We really struggled to begin with, recalls Andrew.
We were up against at least four rival liquor companies locally, some of which had more than a hundred years of heritage. Our operations were tiny by comparison. For maybe two or three years, we lost money. At one point, I was even asking myself whether it was worth keeping going.
Rather than abandon distilling, Andrew and his team decided to change course. While the market for gin was fiercely competitive, whisky represented a niche where they would not be pitted against big Filipino competitors. The company thus launched its first whisky, which met with rather more success than its gins had. But what should be its next move? Andrew knew very well that his compatriots had a taste for brandy, but that it was all imported. Perhaps the time had come for a local variety.
The birth of Emperador
Although the Cognac region of France is brandy’s spiritual home, it was to the Spanish city of Jerez that Andrew traveled for inspiration. After all, this was where they made the delicious Fundador, with which he’d marked his graduation a decade or so earlier. The young entrepreneur delighted in visiting Jerez’s bodegas, the historic facilities that produce not just brandy but also the sherry for which the city is most famous. He watched and listened intently as the master distillers explained their age-old craft.
Not only did Andrew need to understand the brandy making process, he also needed a name for his future product. During a visit to Seville, he turned to a Spanish friend for advice, mentioning his admiration for Fundador.
He thought about it overnight and suggested Conquistador, which means ‘conqueror’ in Spanish, says Andrew.
Given that the Philippines had been conquered by Spain a few centuries earlier, I gently replied that this might not go down too well back home. He went away and returned with the name Emperador, meaning ‘emperor.’ I really liked it and so that’s what we settled on.
It took several years to bring Emperador to fruition. In 1990, though, Filipinos took their initial sips of their nation’s first locally produced brandy. And they quickly developed a liking for it. So much did the spirit shape the fortunes of Andrew’s company that he subsequently decided to rename the whole organization – then called Consolidated Distillers of the Far East – as Emperador Inc. Just over two decades later, the eponymous liquor was selling more than 400 million bottles a year across Asia. However, the imperial thirst for expansion was not nearly quenched.
Emperador’s Asian growth – driven partly by the rapid rise of the region’s middle class – contrasted with the experience of many European distillers at the time. While dark spirits such as brandy were still in demand, increasing sales were hard to come by. Andrew, however, saw opportunity. In 2013, he went to Spain to acquire the San Bruno bodega and vineyards in Jerez. Two years later, he returned to complete the purchase of a further selection of household name sherries and brandies, including Fundador.
That acquisition was a real milestone for a Filipino company, says Andrew’s son Kevin.
Fundador had inspired us from the very beginning. Not only had Emperador gone on to outsell that brand, here we were actually buying Fundador ourselves, along with its incredible heritage that went back over a century before ours. I think that deal really helped to put the Philippines on the map as a global investor.
Raising the Filipino flag: Acquisition & diversification
Besides brandy, aspirational Asian consumers were showing an increasing appetite for whisky. They had long enjoyed the locally produced varieties, such as that which Andrew had started out distilling many years before. But with their fast increasing disposable incomes, they were turning to more expensive imported varieties, especially from Scotland, the birthplace of whisky. When the historic Whyte & Mackay brand came up for sale in 2014, Emperador Inc. stepped forward.