Olivia Limpre-Aw, chief executive officer of Destileria Limtuaco & Company Inc., the oldest distillery in the Philippines.
Food & Drink Features

Why not everyone can produce good—and safe-to-drink—gin, according to this longtime Pinoy distiller

The controversy over Cosmic Carabao, the locally produced gin that was seized from its distributors after reports of “methanol intoxication” circulated on social media, puts a spotlight on the gin-making industry and the role of the local FDA. 
Bam V. Abellon | Aug 10 2019

There are good reasons why gin is the favorite poison of many a classic character of fiction, James Bond and Jay Gatsby among them. Remember Casino Royale, when Agent 007 ordered the Vesper martini? “Three measures of Gordon's [gin]; one of vodka; half a measure of Kina Lillet,” he told the bar tender in the middle of playing that memorable poker game. “Shake it over ice, and add a thin slice of lemon peel.”

The mixture of juniper berries and other extracts in the gin is, like the fictional characters themselves, complex, classy, and smooth. Gin can amplify the flavor of a beverage or give it a subtle twist. It is precisely this complexity that makes producing the product laborious—and expensive.

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Recently, there was an unfortunate incident surrounding a local gin product called Cosmic Carabao. According to an ABS-CBNreport, on July 9, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered the seizure of the Cosmic Carabao Gin products, which were said to contain “high levels of methanol.” The supposed victims, who allegedly consumed the drink, exhibited signs of methanol intoxication, which includes vomiting, headache, and impaired vision. The report also mentioned that one of the victims “reportedly died.”

In deference to other local alcoholic products, ANCX decided to decipher the workings of making a good and—most importantly—safe gin. We spoke to Olivia Limpe-Aw, the chief executive officer of Destileria Limtuaco & Company Inc., the oldest distillery in the Philippines. From her, we find out why selling a gin product is not for everyone.

 

Acronyms ahead

Gin is basically made by distilling the simple alcohol ethanol of an agricultural origin (mostly from sugars and starches) to high proof. Alcohol proof is the term used to measure ethanol or alcohol content.

During the distillation process, the composition must be mixed with juniper berries, which are not actually berries, but cones that have berry-like appearance. The distiller can then add other botanicals to the mix, to complete their own recipe. According to Limpe-Aw, some definitions state that the predominant flavor must be juniper, but the “actual regulation” is that there “must be juniper, regardless of quantity.”

A bottle of Cosmic Carabao. The local gin brand was recently seized from the market. Photograph from ABS-CBN News

However, the amount of juniper in a gin is just a portion of a distiller’s long list of concerns. The rest of the portions contain a labyrinthine process that can only be done with patience and careful planning.

First, the manufacturing facility must obtain a license to operate (LTO) from the FDA. Once they have submitted their application, someone from the FDA will conduct a surprise audit, which will determine if the facility is fit to operate. LTOs need to be renewed every three to five years.

 

But the random audits don’t end there.

FDA also issues the good manufacturing practices (GMP) compliance certificates, which are tested through these surprise audits. GMPs are renewed every one to three years.

The next step is to apply for a certificate of product registration (CPR). Fortunately, this can be applied through the FDA’s online portal. However, the evaluation process could turn out to be the bane of some distillers. Limpe-Aw reveals that some products take as long as three years before they are issued a CPR, which is necessary before a brand can be marketed and sold.

The documents that are needed to apply for a CPR comprise another long story. These documents include product analysis and gas chromatography (a laboratory technique that analyzes components of samples), among many, many others. FDA also requires manufacturers to produce an actual label design and a final product presentation.

“The product is only tested after acquiring a CPR through Post Marketing Surveillance (PMS),” explains Limpe-Aw, “wherein the FDA tests a newly certified product obtained from their market.”

The acronyms themselves are undoubtedly dizzying, but these are all necessary steps in ensuring that people don’t take shortcuts in creating such an intricate product.  

 

Inside the Facilities

Once those certificates are issued, another kind of work begins: sourcing of materials. The Destileria Limtuaco CEO says it is imperative that the manufacturers get raw materials from a legitimate and reputable source. She reiterates, “The main raw material in gin is extra neutral alcohol [ENA], and this should already not have any methanol to begin with.”

The equipment inside the facilities also calls for significant investment and research. Destileria Limtuaco & Company Inc., which has been in the business for more than 160 years, uses a German copper gin pot still, a distillation apparatus that can be heated. Copper, among others, is good at conducting heat and is resistant to corrosion. Aesthetically, it is quite pleasing to the eye and gives the facility a vintage feel.  

“We produce our gin concentrate from our own recipe,” Limpe-Aw tells us. The other distilleries that buy their gin concentrate instead of making it themselves can do away with the gin pot still.

Then there are the stainless steel blending tanks, filtration and bottling equipment, and the quality control equipment for testing and evaluation. Unlike Destileria, some companies choose to hire third-party laboratories to test samples. “This will be more costly,” says Limpe-Aw. “And it is a reason why oftentimes there isn’t enough testing of all batches produced [especially for craft distillers] because they produce so often. Each batch would be, even marginally, different.” Because of the size of her company, Limpe-Aw gets to produce in big batches to lessen inconsistencies.

Fortunately, the FDA requires tests to be submitted only for the initial application, and not for every production.

“We always go through the proper channels, comply with regulations and obtain the necessary requirements and licenses before production,” Limpe-Aw reiterates. “It's the only way it should be done.”

 

That Other Gin

In a July 2 report by ABS-CBN, Dr. Eric Domingo, FDA officer-in-charge, revealed that Juan Brew, Inc. (JBI), the liquor company behind Cosmic Carabao gin “is licensed to manufacture and distribute liquor.” However, Cosmic Carabao “has no certificate of product registration.” He added, according to the report, that the gin product also has to undergo “safety tests before it can be sold legally.”  

On July 3, Juan Brew Inc. posted a statement on their Facebook page @juanbrewonline regarding the alleged methanol intoxication incident. The statement said, in part [written as is], “Juan Brew Inc is verifying the reports and information that has come to our attention. We would like to emphasize that our company is dedicated to the highest standard in processing of our products and puts the health of our consumers above all.”

Twelve days after the first statement, on July 15, the company released another statement on their Facebook page, saying it was aware of the “unverified reports that have been circulating on social media.” It assured its followers the company has been cooperating with the FDA, and were also conducting its own investigation by “engaging the services of FDA credited third-party testing laboratories to conduct independent tests on the said product.”

Juan Brew, Inc. also confirmed that its company has been registered with the FDA since 2016. Its LTO, the statement continued, is valid until 2023. The statement said [written as is], “Since 2016, the Company was granted ten (10) individual Certificates of Product Registration (CPRs) for several varieties of beverages and not a single complaint was brought to our attention since then.”

The Juan Brew statement also said that it has recalled Cosmic Carabao from the market and had stopped distributing the product.  

We asked Limpe-Aw on her thoughts regarding what happened. If the processes she mentioned above were necessary, what could Juan Brew have done wrong? And what is the role of methanol in gin production?

“Methanol has no role in gins,” she replies. “But by definition, it does allow for some to be present, at a maximum of 5 parts per million.” No reports or statements have been made revealing the exact amount of methanol found in the purported victims of methanol poisoning allegedly caused by Cosmic Carabao gin.

She says that distillation of botanicals generally would not yield significant amounts of methanol. “The more likely explanation is of negligence,” she assumes.  “And use of a raw material that has already contained methanol to begin with. Since good quality, food-grade ethyl alcohol is not readily available in retail stores, they probably used either industrial grade alcohol, or neutral spirit, or denatured alcohol, also called methylated spirit or denatured rectified spirit”—which is ethanol with added elements or chemicals that make them poisonous, smelly, nauseating, and bad-smelling. This type of process—alcohol being denatured—is done in countries that heavily tax alcoholic beverages. Denatured alcohol is exempted from beverage taxes since it is unsafe for recreational consumption.

“Another form of industrial-grade alcohol is what we call ‘heads and tails,’ which are the beginning and end cuts of the distillation process,” she adds. The “cuts” are like the different stages in distillation. “These cuts contain many undesirable congeners and methanol is one of them. ‘Heads and tails’ are normally used in the commercial vinegar manufacturing industry.”

As of press time, Juan Brew’s last post was their official statement, made on July 15. 

The number of requirements, the taxing process, and the investment demanded from distillers are proof that gin production should only be for the diligent. Any less and the product could endanger lives. If you are not certain the only gin on the menu has gone through the obligatory measures, then maybe just have a vodka—shaken, stirred and preferably something that’s seen you through many a cocktail hour.