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Bringing the Filipino culture of drinking to the world

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 08, 2021 6:00 am

If there’s any doubt that Filipinos love to drink, you just have to see the figures in the International Wine and Spirits Research (IWSR) report that lists the Philippines as the largest gin market, the third largest rum market, and one of the fastest-growing alcohol markets in the world.

The culture of drinking hand in hand with celebrating goes way back to pre-colonial times, as discovered by Ferdinand Magellan, who headed the Spanish expedition when they landed in the Philippines in 1521. Their chronicler Antonio Pigafetta related how the first natives they saw presented them with food together with a jar of wine, which was distilled from coconut trees.

A second encounter was with a native king with whom they shared a meal. “At every mouthful, we drank a cup of wine,” Pigafetta wrote. “Before the king took the cup to drink, he raised his clasped hands toward the sky, and then toward me; and when he was about to drink, he extended the fist of his left hand toward me and then drank.”

Pigafetta was impressed with the rituals of etiquette and friendship, akin to today’s toasting. The dishes that followed, from fish with aromatic roots to roasted meats, were served on porcelain platters while “all the dishes of the king were of gold.”

Moving to Cebu, they met the king, who was eating turtle eggs and drinking from four jars of palm wine “covered with sweet-smelling herbs and arranged with four small reeds in each jar by means of which he drank.”

With religious rituals for marriage and harvests, drinking, eating and dancing could last for 20 to 30 days, with chiefs and ‘brave indios’ drinking till they passed out. When they woke up, they would return to the feast to begin another cycle of ‘eat, drink, sleep, repeat.‘

The Boxer Codex, on the other hand, relates 16th-century accounts in Cagayan up north where all their feasts are marked with drinking binges that usually last two to three days and sometimes more.

With “maganito” religious rituals for marriage and harvests, drinking, eating and dancing could even last for 20 to 30 days with chiefs and “brave indios” drinking till they passed out and were carried off to bed by slaves. When they woke up, they would return to the feast to begin another cycle of “eat, drink, sleep, repeat.”

By around 1574, coconut wine or “tuba” would be distilled in improvised stills (kawa) into a liquor called lambanog. Tapuy, wine made from rice, could be found in the Cordilleras and Ilocos, among the Manobo in Bukidnon, where it is called “agkud,” and in the Visayas as “pangasi.” Wine from sugarcane includes the basi of the Ilocanos and the palek of the Ivatan.

Spanish colonization

With Spanish colonization, a wine monopoly decree in the early 18th century restricted local wine production, resulting in the 1807 Basi revolt in Ilocos, a clear example of how Filipinos will not compromise when it comes to their liquor.

By 1834, Ayala Distillery, the first modern distillery in the country, was established, producing cognac, rum, whiskey and gin. Their Ginebra San Miguel would make it to the present day as the country’s largest-selling gin, and earning us the distinction of being the largest gin market in the world.

Just as we can continue to celebrate life, our distillers will always be inspired to create new, amazing spirits that are on par with the best in the world.

Tanduay Distillers, established in 1854, introduced Tanduay rum, which never waned in popularity and is even the world’s top-selling rum.

La Fabrica de Cerveza de San Miguel opened Southeast Asia’s first brewery in 1890, producing San Miguel Pale Pilsen, which made beer the most-consumed alcoholic beverage in the country till this day and is now available in over 60 countries.

Although the top producers still have a big market share, there are a growing number of sophisticated drinkers that have given rise to other options, including microbreweries and craft distillers.

Don Papa Rum, introduced in 2012 by the Bleeding Heart Rum Company, is a premium aged single-island rum manufactured in Negros, where the finest sugarcane grown on volcanic soil is distilled into a smooth and delicate concoction that has many fans in the Philippines, as well as in 27 other countries.

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Laguna-based Full Craft Distillers, the country’s first authentic craft distillery, came up with ARC Botanical Gin in 2018, using 28 exotic botanicals (22 sourced locally), from pomelos and mangoes to pine buds and camia. The spirit earned Best Contemporary Style Gin and their Barrel Reserve Gin won Best Matured Gin at the 2019 World Gin Awards.

Recently, the Botanical won a Platinum Medal and the Barrel Reserve Gin and their Lava Rock Vodka won Double Gold Medals at the SIP Awards. Double Gold medals were also given to the Ube Cream Liqueur by Destileria Barako, made of Negros vodka mixed with cream and ube.

At a recent Zoom event by Philippine Tatler, we were introduced to another promising spirit from Bleeding Heart: Santa Ana Gin.

A homage to the 1920s Santa Ana Cabaret — the largest in the world at that time — it has an Art Deco-designed bottle and label that brings visions of swinging tropical nights with fragrant top notes of Philippine ylang-ylang and alpinia and a fresh citrus palate of dalandan and calamansi rounding off a base of classic gin botanicals.

Santa Ana Gin, a new fragrant gin made via partial-vacuum distillation to extract botanical aromas without degradation by heat (Ricky Toledo).

We sipped it straight first to enjoy the aroma and flavors and later had it as a martini and gin tonic, which were both excellent with the Hamachi tartare and caviar on blinis prepared by Metronome chef Miko Calo.

Sharing stories with other guests on favorite cocktail recipes and life during quarantine, it was a fun party as only Filipinos can manage to make the most of any get-together — even virtually — during these lockdown times.

It also showed that, just as we can continue to celebrate life, our distillers will always be inspired to create new, amazing spirits that are on par with the best in the world.