Local Mix: ARC Botanical Gin
The fresh tang of locally-grown citrus is overlaid with the fragrance of lemongrass and a woodsy-spicy touch of cinnamon on one’s palate— an exquisite melange of flavours that winds down to a finish redolent with juniper berries and lush, ripe mangoes.
This is the mix of flavours one encounters with each sip of ARC Gin, the impressive opening salvo of Full Circle Craft Distillers Co, the Philippines’ first-ever craft distillery.
Located in Laguna, the distillery is the brainchild of Matthew Westfall—a man who could truly be said to have the beverage industry in his blood as his grandfather, Peter Westfall, was the chemist and flavours expert who developed the popular soft drink Royal Tru-Orange for San Miguel in the 1920s.
“There are three main inspirations behind [the company,]” he says. “The first involves my own experiences in the Philippines over the past 35 years, as well as a desire to give something back. The second is a family narrative about my grandfather who became a Filipino citizen in 1926. He was a distiller and chemist who extracted the flavours of tropical fruits for a line of soft drinks. The third is the rich history of the Philippines and its wondrous array of exotic botanicals which were first documented by the Spanish priest Fray Miguel Blanco in his thesis Flora de Filipinas in 1837.”
Full Circle Craft Distillers is, for Westfall, both a passion project and a family affair: aside from his grandfather’s legacy in the industry, it’s also a husband-and-wife endeavour as his wife Laurie’s international experience in management and finance has been instrumental in the company’s growth over the past decade. Today, the Westfalls’ efforts are paying off with the launch of their products into the market.
The distillery’s flagship product, Archipelago Botanical Gin, is a beautifully balanced, citrus- forward spirit that is handcrafted with 28 exotic botanicals, 22 of which have been sourced, foraged, and harvested locally. Each small batch of the gin begins with a premium extra-neutral alcohol base distilled from 100 per cent French wheat. This base is infused with various tropical fruit and herbs, including pomelos, dalandans (sweet green oranges), calamansi and dayap limes, mangoes, pine buds, sampaguita (native jasmine), ylang-ylang, and camia (white ginger) blossoms. Along with the juniper berries that give gin its characteristic kick and various spices endemic to the Philippines, these botanicals are macerated in copper stills prior to distillation. During distillation these are gently steamed using a vapour basket at the bottom of each still’s copper column. It should be noted at this point that, unlike large-scale distillers, Full Circle does not chill-filtre its spirit in order to preserve the flavours and aromas that were carefully coaxed out of each ingredient. As a result, this gin has a purity of 93.5 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV), making it full-flavoured, deliciously aromatic, with a mouthfeel that is smooth and truly luxurious.
While the botanical gin works well either on its own or mixed into a bevy of refreshing cocktails, the best way to take Full Circle’s latest creation, Archipelago Barrel Reserve Gin, is to sip it neat so as to appreciate its more robust character. Set to launch this month, it starts out with the same process as the flagship product. However, the resulting spirit goes through one more process: resting in 225-litre barrels made of American oak. One would think that doing so would impart an unpleasant harshness to the spirit, given the amount of tannins in the wood. But these barrels have undergone a toasting process that mellows these tannins and mitigates the sharp taste of the oak. As a result, the barrel-rested spirit gains complexity, having pulled in nuances of vanilla bean, caramel, toasted almond, and dark chocolate.
This way of going the extra mile to ensure product quality can be considered the ethical core of Full Circle Craft Distillers. Aside from the use of the best possible local ingredients, the company’s dedication to its craft can also be seen in the way that it takes no short cuts in its working process, its focus on quality control, and the equipment it uses for its products.
“Our copper pot still also sets us apart, a one- of-a-kind, state-of-the-art, automated 450-litre still made by CARL in Germany, whose bespoke stills are considered the Rolls Royce of distilling,” Westfall says of their distilling stills. “With this special equipment, our distilling process is a very slow, carefully-managed eight-hour distillation. Few craft distilleries enjoy this level of control and quality, which we achieve through state-of-the-art automation, a custom-designed copper whiskey helmet, and seven controllable copper plates in the column. Our steam heat is carefully controlled as well, while the pot still is equipped with an automated agitator, which together allows us to manage a slow, even distillation where we can sensitively pull out the best essential oils of our botanicals, which, in turn, gives us incredible aromas and flavours.”
ARC Gin may currently be the distillery’s stock in trade, but this is just the beginning. The Westfalls are on a roll when it comes to product development. In the near future, they will be introducing a selection of seasonal eaux de vie (fruit brandies) crafted from local produce; these were inspired by the aqua vitae produced by master distillers in Germany. An exceptional Lava Rock vodka filtered through volcanic rocks sourced from the Taal and Mayon volcanoes is also on offer, and will soon be joined by an excellent Philippine rum crafted by using old-fashioned methods and using only single-estate sugarcane. In doing so, Full Circle Craft Distillers goes beyond just making beverages: it seeks to educate the modern palate and to uphold pride in locally-grown ingredients and Filipino innovation.
“On a philosophical level, Full Circle is not simply about the production of alcohol,” Westfall says of his rising company. “Rather, we distil
our spirits and work with the rich flora from across the Philippines in order to transform their essence, their character, into a single magical moment of sensory enlightenment. In doing so, we strive to evoke memories and create experiences that awaken a genuine awareness of nature and creation.”