no sons, I couldn’t bear the thought that we could not continue the family business,” the CEO said.
Limpe-Aw came on board at an interesting moment. It was 1989, the country was reeling from a coup attempt, and Destileria Limtuaco was beset by labor unrest.
Apparently, the challenges only encouraged her to forge onward. “I accepted it and I embraced it. I think you really have to decide what you want,” Limpe-Aw said.
The fact that she is having fun means the captain made the right decision. “If you don’t have fun, you cannot create,” she noted.
Limpe-Aw’s vision extended beyond Philippine shores. “I really needed to export to survive. It was already during my time when we studied the export market,” she said.
Limpe-Aw’s first lesson on export was that the company could not force the market to like what it has to offer. Meaning, Destileria Limtuaco had to do some reinvention, despite the popularity of its mass market brands in the local scene.
“We cannot possibly sell everything to everybody. There are cultural preferences, attitudes and behaviors to consider. While some markets may be similar to ours, preferences and tastes can change. And there are markets that are totally different,” Limpe-Aw said.
Good thing the Luzon-sourced mango that goes into Paradise mango rum has a built-in fan base—tourists who want to bring home the memory of its taste. “Foreigners wanting to bring home our fresh mango consider Paradise the next best thing,” she said.
Duty Free Philippines has a branch in Kalibo, Aklan, that needs a constant supply of Paradise mango rum liqueur. One time however, Limpe-Aw met the French Shanghai-based regional manager of a luxury brand at a cocktail party. The man was ecstatic when he learned that Limpe-Aw’s company produces Paradise mango rum liqueur. He said he takes several bottles home whenever he comes to Manila because it was the only thing that his wife, a nondrinker, could drink.
Limpe-Aw is proud of the feedback about Paradise. “Foreigners who taste our mangoes cannot stop eating. [Paradise] is not easy to make, it takes a lot of work but when you get such feedback, it’s so encouraging, you want to do more because you are doing justice to our Philippine fruits, you are uplifting it,” she said.
Destileria Limtuaco produces a thin booklet where recipes using Paradise mango liqueur are listed. Amid the usual cocktail formulas are recipes for canonigo, chicken barbecue, cold soba noodles and garlic shrimp spaghetti using mango rum.
The spaghetti recipe is popular even with children, Limpe-Aw said. Not to worry since the rum’s alcohol content evaporates during the cooking process, leaving the mango taste in the pasta.
Bohol Rep. Arthur Yap was still agriculture secretary when he encountered Paradise mango liqueur. He asked Limpe-Aw in a meeting whether she could do the same for other local agricultural products and turn them into drinks.
Limpe-Aw took note of the coffee craze taking Manila by storm. “Since I love coffee, why don’t I try it?” she said.
A coffee-connoisseur consultant was thrilled after tasting Limpe-Aw’s experiment.
A group of Korean buyers tasted the same and wanted to put an order on the spot.
After more rave reviews, Limpe-Aw decided to drive to Amadeo, Cavite, and inform the local government and local coffee growers of her plan to develop a coffee liqueur.
Her second “baby” was named after the town where the coffee beans come from. Amadeo contains the local barako that Limpe-Aw classified as excelsa and liberica beans. The brand also has robusta beans and the Arabica that the traders in Amadeo purchase from other regions and sell in Cavite.
“It’s a coffee lover’s dream liqueur. It’s all-natural and does not have added flavor or color,” she noted.
Manille was conceptualized shortly after. Limpe-Aw was studying how to export Paradise and Amadeo to the US when she came across Ambassador Mario de Leon, the country’s consul general in New York.
“We were discussing projects aimed at promoting Philippine products. The ambassador noted that American chefs love calamansi and would buy a lot to bring home. Then he asked me to consider the calamansi,” Limpe-Aw recalled.
Back in Manila two weeks later, Limpe-Aw was in a meeting with chef and restaurateur Stephanie Zubiri who asked whether the CEO could produce a limoncello she could serve to guests in ice-cold shots after meals.
Two people telling her one thing must mean something, Limpe-Aw thought.
She went to the destileria’s research and development team and explained what she wanted.
To produce Manille, Limpe-Aw had to find calamansi rinds. It took a casual meeting with Agriculture Undersecretary Berna Romulo-Puyat on June 12, 2013, a date that Limpe-Aw considered auspicious, when the businesswoman mentioned her new project and the dilemma of not knowing where to source the rinds.
Romulo-Puyat wasted no time and linked her with Agriculture Assistant Secretary Dax Gasmin, who was in charge of a development project for Mindoro’s calamansi.
The agriculture department helped Limpe-Aw touch base with calamansi farmers and a Mangyan indigenous farmers group from Mindoro, the calamansi capital of the Philippines.
Limpe-Aw saw Zubiri again, this time with the prototype. “This is exactly what I’m looking for. It’s perfect,” the chef was heard saying.
Destileria Limtuaco’s dedication to local ingredients does not stop with their use in its products.
Limpe-Aw made sure her products’ logos are laden with Pinoy iconography.
Paradise’s label, for example, carries a ribbon reminiscent of the national flag, images of the anahaw, a tropical seascape and a vinta.
Limpe-Aw said a British label designer “known in the scotch whisky industry” came up with the design.
“Those were the images that stuck in his mind. He put all this together. His impression was colorful and festive,” she said.
The other brands’ packaging design and logos were drawn by the destileria’s own creative team.
Amadeo’s label features coffee beans, a jute bag, local coffee flowers and cherries, the flag-like ribbon with the company logo and the waling-waling orchid. Instead of the anahaw, Amadeo features an abaniko (fan).
Manille, on the other hand, has a vintage French country look.
The bottle is rectangular and has a monochromatic green logo that features calamansi fruits and flowers.
At the back is a floral pattern taken from barong embroidery. The barcode is cheekily shaped like a bottle.
“I wanted a fashion element in the Manille story that is also distinctly Filipino,” Limpe-Aw said. “A local product doesn’t have to look local. Since you’re paying the same price for packaging, why not make an effort to make it look nice?”
She added: “We put the geographical indicators to say where our products come from. It’s part of being nationalistic.”
Limpe-Aw also said that Destileria Limtuaco could always settle for packaging that doesn’t differ from those of mom-and-pop operations.
She argued however, that making a product that tastes good and looks good makes for a good drinking experience. “We also eat and drink with our eyes. It’s true because we go to a restaurant and we are willing to pay for ambience,” she explained.
A fourth product, Very Old Captain Dark Rum, is a reinvention of Old Captain Rum, which has had its share of excellence awards.
Limpe-Aw went into a rather technical discussion on how a small batch-distillation process can produce a richer flavor profile in a dark rum that is further enhanced by the aging process in oak barrels.
Bottom-line is, there was pride in her voice as she declared how Very Old Captain would soon join the three other brands in global distribution.
Among the four brands, Very Old Captain’s naval-theme label has the most personality.
Icons in the label include the butanding (whale shark), the pawikan (tortoise), the monkey-eating eagle, a galleon and a compass.
Apart from the pocket-size (“sailor-size”) variant, it also comes in a special one-liter hermetic bottle that could be recycled as a water or olive oil container.
Export is an area that Limpe-Aw would rather tread very carefully. Even her global distributors caution her against going fast.
Rule No. 1 is that before one can export, the product should have already developed a client base in its home country.
“When we export, buyers would always want to know what is unique about a product, why they should buy it,” she explained. “Even in the conceptualization, we must think Filipino but at the same time consider that a product must be something foreign markets would understand.”
So far, the company’s list of destinations for 30 brands include Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Singapore and the US.
“We are proud of all these products and we want the world to know we can make quality products that pass international standards,” she added.
Destileria Limtuaco’s plant in Quezon City is I.S.O. 9001:2008 certified. The distinction gives the company a duty to “continuously improve the quality system.”
Limpe-Aw’s father Julius, however, has a similar but much simpler rule. “Dad said every generation must contribute something,” she said. “What is relevant to the consumer, we keep. Those out of date, we remove or update.”
Limpe-Aw’s eldest son Clifford is into sales and is the new century’s “resident mixologist,” while second son Aaron is in charge of marketing.
Limpe-Aw’s three sons, who will most likely compose the sixth generation of Limtuaco executives, have already developed El Hombre Margarita mix and El Hombre Tequila-Flavored Coffee Liqueur, “which is our take on Patron XO,” she said.
Limpe-Aw said the boys have no problem taking over the business. “This is so exciting for them. Difficult but fun and challenging,” she noted.