White Castle Whisky closes chapter on an old formula 2
From left: Lyka Ugarte, Ria Atayde, Sassa Gurl. Photos courtesy of White Castle

The White Castle Whisky Girl is no more. Now anyone can ride the horse

“There’s tradition,” says Aaron Limpe-Aw. “But if it doesn’t work anymore, [you have to change].”
GIAN LAO | Jan 26 2023

It had become a ritual. Towards the end of the year, liquor brands will call a press conference to announce their calendar girls—the lucky ladies who will live rent-free, holding bottles of gin and rum and whisky on the walls of thousands of sari-sari stores. And watching intently will be the lucky male audience, who will gaze at their sensual poses each time they need to check whether next Saturday is the 17th or the 18th.

In 2021, Tanduay named Ivana Alawi their calendar girl, and Ginebra introduced newcomer Christelle Abello. But White Castle Whiskey—surprising everyone—announced that their calendar girl was the hilarious potbellied Youtube chef Ninong Ry, lying on the sand in shirt and pants. “Breaking the norm, mga brodie,” Ry captioned.

Chef Ry
Chef Ry made history as the first human male to pose for the White Castle calendar.

This was the beginning of White Castle’s rebrand. For the 2022 calendar, the distillery held a contest—open to everyone—to select the next White Castle calendar model, from which TikTok comedian Sassa Gurl, a transwoman, emerged victorious. “Kaming bakla ang malakas magpainom,” she argued. “...tas kayong mga babae ang mag cacalendar girl? Ulol…” And this year, they chose actress Ria Atayde, who posted her calendar on Instagram, declaring intent to inspire women to embrace their bodies.

White Castle defined this genre of advertising when they started recruiting yearly muses in the 1970s. It was a brand that always seemed guided by the most toxic and typical male tendencies, which is why the rebrand is surprising. Aaron Limpe-Aw, now Executive Vice-President of Destileria Limtuaco, explains that they simply had to try something else.

TikTok superstar Sassa Gurl’s 2022 calendar
TikTok superstar Sassa Gurl’s 2022 calendar was a social media sensation. “Since we did Sassa Gurl in 2022, we’ve been getting a whole lot of drinkers from the LGBTQ groups,” says Aaron Limpe-Aw.

“Gagawa kami ng calendar. It was always the same format. And the results are always the same—wala masyado,” Aaron says. “And whenever we would get media—it’s just announcing the calendar girl. They don’t even talk about the brand. It became too generic. Nag-change din kasi nung pandemic the way we view White Castle. We just really wanted to take ourselves less seriously—we wanted to be fun, comfortable, and to give people content that made them happy.”

“There’s tradition,” he adds. “But if it doesn’t work anymore, [you have to change].”

Evangeline Pascual
The girl on a horse appears for the first time in the person of beauty queen Evangeline Pascual.

Tradition was formed in a 1970s wet dream. Julius Limpe—the fourth-generation owner of Destileria Limtuaco—dreamt of a bikini-clad woman riding a white horse. Upon waking, he began sketching the White Castle Girl, who would go by many names. In 1974, she was beauty queen Evangeline Pascual in a bikini, on a white horse, with a white castle in the background. In 1982, she was silver screen nymphet Lorna Tolentino in a bikini, on a white horse, with a white castle in the background. In 1992, she was actress Cristina Gonzales in a bikini, speaking to a table of drinking men, caressing her white horse’s mane and claiming she and the White Castle Whiskey have something alike—"Iba Kumarinyo.”

Lorna Tolentino
Off the horse for the first time. LT held the bottle for the 1982 calendar.

For years, this imagery cemented White Castle in the imaginations of the nation’s whiskey drinkers. That white horse and its ever-changing but always-sexy passenger galloped from the fantasy of one man into the real world, before going forth into the fantasies of other men. For Destileria Limtuaco, the soundtrack to this fantasy was millions of whiskey bottles moved onto trucks. Sex sells, they said. And for White Castle, sex was selling.

Cristina Gonzales
Cristina Gonzales was a cariñosa in a red bikini in 1992.

Until it wasn’t. Outside the Kingdom of the White Castle, things were changing—market tastes and behavior evolved, and local and foreign competitors became tastier, mass produced, and cheaper. Schools of thought reformed themselves (“Sex sells, but only if you’re selling sex,” writes one advertising professor). And of course, Liquor is one of those industries where abuse can often lead customers to “retire”—for the sake of their livers and mental wellness. Thus, the pressure on marketing to a) Develop New Drinkers and b) Try Not to Kill Them (by making sure they drink responsibly) is immense—yet another argument for campaigns that don’t target our most base and reckless impulses. 

A painting for the 1969 calendar.
A painting for the 1969 calendar.

For these and other reasons, The Girl On The White Horse became less prominent. White Castle needed a change as their growth in sales had slowed to “just around two percent annually” as they released perfunctory sexy calendars. This was the lay of the land, as I imagine it, when Aaron joined his grandfather’s company in 2011. But over the past three years, he and his brother Brandon have performed a sort of plastic surgery on their advertising operations. Instead of discarding the White Castle Girl altogether, they’ve used it as a tool to fix itself. They took the cartilage from the ear to craft the whiskey’s new nose.

He was nervous, at first. He tells me: “Pilipinas kasi ‘to, hindi naman New York,” referring to the conservative leanings of the market. But so far, the results have been remarkable. This past year, under the shine of their Sassa Gurl campaign, sales of White Castle Whiskey increased by 35%. Aaron is quick to point out that part of this might be a base effect, given that 2021 was a pandemic year, “but there was still a 22% increase compared to 2019 sales, which were pre-pandemic.”

“I think kapag alak—people still have that pre-conceived notion na dapat sexy na babae [ang endorser], kasi nga, tingin nila lalake lang naman ang umiinom,” Aaron says. “But it’s just not true. Women drink. LGBTQIA+ people drink. Sa Filipino households, babae nga ang bumibili ng alak, e.”

Tetchie Agbayani
The calendar often featured the sexy girl of the hour—in this instance, Tetchie Agbayani who, some two years later, will pose for the German edition of Playboy magazine.

As one might expect on social media, White Castle’s new angle has won them a fair share of engagement. This means attention, interest, and—yes—“bashers.” Apart from the garden variety homophobia, transphobia, and fatphobia that now litters their comment pages, there is the occasional accusation that the brand is going “woke.” But Aaron sees it a different way.

“As much as I appreciate the White Castle Girl,” Aaron says. “I’ll be the first to admit that we’re also part of the problem. People are appreciating the inclusivity, which also reveals how exclusive [the old campaign] was in the first place.”

“So I wouldn’t even call it woke. We’re not trying to impose morality. We’re just trying to include people,” he says. “And we’re getting engagement from people who weren’t really engaging with our other calendars. Siyempre pag ‘sexy’, mostly lalake nagko-comment. Now we’re seeing more women and LGBTQ commenters. Everybody needs liquor naman kasi.”

Carmi Martin
Carmi Martin: This Dolphy’s Angel was one of the most memorable White Castle girls.

The evolution of the Philippine calendar model is interesting. People will say there is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating the female form, and they would be right. Sure, we’ve been depicting nudity since antiquity. But the challenge is that—in the 20th century—such celebrations of feminine beauty have happened almost exclusively in the service of men.

For White Castle, there was no one else in the picture (or in the ads) apart from the men, the maiden, and the horse. And really, it was mostly the men. White Castle was “trusted by millions of men.” It was, and still is, “Calibre 69” (imagine tweaking your whiskey’s formula so its alcohol per volume would be exactly 69–the sex number!). Napoleon, the distillery’s brandy line, was also responsible for the unforgivable and much-maligned “Nakatikim ka na ba ng kinse anyos?” ad. No thanks to ads like that, it took decades for us to outgrow the impulse to objectify every woman we encounter—even if they’re wearing a high school uniform.

Roxanne Guinoo
Roxanne Guinoo posing for White Castle 69–“imagine tweaking your whiskey’s formula so its alcohol per volume would be exactly 69!”

These strategies, thankfully, no longer work. Perhaps part of the reason is that sexy women on TikTok and Instagram each day are posting their own content—sexy and otherwise. One might ask—how is this different from the Calendar Girl formula? Well, for one, they now cut out the middlemen. Many women make it to the audience’s explore page on their own. And if they sexualize themselves, it’s because they felt like it. And on top of being objects of desire, we see women doing comedy, interacting with their partners, parents, and pets, reviewing appliances, cosmetics, and what have you. As much as social media dehumanizes, it has still provided a fuller view of women beyond what can be printed on a calendar.

Credit the massive cultural shift, online moral education, or even just the natural transition of a kinder generation into adulthood—but audiences, including male ones, seem to be relearning how to celebrate women fully—yes, for having appealing bodies, but also for feeling comfortable in them; yes, for being young and beautiful, but also for expressing themselves fully.

In 2022, Aaron says their DMs were filled with inquiries on how to buy the Sassa Gurl calendar—but the funny thing about these calendars is they’re not for sale. They’re given to distributors and vendors. But last year, they had to relent—they gave away posters for every two-bottle purchase of White Castle.

“Alam mo, since we did Sassa Gurl in 2022, we’ve been getting a whole lot of drinkers from the LGBTQ groups,” he adds. “We wanted to speak to younger people—and to women and LGBTQ people. We realized that one way was the calendar, because whenever we released one, the media would always write about the person on it, and sometimes, not even the whiskey. It was a platform—and we wanted to use it to raise issues like inclusion and body positivity. ‘Yung mga nagbabash, they’re kinda old na, so I’m not really concerned.”

Which is not to say that the brand ignores all criticism. We had quite a long chat about some valid points of improvement—which Aaron volunteered. Yes, he said, it is unfair that their only trans model was part of a comedic campaign. But he thinks the key is to promote more campaigns with trans models, instead of waiting for that one perfect ad. And yes, Ria Atayde is not even a plus-size model, yet somehow she was treated by one on social media. As a business owner, he isn’t in a position to keep chiming in on these issues, but he’s happy to start the conversation with a campaign.

Ria Atayde
Ria Atayde is the latest celebrity to grace the White Castle calendar. The message: to keep things light, and inspire women to embrace their bodies.

The morality of marketing is a conversation that leads to so many places. Should representation always be paired with some capitalist motive? Why is tobacco banned from advertising and forced to place disgusting stickers on their packaging, while liquor releases calendars with sexy stars every year? It’s difficult to answer all these questions in one fell swoop, but it never hurts to think about them.

White Castle’s turnaround might just be a tiny glass detail in a grand mosaic, but what should appeal to viewers is the process of an institution transforming because it simply decided to. Disteleria Limtuaco was established in 1852 by Lim Tua Co and started selling primarily sioktong. In 1974, when the first of the White Castle Girls was named, the company was 122 years old. Now, as they pave a new path for the brand, the distillery will be turning 171. If one zooms out far enough, they might realize the White Castle Girl was not necessarily tradition, but a thing of the moment. And now it is time to take another pulse, and see what might get them through the next 171 years.

Family businesses are tricky. They are, at once, a means of income and a public face. A generation inherits both influence and accountability, and decides how to move forward. It is tempting to romanticize family businesses. We remember the thousand year old mochi shop in Kyoto whose rice flour cakes still taste the same. Destileria Limtuaco itself established a museum that is the safehaven of its corporate story. But survival isn’t always so easy—and sticking to a traditional formula doesn’t always work, especially when that formula has been exposed as sexist and exclusionary. And the job of the heir is to sense when it is time to move on.

Once, their grandfather dreamt of a bikini-clad woman on a white horse—which made possible a rich, comfortable life for their family; which earned them respect and influence; which allowed his children and grandchildren to dream of even better things. At the same time, The Woman On The White Horse helped calcify gender roles that took ages to abolish: that men drink, that women strip their clothes and walk onto calendars to sell men their drinks, and that LGBTQ people don’t exist. The heirs, with a full view of this, must now ready their business for its third century. Turning their particular dream into reality is no longer as simple as casting a woman who can ride a white horse. It’s a difficult job, but we can at least say they’re looking at what’s been done before, and trying to do better.

 Photos courtesy of White Castle