This World-Class, Philippine-Made, Premium Craft Gin Hopes to Impress Gin-Loving Filipinos
In 2018, gin posted the largest volume gain among all the alcoholic drinks categories, at 8.3 percent. You have our millions of gin drinkers to thank for that. According to a study by IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, the Philippines maintains its lead as the world’s largest gin market, responsible for 43 percent of total gin consumption in the world, or a whopping 22 million cases annually. This thirst for the clear, fragrant, and notoriously potent liquor is expected to grow another 8 percent, boosted by, as the global alcohol market research posits, a "booming cocktail scene and premiumisation," and not our kwatro-kanto inuman.
Ginebra San Miguel still holds the lion's share of the Philippines' best loved liquor, with 97 percent of total consumption. But with premium imported labels and small-batch producers flooding the market, clearly, there is more to our gin fix than pomelo-laced hangovers and the rabid fan following of the country's most popular basketball team.
Recent news of alleged methanol poisoning, however, may have hurt our local craft gin distillers—despite the global traction some have earned in the past year. But Calamba City-based Full Circle Craft Distillers Co. maintains its heady optimism, as it underscores responsible and sustainable production methods, quality ingredients, and a globally respected product line, all of which have rightfully earned its premium gin a place among the world’s top bars.
Barely a year after its August 2018 debut, the almost unheard-of craft distillery bagged back-to-back honors at the 2019 World Gin Awards as the Best Contemporary Style Gin for its 28 botanicals-infused flagship spirit, ARC (Archipelago) Botanical Gin, and the Best Matured Gin for its oak-aged ARC Barrel Reserve Gin.
Its husband-and-wife founders Matthew and Laurie Westfall aren’t ready to bask in their good spirits just yet. Esquire Philippines talks to both (over copious amounts of G&T) about making their world-renowned spirits by hand, managing the triple threat of imported premium spirits, cheap local ones, and strict government regulation, and upending the country’s obsession with gin.
ESQUIRE PHILIPPINES: The Philippines gin industry has been recently rocked by issues of methanol poisoning, which is allegedly attributed to craft gin consumption. How does Full Circle ensure the consumers of the safety and quality of your small-batch spirits?
LORRIE WESTFALL: Do you know that hashtag, "Trust the process"? This is exactly where it applies. It’s an eight-hour distillation. But guess what? It is only Matthew who distills. Only him! He goes there from the very beginning and he will not leave it. He is very intense and hands-on that I cannot even pull him out for lunch.
MATTHEW WESTFALL: To ensure the highest quality and consistency of our spirits, we focus on two important elements: the quality of our extra neutral alcohol base and the distilling process. To craft our spirits, we import our premium base alcohol from Europe’s leading premium beverage alcohol supplier, Cristalco in France. This ensures that the key raw input for our artisanal spirits is of the highest quality, exceeding EU standards for beverage alcohol, while offering the smoothest and cleanest taste, aroma, and mouthfeel.
Our distilling process at Full Circle utilizes a state-of-the-art German copper pot still from Carl GmbH, which features controllable plates and a best-practice programmable logic controller. With our Carl system, managed by a knowledgeable and trained team, we achieve a perfectly consistent and clean final product, each and every time, with zero methanol or other undesirable congeners.
LW: Matthew is kind of a stickler for compliance, making sure that everything is done properly. We even had to pave the way for regulators, because they’re not too familiar with craft distilling. They’re used to the huge factories of things.
A lot of times, when people say, “It’s made in the Philippines,” they think they’re inferior. So, our idea really is to come up with something world-class. The main reason why we’re doing this is really to elevate our drinking habits. You don’t have to consume a lot, but you have to consume quality.
ESQ: Despite the Filipinos being the largest gin consumers in the world, we all know that the market is dominated by cheap, mass-produced gin. How does Full Circle intend to change this rather limited engagement?
LW: We were recently in London where we met different people who are big gin enthusiasts, and they were the ones who, in fact, told us that Filipinos consume the world’s most gin. That really surprised us. We didn’t even start because of that. But what was really hard for us to accept is when they told us, “When we went to your country and we tried to buy gin, all we could find is this thing with the screw cap on.” I’m not saying that to throw shade. We are not really going against anyone. We’re just trying to make a great product. You compete with yourself, make the best that you can, and, if people love it, then they love it.
MW: The Philippines is heading into a long-overdue renaissance of sorts, and tastes and habits are rapidly changing, just as elsewhere in the world. The emergence of a Filipino food and beverage movement that embraces local is a key driver to this.
LW: But, sometimes I feel we are better known outside, so I’d always want to take care of our Philippine market. Matthew has a different take on this. He feels that sometimes we need a bit more foreign validation to be able to earn the trust of the Filipino market.
ESQ: Yet, with more and more premium gins reaching our shelves, how do you make your local gin stand out among other global gin selections?
LW: The German distillers we met once told us, “We get half of our botanicals from your part of the world. Why don’t you make your own?” So, we did, and we really wanted it to be representative of the Philippines, that when you drink it, it’s tropical and reminds you of our country. We tried to make everything local. If we couldn’t source it locally, we made sure we sourced the best. So, the recipe that we formulated took us too long. We went to different chefs and gin aficionados here in the Philippines to help us through it, even enduring their harsh criticisms.
MW: From the beginning, the idea was to use ARC Botanical Gin as a way to promote and highlight the beauty of the Philippines, and its wondrous array of botanicals, from citrus to mango to exotic flowers. Each native botanical sourced from a different province in the Philippines has a story to tell.
ESQ: In terms of flavor profile, what sort of flavors should one expect from a bottle of ARC Botanical Gin?
LW: We stick with our recipe, which is very citrus-forward. We have calamansi, dayap, dalandan, and suha. But we also add floral notes to it, like sampaguita and ylang-ylang. We have a bit of tanglad. Wait, he’d say I’m giving away all our secrets. But we made it in the way that it has its own character; it has its own flavor. Some people want to drink it neat or simply with soda water, because it’s good enough on its own. You just have to highlight a specific flavor in it, and that’s the best you can do. You don’t need to put in all these different mixers. It is, in itself, a cocktail.
ESQ: Among your lineup of spirits, it is ARC Oak Barrel Reserve that gets plenty of global attention. How did you come up with the idea of ageing your gin in oak barrels, and what do you intend to offer the market with this bold move?
MW: Barrelling and extracting flavors from oak, both from new and previously used barrels, are some of the most interesting and fun aspects of artisanal spirits production, as they allow us to create complex, delicious spirits that are full of delicious aromas and flavors. For our ARC Barrel Reserve Gin, we worked closely with Seguin Moreau in Napa, considered as one of the top cooperages in the world, to settle on new American oak with a medium long toast, Burgundy style—which we all agreed would be gentle enough to respect the heavy Philippine citrus in our gin, yet robust enough to impart a rich medley of oak notes to make a great sipping spirit.
LW: I drink whisky, I drink scotch, and I always find that dark spirit is for colder climates, consumed by the fireplace. So, when we were coming up with the ARC Barrel Reserve, I said, this is the perfect match of a dark spirit for a tropical country. It still has that clean gin finish after that oaky flavor.
ESQ: It is quite ironic how your products are considered as the world’s best, while being largely unheard of in the Philippine market. How do you plan to change this narrative?
LW: Matthew once said before we toot our own horn, let’s see how we fare. That’s why we went for some of the awards. That’s been our journey. We hope that the products would speak for themselves. But it’s not something that comes easy, even for us. We don’t have a big craft movement here. Most people don’t know what craft is. So we really need to personally talk to people, explain to them our products, and the process that comes into making them.
MW: We aim to share all this, first-hand, when our distillery doors open for public tours and tastings, industry events, and private events in a few months’ time. Here, we will put our best-practice craft distilling processes proudly on display.
ESQ: By putting plenty of emphasis on local ingredients and perfecting the process, how do you see Full Circle positively influencing the country's craft distillery industry?
MW: One key goal we have at Full Circle is to uplift and support the local craft spirits industry, which is just getting on its feet and playing catch-up with the more established craft movements around the globe. We aim to do this through education, sharing of best practices, and supporting those who share our same passion for the craft, and who, like us, are committed to putting forward the very best the Philippines has to offer.
LW: We’ve seen it happen in other countries, wherein the distilleries grow together, not as competitors. They get to work with each other and help each other out. It’s a very cooperative industry. It’s not a small market that we have. In fact, we have plenty of room. If we can elevate people’s drinking with different flavor profiles, why not? There is enough space for other craft producers. I say there’s a gin for every occasion. Gin has so much character, especially the contemporary ones. It shouldn’t mean you should only stick to only one.