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The Story Behind Ginebra San Miguel’s Famous Bottle Label

Mamerto Adan is an engineer by profession but a writer by night. He's interested in science, history, and martial arts.

Ginebra San Miguel is a famous Filipino gin

Ginebra San Miguel is a famous Filipino gin

There are often hidden stories behind the items we see every day. If only these objects could talk, we might hear their whispered secrets.

One day I visited a liquor store with a friend of mine who is quite knowledgeable about various alcohols, and he told me that some of the brands in the shop had been around for more than a century. One of the bottles he pointed out, Ginebra San Miguel, is a gin with an intriguing label—one that depicts a triumphant angel expelling (or perhaps slaying) a demon.

As it turns out, I am very familiar with this label—it's one of the most popular gins in the Philippines, where I live. What I didn't know, however, is that the brand has been around for nearly 200 years. Not only that, the label has a fascinating connection to a national artist of the Phillippines.

Founding partners of Casa Roxas: Domingo Roxas and Antonio de Ayala

Founding partners of Casa Roxas: Domingo Roxas and Antonio de Ayala

Early History of Ginebra San Miguel

It all started in June 1834, when Casa Roxas, known today as the Ayala Corporation, founded the first distillery in the Philippines. Originally called the Ayala Distillery (Destilerias Ayala Inc.), it was located in Quiapo, Manila, where it produced a variety of alcohols ranging from cognac to gin. Among its brands were Ginebra Ayala, Ginebra Nacional, and Ginebra San Miguel (the term ginebra is Spanish for gin).

Yes, Ginebra San Miguel has been around since 1834, which means it's significantly older than the First Philippine Republic, which was established in 1899.

The recipe remains unchanged even to this day. It's amazing to think that the gin on the store shelf today is essentially the same liquor that our ancestors sipped. It survived the Philippine Revolution, the Philippine-American War, World War II, the period of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos, and much more. And going back to the Philippine Revolution, it is said that this was the gin that was served during the Malolos Congress.

Young Fernando Amorsolo

Young Fernando Amorsolo

Fernando Amorsolo: The Artist Behind the Label

The Ginebra San Miguel label that we're familiar with today, featuring St. Michael the Archangel triumphantly battling the vanquished demon, was created in 1917.

The artist behind the image was Fernando Amorsolo, born May 30, 1892, in Paco, Manila. In his younger years, Amorsolo helped his family by selling watercolor postcards to a local bookstore. His first major success came in 1908, when one of his paintings won second place in a contest organized by the Asociacion Internacional de Artistas. He then studied art at the Liceo de Manila (between 1909 and 1914), and then he continued at the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts.

After graduating, Amorsolo worked in the Bureau of Public Works as a draftsman. He then worked as a chief artist at the Pacific Commercial Company, as well as a part-time instructor at the University of the Philippines.

He might have worked as a humble graphic artist and instructor for his entire career, but his fortunes changed when he was commissioned by the Ayalas to design a label for their signature gin, Ginebra San Miguel.

The original bottle art of Ginebra San Miguel, designed by Fernando Amorsolo

The original bottle art of Ginebra San Miguel, designed by Fernando Amorsolo

The Original Design: The "Marca Demonio"

The original label art was created in 1917 and was known as “Marca Demonio.” To design the label, Amorsolo incorporated the traditional iconography of the Archangel Michael.

The original illustration (above), features the winged Archangel in red garb and a red cape. In his right hand he raises a sword with what appears to be a curved blade. It may resemble a kris, an asymmetrical dagger from Indonesia, but it may also depict the fiery sword mentioned in the Book of Genesis. In some traditional iconography, the Archangel Micheal is depicted wielding the fiery sword as he deposes the devil.

At St. Michael's feet we see a demon, raising his arms as if to protect himself from the Archangel’s blow. The wing design of the demon, which resembles that of a bat or moth, is typical of some artistic depictions.

In the original label, we see a background of sky and clouds behind St. Michael, suggesting Heaven, and we see flames licking the demon’s backside, as he falls downward to Hell.

The name of the brand appears above the illustration, while the name of the company (Ayala Inc.) appears underneath the vanquished demon.

When the Ayala Distillery was bought by La Tondeña, Inc., the label artwork was slightly retouched. The image of the Archangel was simplified, and the demon was changed to be all red (originally, he was black with red wings). In addition, mountains were added to the background.

After La Tondeña, Inc., acquired the Ayala Distillery, the label art was updated.

After La Tondeña, Inc., acquired the Ayala Distillery, the label art was updated.

From Gin Label Designer to National Artist

As it turned out, the patriarch of the Ayala family, Enrique Zobel de Ayala, was not only the owner of a large spirits company, but he also happened to be a patron of the arts. He was so impressed with Amorsolo’s design for Ginebra San Miguel that he offered him the chance to travel to Spain and study at the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid. Remarkably, Amorsolo did so well on his entrance exam that he was offered a position of professor at the school—rather than student!

After his experience abroad, he returned to the Philippines to become one of the most important artists in the country's history. Five days after his death in 1972, he was awarded the Philippines' first National Artist Award in Painting.

Who would have predicted that a gin label could have launched such an illustrious career?