Community Spotlight – Sherwin Acebuche, co-founder of Tarsier Spirit
Meet Sherwin Acebuche, Filipino born co-founder of the Southeast Asian inspired spirit brand, Tarsier. The brand is not only committed to representing Southeast Asia through drink but also to saving the dying population of Tarsiers. 10% of their profit is donated to a conservation in the Philippines.
We spoke to Sherwin about Southeast Asian representation in the drinks industry, the importance of brand authenticity and his desires for a better sector.
Tell me a bit about yourself…
My name is Sherwin Acebuche. I am the co-founder of Tarsier Spirit. We’re a distillery based in Manchester. We offer a range of gins that represent my Southeast Asian culture, by also doing something to give back to the Tarsier conservation in the Philippines.
I was born in the Philippines, the biggest consumer of gins in the world and grew up in the UK. I’ve worked my way up to where I am, starting as a glass collector in a bar, then a bartender. Finally, moving to working behind the phones for a drinks company, then getting on the field, working for corporate companies like Carlsberg and Diageo. Now, obviously, taking the learnings I had from my career, and using them to build this Southeast Asian drinks business.
Can you tell me a little about your brand and what led you to creating Tarsier?
The brand came about when we went backpacking at the end of 2014 to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines. We ate our way through the countries and encountered a load of different botanicals on our way. These were amazing ingredients that we thought you could easily use in gin distillation. There also wasn’t really anyone representing Southeast Asia through drink. So we took these botanicals and experimented with them and this is what we came up with.
We met the Tarsiers on our travels. They are an icon in the Philippines and there’s only about 5000 left in the world, only found in Southeast Asia. So, we’re a brand that has a purpose – saving these little primates about the size of your hand while also providing a proper representation of Asia.
What is it that makes the Tarsier spirit stand out from the rest?
As a brand, we stand out from the rest because what you see about us is what you get. It’s a real story of two people’s adventure, but also two people’s authentic nod to Asia, and their experience.
Another thing that makes us individual is our values and principles, through the conservation we’re doing and reaching out to the community. People come up to us in trade shows or in consumer shows, and they share their love for Southeast Asia through Tarsier. Not a lot of brands can awaken this kind of experience that people have had when they travelled to Asia 15-20 years ago. Not many brands can retell such a story. So, we’re in a fortunate position.
What cocktail would you recommend using Tarsier gin?
God there’s lots! Gin is brilliant in cocktails because of its mixability. So, in martinis, Tarsier works really well because it’s very flavourful. For this, our Southeast Asian Dry or Calamansi Dry Gin, work very well. Our Oriental Pink gin, infused with dragon fruit, works very well in an Asian twist of the Clover Club, we call the Oriental Club. Our Khao San gin works very well in a Bloody Mary or any riff of a tequila cocktail, such as a Margarita or a Paloma. Then, our Taipei Old Tom works well in anything that’s a long drink such as a Collins, or anything with apple or pears in it.
Do you have a proudest career moment you can identify?
One of the proudest moments was seeing Tarsier on Sunday Brunch on the sustainability segment of the show. It was this moment, when you’ve been working on a brand for so long and watching them talking about your product on national TV. You’re like, ‘this is surreal!’. It’s probably one of the biggest things that we’ve seen so far, especially in the UK anyway.
The other is, seeing Tarsier in another country. So, before Covid, we did a lot of bar takeovers in Asia. We went to Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. We had been exporting but we never really went over to our supporters abroad. To go into a Taiwanese bar or retailer and see your product, you’re like – is this for real?
Another moment was last year for the Northern Restaurant & Bar show, where I was asked to deliver the story of Tiki. We’ve got this movement called Tiki Tarsier, which shines a light on the Filipino bartenders that were pretty much the reason why Tiki or Tropical Drink exists. So, talking about the impact of the Filipino bartenders in the 1920s and the whole Tropical Drinks movement to a roomful of bartenders, representing my Filipino culture and heritage was another one of my proudest moments.
Have you encountered any challenges in your career to date?
Looking back on my career, I had been great friends with all my managers. Although, one of them became like a friend and a mentor to me. I lost him in 2019, when he passed away suddenly. That was hard because I felt a bit lost. He was a really good friend, somebody who would always pick up the phone and give me advice.
As a brand, Covid, Brexit and the increased costs of living have been the biggest challenges for us. We built our distillery up from a £12k start up loan and we export to over 20 markets. When Covid hit, we thought we were going to lose our business. Much of our income came from direct-to-consumer events and selling into the hospitality sector. When lockdown happened, those avenues vanished overnight. This was incredibly difficult but we got out the other end.
Do you believe there’s enough Southeast Asian representation in hospitality and if not, what do you think should be done to make this happen?
In terms of food, I think there’s a lot of restaurants offering Southeast Asian cuisine. What we really need are more opportunities and outlets for these talented producers and chefs where their produce and creativity can be seen.
This is exactly what Be Inclusive Hospitality does as well. It provides an outlet for us to come through by shining a spotlight on all people of colour. It’s these kinds of opportunities that we need for our talents to come through.
Within the drinks industry, there’s a pocket of Southeast Asian bartenders. I think what we need to do is ensure that Southeast Asians are seeing careers and progression within the industry. For example, 40% of the population in London identify as people of colour. Although when you look at the industry, there’s not many, and in menus there’s hardly any POC owned brands. I think we need to ensure hospitality, food and drink is being seen as an area where we can explore a career but also empower the people of colour that are already within the industry.
The future of hospitality is…
The future of hospitality is diversity. It’s taken operators quite a long time to understand that they need to offer Asian brands on the shelf as well, especially with drinks. The cuisine is already there, and we can pair that with drinks to diversify the industry. It’s about bringing to light experiences that people have had through food & drink. UK consumers are hungry for that. I think, the more we understand how important diversity is, the brighter the future of the industry is.
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