There’s the Siok Hoc Tong / Sioktong (now Vino de Chino) tonic wine infused with Chinese herbs, promoted as an elixir for vigor and stamina. Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers gulping down White Castle Whisky during drinking sessions would reminisce the different ladies who endorsed the brand every year, wearing the signature red bikini. Napoleon VSOP, on the other hand, became a magnet of controversy due to its “Kinse Anyos” (fifteen years) billboards deemed inappropriate by some.
Destileria Limtuaco‘s history spans more than 160 years, with five generations of master blenders at the company’s helm. It has seen more than 30 governors general, 16 Philippine presidents, three occupations by other countries, and two world wars since its establishment in 1852. Over its history, the company has produced a number of wines and spirits for the Philippine market and beyond. Today, the general public can appreciate the company’s legacy of libations—through the Destileria Limtuaco Museum.
Located along San Juan de Letran Street in the historic walled enclave of Intramuros, the museum is a few blocks away from the eponymous college nearby. It neatly blends in with the rest of Intramuros’ colonial buildings save for its unpainted façade. Fourth-generation owner Julius Limpe acquired the bahay na bato in 1979, with the intention of turning it into a private museum. It was opened to the public in February 2018 through the efforts of Olivia Limpe-Aw (Julius’ daughter and fifth-generation owner) and business development manager Aaron Aw (Olivia’s son.)
I visited the Destileria Limtuaco Museum on a sunny Sunday, mainly because of the wine tasting package that comes with the tour. A side gate served as an entry to the museum, while the guard on duty acted as the ticket seller. I purchased a ticket for P100, which is the regular entrance rate, and availed of the wine tasting session for an extra P100. Students and senior citizens are charged P50 for the tour upon presentation of a valid ID. However, only visitors 18 years old and above can avail of the wine tasting. I waited for the museum guide after payment, and the tour promptly started upon his arrival.
The museum’s first display is a miniature setup of the liquor making process. Of course, it starts with the extraction of raw sugarcane juice. A giant machine powered by a water buffalo (carabao) extracts the juice from the cane. A large tree trunk is attached at the top of the machine to serve as a ballast. The extracted juice is then collected and boiled until it turns to syrupy molasses, fermented with yeast, and distilled to obtain the alcohol. Certain spirits like the sioktong or tonic wine are infused with Chinese medicinal herbs to impart the latter’s healing properties into the final product.
There is also a mini setup of a pot still, showing how the distillation process works. After the liquor is obtained from the molasses mash, it is then stored (aged) in oak barrels to let the excess alcohol evaporate and infuse subtle notes in the final product. Bottles of esters and essential oils for other flavors and scents were neatly lined up in a corner. Whisky is almost made in the same manner—but Destileria Limtuaco uses Isabela corn for the mash. This mash undergoes processing, fermentation, and aging in oak barrels to become whiskies such as White Castle Whisky and the signature Julius James Whisky.
Portraits of the first four company patriarchs—Don Bonifacio Limtuaco, Lim Chay Seng, James Limpe, and Julius Limpe—adorn one side of the wall near a staircase. This arrangement is symbolic, as if the master blenders are still keeping a close eye on the process from distillation up to the final sale. It is this close attention to quality and detail that has allowed Destileria Limtuaco to flourish in its more than 160 years of existence. Interestingly, the museum’s souvenir shop is up this flight of stairs.
The guide then leads me to another section dealing with the founders’ personal lives. Framed newspaper clippings about the company adorn the walls of the stairway, en route to that particular section on the building’s upper floor. Information about Don Bonifacio is rather sparse, with only a hand-painted portrait and a family tree in both Mandarin and English comprising his spot. Chay Seng’s section is more substantial with some black and white pictures dating from the pre-war period.
James Limpe’s section is filled with memorabilia from his tertiary education in America and travels around the world: shot glasses from Europe, passports stamped to the edge, pocket knives, and more. His wife Teh Siu Yong also has a section featuring passports and ID cards, even an ivory comb with one of the teeth broken. Her wardrobe and handbag are also on display. Apparently, Madame Teh favors colorful cheongsams. The section for Julius Limpe, on the other hand, will appeal to those who love whimsical knick-knacks. According to the museum guide, he used to collect telephones with unique designs – some of which are on display. Blessed with a talent for the brush, Julius would only dabble in art full-time upon his retirement as Destileria Limtuaco’s chairman.
The museum tour caps off with Olivia Limpe-Aw’s section, which showcases Destileria Limtuaco’s awards for its craft spirits. Limpe-Aw stepped up to the plate as company chair in the early 2000s to steer Destileria Limtuaco in a new direction. A full shelf showcased all the liquors Destileria Limtuaco has ever made from its inception up until now. Small brochures elaborated on the history of these products and the labels they used for these over the decades. A dedicated glass display exhibited Destileria Limtuaco’s current products in the market; these are also available for sale at the museum’s souvenir section.
I’ll stop here for the first part of my Destileria Limtuaco Museum feature. The second part will feature Destileria Limtuaco’s liquors I tried out, and some merchandise. Let me share a few more facts to close off:
The logo for Very Old Captain Rum, a stylized V-O-C, is reminiscent of the Dutch East India Company‘s insignia (with a few modifications.) The Dutch East India Company, or Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, was a trading company that facilitated the exchange of goods between the Netherlands and its distant colonies.
Ginebra, the generic name for dry gin, comes from the Italian word for the juniper berry—the spirit’s main ingredient. While rival Ginebra San Miguel, Inc. (formerly La Tondeña) is known for this spirit, Destileria Limtuaco also sold dry gin under the Kelly, Empire, and Britannia London brands.
Destileria Limtuaco also has created cooking wines named after chef Reggie Aspiras and former First Lady Imelda Marcos.
Julius Limpe saw the “girl on a horse with a bikini” concept for White Castle Whisky‘s advertisements in a dream, and proceeded to sketch it down. This would eventually be the pattern for the liquor brand’s campaigns.
Ladies who have worn the iconic red bikini for White Castle Whisky advertisements are called “Princesses,” not “White Castle Girls.”
Sylvia de Leon (nee Lichauco) was the very first White Castle Whisky Princess. Today, she is an advocate for heritage districts and Philippine ballet.
Destileria Limtuaco Museum is located at 482 San Juan de Letran Street, Intramuros, Manila 1002. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. Entrance fee is P100 for adults and P50 for students and senior citizens. An additional wine tasting session can be availed for P100, but this is only open for patrons 18 years old and above.
Visit the Destileria Limtuaco Museum page on Facebook, or call Ann Roque at 0917-652-8935 for more information.
Until the next post, salud!