Matthew Westfall – Full Circle Distillers
Here’s a pub quiz top tip for you: if you ever find yourself coming face to face with the question of with is the biggest gin drinking country in the world, go against your home grown instincts and say The Philippines. The game is strong there, very strong, yet locally made craft gins are pretty hard to come by. Luckily for the country’s drinkers, Matthew Westfall of Full Circle Distillers wasn’t having any of that…
Hi Matthew, let’s start with some context for everyone – Gin is a big spirit in the Philippines. Very big! Given that numerically the Philippines consumes more that the entirety of what the UK makes in a year (domestic and export) – there’s no issue of a glass ceiling for local drinkers.
Yes, it’s a startling statistic: The Philippines consumes 46% of global gin production, or 22 million cases per annum. But within this $3 billion global gin market, the Philippines constitutes just 3%, which means we’re drinking some pretty cheap stuff. A lot of it is compounded and flavoured, not a juniper berry in sight, which we joking call it “gin bulag,” with Filipino word for “blind.”
Our establishment of the first authentic craft distillery in the country is a response to that. With 110 million people and one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, we’ve found the thirst for premium spirits in the Philippines is exploding.
That’s a staggering amount of bottles. How long did it take for you to start up and how long was the journey from idea to first batch?
The first business plan was drafted, believe it or not, in 1998—my exit strategy from a corporate suit, informed by my German grandfather, who arrived in Manila in 1918 and worked at San Miguel’s Royal Soft Drink Plant. He wasn’t working with alcohol but soft drinks, and is credited with invented Royal Tru-Orange in 1922, which is still on the market today.
A posting in Germany in 2010 allowed us to visit a number of small-scale distillers and copper still manufacturers. Starting in 2014, working with Dr. Klaus Hagmann, one of Europe’s leading distillers, we spent 4 years perfecting our gin recipe, which involved over 60 distillations. We commissioned our 450-liter CARL still in July 2018, and have been running to catch up ever since.
What was the most memorable high point when you started distilling and conversely, did you ever have moments where frustration just took over?
We started recipe development on a 25-liter pilot copper still, and I recall with clarity that one ‘aha!’ moment when the gin distillate was coming off the still with such incredible flavours and aroma that really said “the Philippines. ” I then knew we were on to something.
The frustrations, obstacles and wrong turns are too many to recount, but somehow, between our passion for craft and a focus on perfection, we managed to prevail. Being the first authentic craft distillery in the country has been the greatest challenge (and opportunity)—we operate with no industry support, no local supplier, and spend a whole lot of time educating the many government agencies that oversee us.
Not for the feint hearted to say the least. Let’s discuss drinking in the Archipelago… 22 locally sourced botanicals are in your gin. Was that “native” twist always part of the plan or something that developed in time?
I’m an urban planner who has spent 35 years working across Asia tackling issues of poverty and development. And one of my biggest laments has been that the Philippines, the country often gets a bad rap in international media.
So the idea from the beginning was to use our gin as a way to 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. So in a sense, our gin tells the story of the Philippines, and with a sip, you are enjoying a taste of the archipelago.
Some of them sound wildly different to us Brits such as calamansi (a citrus hybrid) and sampaguita (jasmine) – it must have been hard work to balance them all – did it take a lot of trial and error?
We worked through numerous permutations, and had regular tastings with friends, family and trusted palates in the industry. In return, we would get a raft of feedback, asking us to dial one flavour up, another down, or just make it taste “more like the Philippines,” which was always a bit of a headscratcher.
Tough crowd but they were right – make it uniquely you and can’t go wrong. What were you working on to do all of the R&D?
We were working on the 25-litre pilot still at the time, and honed down the recipe to where we thought it needed to be, with the last ingredient being fresh mango, which tied it all together. We expected an incremental enhancement in flavor once we scaled up to the 450-liter CARL still, but in fact the improvement was dramatic.
No-one can taste 22 things but they each play a part. However, what are some of the local botanicals that are more evident to taste?
Our flagship ARC Botanical Gin draws on lots of fresh citrus: Davao pomelo, Sagada oranges, Baguio lemons, dalandan and calamansi, and nothing goes to waste—the peels go into the vapor basket and the pulp goes into the pot. We also use fresh Benguet pine buds, handpicked in Sagada, Mountain Province in northern Luzon, which adds a nice piney bit, and organic lemongrass, which is grown on a family farm in the province of Rizal. Lastly, we use fresh mangoes from our family farm in Dasol, Pangasinan, which by every report are the most delicious mangoes on the planet (pardon our bias).
We love the nitty gritty here at Gin Foundry, so here’s a triple header for you… You look as if you are using both the pot and the vapour chamber to distil your gin – Is that the case, how big is a batch and how often are you distilling now?
We work with a 450-litre copper pot, custom vapour chamber, and control our distillation over 7-plates during an 8-hour distillation, where we come off the still at 20 liters per hour art an incredibly clean 93.5% abv. Each run is 125 litres, and a batch is two runs, which gets us to about 600 bottles, each hand numbered.
We also invested in automation, so our CARL still is guided by a programmable logic controller, with sensors across the still that manage temperature, flow rates and abv. This ensure we get a world-class, consistent product each and every time, with very little variation.
Fantastic. We’ve seen a few barrels in images too – is that for the gin or another spirit in future?
Yes, our ARC Barrel Reserve Gin is aged in those 225-liter new American oak barrels with a medium long toast (Burgundy style), which we source from Seguin Moreau Cooperage in Napa Valley, California. It’s our flagship ARC Botanical Gin, same spirit, that we lay down for about three months, until we get a nice balance between oak and juniper, with notes of vanilla, caramel and toasted marshmallow.
Also unfiltered like our flagship gin, our aged gin has exceeded our expectations, winning awards at the World Gin Awards in London, the World Spirits Awards in Austria and the recent ADI Judging of Craft Spirits in the US.
Congratulations. What’s coming next? That mini 25L still must be handy for experiments so no-doubt you’re busy. On the other hand, a website can’t be far behind now either….
Our new website will be up very soon, while the public areas of our craft distillery in Calamba, Laguna are now under construction. We’ll be open for tours and tastings by July, the first distillery in the Philippines to do so. We’ll be hosting industry events, gin masterclasses, and private events, with the distillery serving a destination for spirits enthusiasts.
We have lots of things cooking too: a Distiller’s Series of limited release gins, an agricole-style rum crafted from fresh heirloom sugarcane, and a line of exotic fruit eaux de vie. Stay tuned!
It all sounds incredible and we can’t wait to catch up at Junipalooza!
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