The evolution of our drinking preferences. Art by Gica Tam
Food & Drink Features

From arack to alak: How our wines and spirits figured in key moments of our history

There’s more to our heritage than Red Horse. An expert on Philippine libations tells us how our colonial past influenced many facets of our culture, including the ways we drink.
Jam Pascual | Nov 02 2019

Dawn shone upon Antonio Pigafetta and the rest of Ferdinand Magellan’s crew came upon the Ladrones Island of Zamal, now known as Samar. It would be a couple of days before a boat with nine men approached the crew. “The captain-general seeing that they were reasonable men, ordered food to be set before them, and gave them red caps, mirrors, combs, bells, ivory, bocasine, and other things,” Pigafetta wrote in his journal. The natives reciprocated this gesture of good will with gifts of their own, including fish, figs, coconuts, and a jar of palm wine, which they called arack.

Off to market. These bamboo containers are filled with "tuba"  or coconut-palm sap. Photo from The Encyclopedia of Food by Artemas Ward

There is debate as to whether or not the jug of wine offered was tuba, a Philippine wine made by fermenting the nectar of the coconut. And this isn’t the only case of wine making a cameo in our history. When Magellan landed in Homonhon, Rajah Humabon offered him a coconut shell filled to the brim with an alcoholic drink, supposedly a rice wine “as clear as water, but so strong that it intoxicated many of our men.”

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Tuba, lambanog, basi, wine, herbal liqueurs. We’re familiar with our country’s beers—our taste for which we likely inherited from our dicey titos—and the barik your yuppie friend is likely to knock back after a long week with terrible clients. But that’s just Manila, and that’s just two types of beer. Our cultural heritage of getting blasted goes way back.

“We have a long tradition of making liquors and wines,” says Arturo G. Pacho, perhaps the country’s leading authority when it comes to Philippine wines and spirits. He’s published two books on the subject: In High Spirits: Tropical Wines of the Philippines investigates the country’s wines and the customs and production processes behind them; Discovering Tuba unpacks the inimitable coconut drink with inimitable scholarship.

In fact, Pacho makes it a point to emphasize our cultural fingerprint by writing, “Before the Spaniards came to the Philippines, the Filipinos already knew how to make wine out of coconut sap, a mark of their ingenuity and creativity. They did not learn it from the Spanish conquistadors.” 

When Magellan landed in Homonhon, Rajah Humabon offered him a coconut shell filled to the brim with an alcoholic drink, supposedly a rice wine “as clear as water, but so strong that it intoxicated many of our men.”

He also asserts that tuba might have played a part in the mythology of our first national hero, Lapu-Lapu. Magellan threatened to burn the homes and coconut trees of those who did not swear allegiance to the king of Spain. As Pacho wrote, “Homes could be easily rebuilt, but the sacrosanct coconut tree was the lifeblood of the inhabitants, the source of their wine, and it took seven years before a tree grew to maturity.” With that threat, Magellan sealed his fate, and provoked Lapu-Lapu into fierce battle at Mactan beach.

But this was during the pre-colonial era. As time passed, our history, like wine fermenting, would become more complex.

 

A toast to the king

We couldn’t ward off our colonizers, and as Spain tightened its grip on our islands, it would even come after our wines and spirits. “There was a period when Spaniards became skeptical, or kind of worrying about the influence of the local wines, or spirits because [they were] competing with Spanish wines that they brought here, that they imported from Spain or Mexico,” Pacho tells me in an interview. “So they introduced the wine monopoly decree, to restrict the making or marketing of local wine.” In Discovering Tuba, the reference is a decree by King Charles III, circa 1785, to establish a Spanish monopoly in liquor and wine.

And they had to import that wine. We can grow grapes in the Philippines now, but growing them on our soil was either difficult or impossible then. There was also pressure on the Spanish empire, who at this point was spread so thinly across their colonies they needed to turn to new methods of exploitation.

A fiesta decor showcasing Basi or sugarcane wine. Photograph by Judgefloro on Wikimedia Commons

That meant a concerted effort to quash the production and distribution of local wines and spirits, or actively enforcing taxation on those products, including basi, which is sugarcane wine. And perhaps no other evidence is needed to prove the goodness of the drink than the Basi Revolt of 1807. Wine-loving citizens of Piddig, Ilocos Norte rose up one September 16, the violent revolt lasting for days until Spanish forces quelled dissent.

One of the 14 paintings of Esteban Villanueva about the Basi revolt in Ilocos. Photograph by Magalhães on Wikimedia Commons

“That I think is also the start of how our nationalism sparked,” Pacho asserts. “Because we became aware that the Spanish were oppressing them and were [trying to] control their community, their livelihood. They didn't like that.” Look up the painter Esteban Pichay Villanueva, whose paintings immortalize a revolt in which Filipinos fought for their right to party.

It’s interesting to think that in this way, the Philippines experienced its own little Prohibition era, even though this royal decree would not be the last ban on local alcohols. As for the effect of Spanish wine on the populace? Pacho tells me that we get our wine sensibilities from the Catholic tradition. “Vino from Spain is used during mass. Supposedly there was also an influence in the way Filipinos regard wine. The wine served during mass is sweet, that's why Filipinos prefer sweet wine.” Not to speak for all Filipinos, but this assertion explains why I personally prefer a candy-sweet swig of Novellino over, say, a 1999 Château Palmer.

A lambanog farm in San Juan, Batangas. Photograph by Aerous on Wikimedia Commons

 

Star-spangled swig

When America came along, they brought in the beer manufacturers to compete with Spanish companies already up in our soil. Again, tuba would make a cameo in our national tensions.

Take for example the Balangiga incident of 1901. American presence in that part of Samar Island carried out oppressive practices of “forced labor, rounding up of the males, and the burning of rice fields,” Pacho writes in Discovering Tuba. Tensions came to a head when American soldiers, drunk on tuba, dragged a girl out of a bar because she insulted them. The surprise attack involved getting American soldiers drunk as hell with festivities. And in the morning of September 28, Filipinos launched a surprise attack against vulnerable, hungover American forces. There is anecdotal truth, then, to the short story “We Filipinos Are Mild Drinkers” by Alejandro R. Roces, where an American soldier gets so blasted on lambanog that a Filipino farmer had to carry him home.

A primitive "kawa" used primarily for distilling. Photograph by Obsidian Soul on Wikimedia Commons

There was also an attempt to ban the consumption of alcohols that weren’t native drinks. It was a ban applied specifically to a non-Christian tribe, and took the form of Act No. 1639. “This prohibition era in the Philippines started in 1907 with the support of strong Christian missionaries, which lasted for 32 years until the repeal of the law. A landmark case in 1937 behind its repeal was the case of Cayat, an Igorot, who was arrested for possessing a bottle of gin,” Pacho wrote in In High Spirits.

And while World War 2 didn’t necessarily heal those tensions, there were incidents of local alcohol being offered as a gesture of good will and even healing. “American soldiers were treated to tuba while on patrol after they landed in Leyte to fight the Japanese Occupation soldiers.” Then there’s Myrre W. McBride, an American serviceman who, when a Filipino woman named Rosalina treated wounds he earned from fighting the Japanese, had the pleasure downing tuba as an anesthetic while he had shrapnel removed from his leg. “My forehead flowed with sweat, but the pain was soon gone,” he would go on to write in his memoirs.

A mananguete on the way to fetch tuba wine. Photograph by Lloydcruzte01 on Wikimedia Commons

 

Drinking into the present

We’ve come to this point in our history where local manufacturers and winemaking companies are starting to make their mark on the cultural landscape.

You have Destileria Limtuaco, the oldest distillery in the Philippines, putting out craft spirits such as their acclaimed Paradise Mango Rum and Manille Liqueur De Calamansi. There’s the Dielle Apiary and Meadery Enterprise in Muntinlupa, which began raising bees in 2001 and making wines in 2003.

This is not a knock on them though. Perhaps it is our colonial upbringing that prompts us to bring international alcohols to the house party pot luck--vodka, tequila, soju, bourbon--instead of search for local spirits. At the same time, Pacho will tell you that our country’s spirits are very regionalistic, and therefore are not widely distributed throughout the country.

One problem Pacho mentions in our interview has to do with tradition. “There's a decline of people who drink these wines, and there's also the issue of winemakers getting old.” If there is no one to pass down these winemaking techniques--and there are many, what with the myriad methods that it must take to ferment or distill coconut, rice, or even tamarind and banana--and no one to accept these techniques, the craft dies. 

Perhaps this is an issue that intersects with infrastructure--what systems can we put in place to make sure that local wines and spirits are not only culturally preserved, but also distributed in a way that gives business to the communities and regions outside of Imperial Manila? If we observed better care, perhaps it would have been easier for Leyte and Samar to recover from the 2013 super typhoon Yolanda, which destroyed swathes of coconut trees.

We have a whole history of alcohol that runs the gamut of the human experience--goodwill, celebration, war, peace. These practices and the products they make do not deserve to be lost. They deserve to be heartily imbibed.

 

Photographs from Wikimedia Commons