When, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, little did he know he was ending up in the Caribbean, as opposed to India. When, in 1499, another Spanish expedition headed for the Caribbean, this time settling the “undiscovered” island of Curaçao, little did this crew, led by commander Alonso de Ojeda, know that they were laying the foundation for the world’s most famous blue liqueur.
Among the Spanish plans for the island was an attempt to cultivate Seville oranges, with records showing that seeds were brought ashore at least as far back as 1527. However, the juicy, scurvy-fighting orange struggled under the island’s harsh equatorial sun…
Among the Spanish plans for the island was an attempt to cultivate Seville oranges, with records showing that seeds were brought ashore at least as far back as 1527. However, the juicy, scurvy-fighting orange struggled under the island’s harsh equatorial sun, arid climate, and infertile soil, transmogrifying into a small, bitter, and inedible green citrus. Small orchards of the trees remained, though the fruits went unused.
With their agricultural efforts thwarted, the Spanish themselves would be as well. The Dutch set out on a conquest of Curaçao in 1634, and joining them on that very first mission, and on others to follow, were a contingent of Jewish families. One member of the initial voyage was a Jewish translator, Samuel Cohen, followed notably in 1651 by a Portuguese Jewish group led by Joao d’Ylan, who brought a dozen settlers with him. They founded Beth Haim Bleinheim, a Jewish cemetery, in the same year. Further waves followed, predominantly those of Portuguese and Spanish Jewish descent, including a large contingent in 1659.
In 1732, the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel synagogue was founded to support the growing community. “Mikvé, meaning hope, is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas,” says Emlyn Pietersz, a tour guide in Curaçao. “The Jewish people never stopped worshiping there in Curaçao, no matter the internal or external circumstances.”
The story of Jewish settlers from the Iberian Peninsula ending up in the southern Caribbean is a multi-stage immigration saga, each stage of which was fueled by Dutch offerings: from Spain and Portugal to Holland, where the Dutch promised religious freedom, and from there to the Caribbean, where the Dutch dangled economic opportunity and land. Destined for lives as farmers on Curaçao—and there’s a sweet dose of irony here, as the Dutch, with Jews aboard, vanquished the Spanish from whom the Jews had fled—they found a land inhospitable to such pursuits, turning to other occupations ranging from sailing and banking to importation and business of all varieties.
And here’s another lovely ironic touch: A Jewish family founded a global business making use of the too-bitter-to-eat oranges the Spanish initially brought to the island.
That Spain to Holland to Curaçao pipeline for Jewish settlers can be exemplified by one family in particular, the Seniors. And here’s another lovely ironic touch: A Jewish family founded a global business making use of the too-bitter-to-eat oranges the Spanish initially brought to the island.
Mordechai Senior was born in Amsterdam in 1620 to a family that had escaped Spanish persecution, and several of his descendants made their way to Curaçao. Many generations later, it was Edgar Senior, along with his partner Haim Mendes Chumaceiro—himself the son of a prominent rabbi of Curaçao, Aron Mendes Chumaceiro—who founded Senior & Co. in 1896.
Sometime over the years, it was discovered that the dried peels of those bitter oranges could be stepped on or cracked to release an enticing fragrance. The oranges, now known as Laraha oranges, or scientifically as Citrus x aurantium currassuviensis (a subspecies of the Citrus x aurantium, also known as the bitter or Seville orange), became the basis for the island’s eponymous liqueur, most likely as a common island-wide practice from household to household.
Curaçao, of course, is a category rather than a singular product, with notable brands including Bols, De Kuyper, and Monin. But Senior & Co.—made at the historic, colorful estate and onetime salt plantation turned distillery Landhuis Chobolobo—is a Curaçao made on Curaçao with Laraha orange peels from Curaçao. As such, Senior & Co. bills itself as “The Genuine Curaçao Liqueur” and receives special allowance from the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau to use the word “genuine” or “authentic” on its labels.
The Jewish history and culture can still be felt on the island today. Mikvé Israel-Emanuel remains operational and can be visited by the public, as can that original cemetery, Beth Haim Bleinheim. “Many historical national buildings, also found in the World Heritage list, are visible evidence of the impressive Jewish presence in Curaçao,” Pietersz says.
While visiting the Beth Haim Bleinheim cemetery with local guide Tirzah Statia, and soaking up the confusing scene of hybrid Jewish-Portuguese names carved into ancient, above-ground tombs found in the Caribbean—Where didn’t we go, I wondered to myself in astonishment—I was moved by her dedication to understanding the island’s Jewish roots. “The Jewish community has had a big impact on the growth of the island,” she says. “It’s important for me to learn about my cultural heritage.”
Tourists learning about the island may head to Senior & Co. at Landhuis Chobolobo, one of Curaçao’s most popular attractions. Senior has an almost charming small-scale production process, beginning with hand-harvesting the Laraha oranges from trees growing on the eastern side of Curaçao. Sales manager Harmen Köhler describes the process, in which the fruits are peeled by hand into four triangular slices that are sun dried for five days. The dried peels are combined with spices, such as cardamom and cloves, and hung up in a burlap sack within a copper pot still in which neutral sugarcane spirit is redistilled. After distillation, 200 kilograms of sugar is added to a 28-gallon batch of distillate. The resulting liqueur is then filtered, colored, Kosher-certified, and filled in the brand’s signature bottle, sporting the shape and ruddy texture of the once-discarded, now-prized, Laraha orange.
But a Curaçao of any color would taste as sweet, as Shakespeare said. I think.
And that enticing blue color? It’s most commonly derived from food dye E133 Brilliant Blue FCF, according to Difford’s Guide, but there’s some debate as to its manner of introduction into an otherwise clear, orange-flavored liqueur. Lucas Bols was likely the first on the blue block, with its Crème de Ciel, or “cream of the sky,” in 1912. But a Curaçao of any color would taste as sweet, as Shakespeare said. I think.
“The real story is we have five colors, one flavor,” says tour guide Eli Felicia while standing in front of a neon rainbow of bottles, including blue, green, red, orange, and clear. “The color is just for the eyes.” So go ahead and mix up a Blue Hawaiian or a Corpse Reviver No. Blue, or a Blue Daiquiri or Blue Lagoon, and let your eyes feast, saluting the many centuries of immigration and agricultural failure, of Spanish and Portuguese and Dutch and Jewish and Caribbean influence, which eventually brought this famed liqueur to life. To life. L’chaim, in this case.