Taft and Benedictine liqueur | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Taft and Benedictine liqueur

/ 05:05 AM October 13, 2021

In February 1901, US President William McKinley transmitted to the US Senate a document regarding “Lands held for ecclesiastical or religious uses in the Philippine Islands.” Included were some acts of the Philippine Commission that provided a glimpse into the transition from Spanish to American colonial administration: Elected municipal councilors were retained pending a new municipal law, civil service salaries were adjusted, local police was established, sale of “intoxicating liquors” was regulated in Manila, customs duties in Jolo were amended, licensing of small boats was undertaken, general appropriations was funded and disbursed in great detail. The amount of $75,000 was appropriated to build a highway from Pozorrubio, Pangasinan, to Baguio.

William Howard Taft is the main actor here, long before he was elected 27th president and later 10th chief justice of the United States. In 1900, Taft was president of the Philippine Commission formed to advise the US president on the establishment of a civil government in the islands replacing the military government made redundant after the Spanish-American War. To prepare for negotiations with Pope Leo XIII regarding confiscated church lands and the return of the Spanish friars expelled from the Philippines, Taft conducted a series of interviews with the heads of the various (Spanish) religious orders in Manila on the extent of their landholdings and their relationship with Filipinos.


One can guess, from the length of the transcribed interviews, which religious order had the most issues: the Dominicans topped the list with 16 pages, followed by the Franciscans (12 pages), Augustinians (10 pages), Jesuits (three pages), St. Vincent de Paul (two pages), and the Benedictines (little over a page). Compared with the Augustinians that arrived with Legaspi in 1565, the Franciscans in 1578, the Jesuits in 1581, the Dominicans in 1587, and the Augustinian Recollects in 1606, the Benedictines were Johnny-come-lately in 1895 and were consigned to Surigao. I would think the Jesuits would have gotten a bad rap, too, except that the order was expelled from the Philippines in 1768 and returned in 1859. They did not have huge estates like the other orders and are best remembered for the Ateneo Municipal de Manila in Intramuros that educated many Filipino patriots, who later saw their beloved Jesuit teachers through rose-colored glasses.

Before you even get to the actual interviews, the document opens with the suit brought by T.H. Pardo de Tavera and others against the rector of the University of Santo Tomas and the Roman Catholic Church in the islands, represented by the Apostolic Delegate, the Archbishop of New Orleans, on the matter of reopening the school of medicine and pharmacy in the College of San Jose. With regard to the friar orders, the interviews covered land, schools, income, their opinion on the capability of Filipino secular priests to take over, etc. Exceptional was the interview with Juan Sabater, Benedictine Superior, because Taft did most of the talking and he steered the conversation into a patent dispute over Benedictine liqueur that was one of his first cases as a judge in Cincinnati.


Father Sabater narrated, that the Benedictines sold their liqueur recipe after the French Revolution, and it is manufactured to this day. The Spanish branch of the order had a better recipe “which we do not care to exploit … we only make a little for our own use, and do not put it on the market [lest] people say we are not following religious vocations, but are merchants.”

The pragmatic Taft advised: “But you might have a royalty on the trademark without selling the liqueur. We have a saying in America that would apply to this, especially where the fathers would use the money to the best purposes, that ‘Money does not smell.’” Taft made an example of the other liqueur, Chartreuse, made by the Carthusians that earned one million francs for the Pope annually and paid for roads and other improvements on Carthusian land. On that note, Taft adjourned.

I know Benedictine and Chartreuse liqueurs taste like cough syrup.

If the Manila Benedictines listened to Taft, they might have made a fortune on liqueur, San Beda University would not exist, and President Duterte would have gotten his law degree elsewhere.


Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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