Impact / November 1, 2004
By Larry Luxner
WILLEMSTAD, Netherlands Antilles — Senior & Co. has begun exporting its Original Curaçao of Curaçao liqueur to the United States for the first time since the company began making the product in 1886.
The liqueur, which is produced from the green, dried peel of a local bitter orange known as laraha, sells for $22 per 750-ml bottle in three select markets: New York, Florida and California. It is being distributed by Preiss Imports of Ramona, Calif.
Frank Brandao, the company's Cuban-born managing director, said Senior & Co. has 16 employees and produces only 3,000 cases a year, all by hand, at its factory just outside Willemstad, capital of Curaçao. It uses a recipe developed more than 100 years ago by company founder Edgar Senior and local pharmacist Haim Mendes Chumaceiro.
Revenue figures are confidential, and so are the ingredients. The product is used mainly in cocktails, and most people drink it with orange juice.
"You cannot get a trademark registration for any product that has the name of a country or an island," he explained. "Anybody can take the name Curaçao and make liqueur."
Among leading producers of Curaçao liqueur are Bols, DeKuyper and Marie Brizard, each with sales in the millions. But those companies, Brandao said, make use of essences and synthetic flavors, rather than the rare and expensive original Laraha peels, which are distilled at high heat.
That's why Curaçao of Curaçao liqueur sells for $26 per 750-ml bottle, about twice as much as the competition.
"We are the only company that makes Curaçao liqueur using the original bitter orange called laraha, which doesn't grow anywhere else in the world," says Brandao. "And we don't use any artificial flavors at all. That's why we call it Curaçao of Curaçao."
In Curaçao, several plantations grow the indigenous laraha. The largest plantation has 35 laraha trees, each of which produces around 150 to 200 fruits a year, resulting in 15-20 kilograms of dried peels. The trees are harvested twice a year.
Brandao says the end product is available in five colors — clear, blue, red, orange and green — all with exactly the same taste. "It's just food coloring added at the last moment to please bartenders who make mixed drinks," he says.
Preiss Imports of Ramona, Calif., is now distributing the spirit in California, New York, Florida and other selected markets. The company imports around 1,000 cases a year, equivalent to one-third of Senior & Co.'s total production.
"Most of the volume mix makers have a Curaçao in their portfolio, and that's because it's a popular base for Blue Hawaiians and a lot of other new drinks out there," said company president Henry Preiss. "But ours is the original. The others are made with derivatives of flavors and colors."
For now, Preiss is importing only the orange and blue varieties of Curaçao of Curaçao; next year, it'll begin offering chocolate, coffee and rum-raisin flavors as well.
Brandao said that for a long time, his company had wanted to export to the U.S. market, but that it couldn't comply with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' strict regulations.
"If you say the liquor has 24% alcohol content, you have to be very close to that figure. You need sophisticated measuring instruments which we don't have," he said.
But in March, BATF changed its rules and became less stringent — which is why Original Curaçao of Curaçao Liqueur can finally enter the market. That same month, the product won a bronze medal at the San Francisco Spirits Convention.
Duty-free currently represents about 25% of total sales, with Licores Maduro distributing the product locally to downtown shops, as well as outlets at the Willemstad cruise-ship terminal and Curaçao International Airport. Senior & Co. has also just started selling its Curaçao liqueur at duty-free shops in nearby Aruba.
"We get close to 100,000 cruise-ship tourists a year visiting the distillery; roughly 70% of them are from the States. We're also getting some stayover tourists, and those are mainly Dutch," said Brandao.
Unlike San Pablo rum, the local market for Curaçao liqueur is very small, because people here find it too sweet.
"The people here like whisky, rum and beer more," he said. "We gave out free samples at supermarkets, and the people didn't like it. That's why I'm not even trying to compete in the local market."