Filipino brandy empire Emperador makes its mark in Spain and the rest of the world.
When Andrew Tan graduated from college, it was a major celebration for his family.
The son of an immigrant factory worker from China, Tan spent part of his childhood in Hong Kong, where his family shared living quarters and one bathroom with four other families.
Later, when the family moved to the Philippines, Tan worked part-time as a tutor to help put himself through school. To save on transportation fare, he walked many kilometers a day to get to school. His dream was to start his own business to make the life of his family easier and better.
When Tan graduated with a degree in business administration, magna cum laude, from the University of the East in 1974, his father splurged on a bottle of brandy. It was the first time Tan had ever tried brandy, and the moment was forever imprinted in his mind. That happy family celebration with Fundador.
In 1983, Tan visited the city of Jerez for the first time. Jerez is the center of brandy and sherry making in Spain, and he wanted to learn more about the spirits. At the Don Alfonso XIII Hotel in the nearby city of Sevilla, Tan asked a Spanish friend to come up with ideas for a name for Tan’s own brandy, inspired by the Fundador brand that had played a part in his celebration of success. After rejecting the name Conquistador because it sounded too aggressive, his friend came up with another. Emperador.
“I was very happy and responded to him happily and said that it was a very wonderful name,” Tan, now one of the Philippines’ richest men, said in a speech in Spain. “This is how Emperador brandy was conceived. It was conceived in Jerez but it was born in the Philippines.”
Thirty-three years later, Emperador has grown to be the best-selling brandy in the world. It’s distributed in countries across Asia, North America, Africa, Middle East, and Europe and aims to be in at least 50 countries by the end of the year. In the first half of this year, Emperador’s net income was P3.4 billion. The Emperador label has grown to be much larger than Fundador, the brandy brand that first inspired Tan many years ago.
Last year, Tan came full circle. Emperador Inc. acquired Bodegas Fundador, Spain’s oldest and most well-known brandy company, strengthening Emperador’s position as the largest brandy company in the world. The best part of the story? It’s proudly Philippine owned.
In a speech at the Bodegas earlier this year, Tan said, “A new era for Fundador has just begun. This company was born almost 300 years ago. I have come here to grow and revive the glory of brandy and sherry making in Jerez, and to continue the legacy of Bodegas Fundador.”
“Brandy business is my passion, my whole life has been dedicated to brandy making, and certainly today is a big moment in my life,” said Tan, whose holding company, Alliance Global, has interests in real estate, gaming, and food and beverage, including listed brandy company Emperador.
Winston Co, president of Emperador Distillers, said it was “a real opportunity for a Philippine company to acquire a global brand like Fundador. It gives us a lot of pride. For Emperador, our slogan, our theme has always been success. This is the embodiment of what we stand for. ‘Sa Totoong Tagumpay.’”
A scion of the Domecq family, Jorge Domecq, is now part of the company as managing director of Grupo Emperador Spain. His great, great-grandfather, Pedro Domecq y Loustau, started making brandy at Bodegas Fundador in the 19th century. The company itself was founded in 1730, as a producer and marketer of sherry.
“With the combined brandy production facilities of Emperador and Fundador, the world’s largest brandy company is born,” said Domecq.
The company now owns almost 1,500 hectares of vineyard land in Spain, with around one million square meters of cellar and bottling facilities, and four distilleries worldwide.
Grupo Emperador Spain’s acquisition of the business from Beam Suntory includes the brands Fundador Pedro Domecq, the Philippines’ largest-selling premium imported brandy brand; Terry Centenario, Spain’s best-selling brandy; Tres Cepas, Equatorial Guinea’s no. 1 brandy; and Harveys, the United Kingdom’s best-selling sherry.
In August, a group of us took a trip to follow Tan’s trail in Spain. We were accompanied by Domecq, managing director of Grupo Emperador Spain, and Harold Geronimo, Megaworld’s head of public relations and external affairs. Megaworld is part of the Alliance Global portfolio.
In Madrid, we visited the monument in honor of our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, on Avenida de la Islas Filipinas, a replica of the obelisk back home in Manila. Built in 1996, it marks the friendly relations that now exist between Spain and the Philippines, after the centuries of colonization many would rather forget. It was a good way to start our trip touring major Philippine-owned properties in Spain.
We also took a tour of Torre Espacio, all of 57 stories, and one of the tallest skyscrapers in Spain, which Tan purchased in his personal capacity late last year. It houses the offices of several embassies including those of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.
The next day, we took a day trip to Toledo, spending a morning driving through sprawling tracts of the Daramezas vineyard, where plump, juicy grapes used to make Emperador brandy were ripe and ready for harvest. The vineyard melds traditional methods with modern technology, using mechanized viniculture processes.
Thanks to technology, sensors are used to monitor the weather, temperature, and other factors that affect the crops. Computers are used to control irrigation and other necessary systems.
Later, outside the vineyard gates, we joyously photographed the Philippine flag hoisted side by side and waving proudly in the wind with the Spanish one.
As we later wandered the old streets of Toledo purchasing Don Quixote souvenirs of the Man from La Mancha, we concluded that Tan’s story indeed proves that with hard work, determination, and fortitude, many impossible dreams do become realities.
We celebrated this success that evening with platters of langoustines and fabulous tuna from the seaside of region, paired with bottles of sherry by Harveys, including its Very Old Amontillado VORS, named “The Best Wine in the World” at the International Wine Competition 2016. It was the first time a Spanish wine received the award. Manuel José Valcárcel, technical director and oenologist at Bodegas Fundador, accepted the award. He led a brandy tasting for us later on in our trip.
On our way to Jerez the next day, we stopped for lunch at the iconic Don Alfonso XIII, a hotel with gorgeous Moorish architecture in Sevilla, where the Emperador brand was first conceived. Over plates of smoked salmon, duck, and lots of wine, we raised our glasses in the same locale where Tan and his Spanish friend first decided on the Emperador name over three decades earlier.
We were up bright and early the next morning to see the sun rising over the glorious El Majuelo vineyard that produces grapes for Fundador. And whereas the Emperador vineyards in Toledo use modern technology, these vineyards use traditional centuries-old processes. We wandered through the rows of grapevines heavy with fruit as burly suntanned Spanish farmers in straw hats gently clipped off clusters of grape and laid them in metal vats.
We then met up with the mayor of Jerez and her team who took time off from work to meet us in a centuries-old fortress with Arab cistern baths lined with olive trees. Afterward, it was off to the modern again, as we donned white coats and went through pressurized chambers to ensure no foreign objects entered the Fundador bottling center that filled and sealed bottles of Fundador brandy ready to be shipped off to the Philippines and elsewhere in the world.
My personal highlight of our trip was the visit to the Bodegas Fundador, specifically, Bodega De La Mezquita, its brandy cellars, some of the largest in the world. The dark cellars with their high ceilings and Moorish keyhole arches evoke the grandeur of a cathedral. Rows and rows of black casks of sherry fill the warehouse, transforming slowly into brandy.
It was serendipity that led to the creation of the first Spanish brandy at Bodegas Fundador. Jorge Domecq’s great, great-grandfather Pedro had been commissioned to produce a large order of casks of sherry. When the deal fell through, Pedro stored the oak casks away in his bodega where they were forgotten. Five years later, Pedro discovered that the aged wine had been transformed into a lovely, fragrant golden liquid. Spain’s first brandy.
Today, Fundador creates a variety of brandies, the most exclusive of which is Fundador Exclusivo, distilled from Palomino grapes in the Jerez vineyard and aged for years in oak barrels in La Mezquita. It is deep amber in color and the most elegant and refined of Fundador’s brandies.
In one of the corridors of Bodega El Molino, the oldest cellar in Jerez, we came across oak barrels signed by luminaries such as King Felipe of Spain when he was still a prince, Placido Domingo, Bo Derek, Charlton Heston, and our own President Corazon Aquino. Newer casks were signed by Andrew Tan, his son, Kevin, and Winston Co.
As we turned into another corridor, we found blanks casks waiting for more signatures. Our own. What an honor.
I must admit we felt like Emperadors.