Food

How an '80s OPM Rockstar Began Making Award-Winning Filipino Whisky

On the 6th anniversary of Crows Craft Brewing, the ex-rocker/entrepreneur allows us a glimpse of the man behind the brews.
IMAGE COURTESY
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Crows Craft Brewing & Distilling Company is celebrating six years in the local beverage industry and enjoys a place among the most revered brands of its genre. Aside from the intensely hoppy and aromatic ales Crows is known for, its 23-botanical gin, the first Filipino craft gin, holds its own in a heavily saturated market both here and abroad. It was even awarded bronze at the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition (the whisky won silver). To savor all these milestones, Crows has introduced the first Filipino eau de vie (a clear spirit made from fruit) utilizing our world-renowned mangoes.

Crows owner and founder Josemari Cuervo, along with his small team, has many reasons to celebrate. In an industry plagued recently with controversy and distrust, Cuervo has built a brand that is known to deliver consistency in terms of flavor and quality. Crows' hashtag reads “Not for everyone,” which is accuratethe complexity and bitterness of his beers will not appeal to those looking for something light and approachable. But, the critical acclaim and recognition his products have been receiving can be credited to Cuervo’s almost compulsive need to create. An ability, actually, that did not always come naturally. 

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Photo by COURTESY.

“My first love has always been music,” Cuervo confesses. His early days as a frontman for a new wave band called Nine Lives (with Jaime Garchitorena, Javi Infante, Maimai Cuenco, among others) in the '80s was his distraction from his wayward high school days at Aquinas School in San Juan. It was school mate and rock icon Karl Roy (Advent Call, Kapatid, P.O.T) who told him to try out for a band that would eventually be known as Razorback.

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Together with original members Tirso Ripoll, David Aguirre, Tek Templo (replaced shortly by Louie Talan), and Miguel Ortigas, Cuervo was the hard-rocking vocalist belting out covers of rock classics by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Juan dela Cruz. They did the usual school fair gigs along with their weekly stints at Kalye In Legazpi Village, Makati. Things were all peachy until Ortigas got the band a deal with Sony BMG Records. The band looked to its frontman to provide them with the original music they were suddenly compelled to produce. 

“I’m not a poet,” Cuervo admits. “It just does not come naturally to me. I’m not like Basti (Artadi of Wolfgang) who is just so good at that. When Kevin (Roy) came—galing! He wrote some amazing songs. I just could not do it. That was really my frustration.” Plagued with self-loathing, Cuervo abruptly bowed out and the band had to frantically hold auditions for a replacement, which luckily yielded the younger Roy. While these changes worked out in the end for Razorback, Cuervo admits his sudden departure left his relationship with the members strained. It was only recently that old wounds have completely healed and all have agreed “to put the past behind” them. (In fact, that evening, Ripoll’s family-owned Tabaqueria de Filipinas offered samples of its fine locally made cigars for guests to enjoy at home.)

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Photo by COURTESY.
Photo by COURTESY.
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After graduating with the pilot class of CRC (now known as University of Asia and the Pacific) from its Entrepreneurial Management course, Cuervo moved to Cebu to start working on behalf of the family’s property appraisals and real estate company. Applying what he learned in college, he also opened the first all-you-can-eat Mongolian barbecue with the Chiongbians and the Borromeos, a food concept that swept through Metro Manila in the late '90s and early millennium. 

Even after he returned to Manila, his family continued to entrust the property appraisal side of the business to Cuervo, ushering it into the digital age. He monitors and works with his staff through a digital platform that allows them to maximize office hours and mobility. This setup, of course, gave Cuervo more free time for family and friends.

It was during his hangouts at Jim Araneta’s The Bottle Shop (first in Legazpi Village then in a bigger space in Magallanes) where he was introduced to imported craft beer. “I really enjoyed the flavors,” Cuervo says. “I started seeking out the good ones. I would order from Jim and just try everything, then I slowly developed my preferences. Sol (Ramirez, his longtime love) has a home in San Francisco and so we would visit the breweries there. Those were my types of beer.” 

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Photo by COURTESY.

 

A shopping trip to WASP wonderland Williams Sonoma would be the surprising catalyst to Cuervo’s current passion. He bought a beer-making kit there, not much different from those cheese-making kits a Stepford mom would pick-up as a welcome distraction from the mundane. For Cuervo, that small taste into beer-making drove him to keep producing brews that are better, hoppier, and more balanced. 

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His gin—the first small batch variety in the Philippines—is a commercial and critical success. Made from 23 botanicals, including distinctly Filipino citrus calamansi and dalandan, it has caught the attention of local and international gin drinkers with its delicately fragrant nose and exotic palate. Cuervo has started producing this in the U.S. and Spain. Not bad, really, for an operation that began in his house and Ramirez’s basement.

Years ago, when he launched his gin in 2017, I asked Cuervo: What kind of person makes his own gin? We both had no answers then or perhaps Cuervo was just simply uncomfortable about sharing the journey that took him there. However, two years since, I believe he now has the confidence to paint a clearer picture of that man. “Brewing the beer and distilling the spirits,” Cuervo explains, “this is finally my way of making music. This is my chance to create when before my frustration was—I cannot. This is me. This is me in a bottle.” 

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About The Author
Jaclyn Clemente Koppe
Chinkee writes and eats for a living. By living, she means cake. Or steak. When she's not eating, she's running her own blog-shop, OneBigBite.com.
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