A distiller talks about drinking for work.

Interview  JOHANNA POBLETE  |  Photography  KAI HUANG

Is it possible for a drink to transport you to its place of origin? Olivia Limpe-Aw, fifth-generation distiller and the first female executive at the helm of 164-year-old Destileria Limtuaco & Co., Inc., says yes. Limpe-Aw created her first craft drink, the Paradise Mango Rum, in 2002, and unabashedly marketed it as “the best of the Philippines in a bottle.” Since then, she has used natural ingredients—such as local coffee from Amadeo, Cavite, and garlic, onions, and salt from Ilocos—to add to their roster of drinks, and is fast becoming as prolific as her father Julius Limpe, who trained her in the science and art of distilling alcohol. What keeps Ms. Limpe-Aw tirelessly working is a desire to please the palate, and to demonstrate the distinctive tastes that the Philippines has to offer.

Why is Manille Liqueur de Calamansi your favorite thing of the moment?

Although we started in craft spirits in 2002, when it was not in fashion, it was not really until Manille that it became a big thing. It really opened the doors for Destileria Limtuaco to introduce more Filipino-inspired drinks using tropical flavors, fruits, and produce endemic to the Philippines. So it’s kind of special to me because we were able to introduce more exciting drinks, and to make Filipino spirits known to not just the Philippines, but also to other countries.

You wanted to export and were asked ‘What do you have that’s truly Filipino?’ Did you want Filipinos out there to remember their roots?

Well, definitely. I’m from UP the University of the Philippines, and all UP students are nationalistic. It’s part of your DNA. You really want to promote the Philippines. And yes, we want to bring a piece of home to our kababayans abroad, right? More than that, we want mainstream markets to appreciate what is Filipino… That’s something that they don’t have. So it may be ordinary for Filipinos here, because we do have all these calamansi and dalandan [from which the second variant, Manille Liqueur de Dalandan, is made], but when you bring it elsewhere, it is exotic, it is sought after, because it’s different—so it brings pride, you know?

You don’t like waste; you’ve created all-natural beauty products from the byproducts.

That’s why Manille is my favorite, because we’re able to do that. After we extract the essential oils from the skin to make into Manille, basically the whole fruit is our byproduct, so you don’t want to waste that. So the skin, the juice, and the seeds, we make it into this calamansi mud… These are the things that I like to do—it’s like play, but actually it’s business.

How does a master blender develop taste?

It takes years and years. I was really born into this business. You have early exposure, and you develop the taste, you develop your sense of smell, and you’re able to detect minute differences—whereas when you’re not exposed to it, you can’t really detect [these subtle differences], especially in the Philippines, we’re used to intense flavors, so delicate flavors aren’t really in our palate.

What was it like for you, growing up, and working with your dad?

We were encouraged to taste. [My dad and I] would do it in the laboratory together, and we would taste it together. I became a workaholic, because he was a workaholic.

When he was training me, I would tag along with him everywhere. And he was really more of a nocturnal animal; he was awake until late at night. But I would still have to come to work early, and so I learned to develop long working hours. It was difficult, and fun at the same time.

If you didn’t find something fun and interesting, I don’t think you would last. In anything that you do, if you didn’t really like it, you would find it a chore and you would drop out.  So [it has to be] fun and difficult, interesting, challenging, everything.

If you weren’t born in this family, do you think you would have still gravitated to the business, to this industry?

I think, if I weren’t born into this family, I would be in the beauty business.  This  soap from Manille is the closest thing I would get for now.

What’s the most fun thing about creating alcohol?

I think the most fun part is when people appreciate it. After all the trials that you’ve made and you came out with the final blend that you like, the final formulation, and you launch it, and people like it, it’s the best feeling ever. It’s that sense of self-satisfaction that it is appreciated—by people you don’t know. That’s the best part, when people you don’t know come up to you and say, “Hey, I like your product. It’s great.” Whatever hard work you put in, it’s all worth it. 

How much would it take to get you drunk?

I don’t get drunk. If you get drunk, then you’re wasted, you can’t do your work. And I’m a workaholic. [Laughs]

You’ve never ended up in the bathroom or something like that?

Once—in my 20s.

Your tolerance has to be way up there.

No, no, no. I don’t have high tolerance because I really just taste. They always ask me if I drink; I just drink for work.

How do you personally drink Manille?

Because I’m not really a heavy drinker, I still like it on the rocks. Although my friends put it in the freezer, and after dinner, take it as ice-cold shots—also good.

It’s alchemy—trying to control how people experience something.

Yes, definitely. We want it to come in smooth, and have a nice finish that keeps the aroma and the flavor and the zest linger in your mouth right, and so that’s why you want to drink it again. Distilling and blending is both a science and art.