A Spanish soldier who settled in Quezon taught the locals how to make lambanog. The Mallari Distillery has continued the tradition since.
Photo by Shirin Bhandari
Local Spirit
Shirin Bhandari (The Philippine Star) - May 26, 2018 - 12:00am

The blend is smoother, the aroma lighter. My head begins to buzz. “Noventa! Ninety proof…” he beams and offers another shot.

A portly man grins as he pours a clear white drink into a shot glass. Southeast of Manila — tucked down a side street of the provincial municipality of Tayabas, Quezon — lays one of the oldest moonshine distilleries in the Philippines. 
I gasp and take a swig. The smooth liquid warms my throat. The underrated lambanog or coconut arrack is considered a poor man’s drink. It is the local substitute for vodka and gin. 

Each year I travel to visit a college friend and spend a few days to escape the madness of the capital. It also serves as an excuse to hoard a stash of bottles of the notorious alcohol. It is the main component in one of my favourite classic Manila drinks, The Super Submarine. A shot glass of lambanog is submerged into a pint of extra strong beer. The potent mix of coconut arrack and beer allows no room for doubt.

The quiet picturesque town of Tayabas rests on the foothills of a famous volcano, Mt. Banahaw. Founded by the Spaniards in the mid-16th century to spread Christianity, they also taught the locals to distill their own hooch. The fertile land is abundant with coconut plantations. The coconut tree in the Philippines is referred to as the tree of life — all of its parts can find a use.

Alandy, a Spanish soldier who settled in the area, produced the original recipe which contains 45 percent alcohol. The Mallari Distillery has continued the tradition and adheres to the authentic process. They have remained open for the past 100 years.

The distillery stays in operation seven months per year, following the French concept of terroir.

Production is halted during monsoon season. The lambanog quality is dependent on the weather, soil and water.

Sap from the coconut flower is collected by handlers or mangangarit who climb tall coconut palm trees. They cross without protective harnesses from one tree to another using bamboo poles as bridges. The sap is fermented to turn it into the local toddy called tuba, which is then distilled in large copper vats to produce lambanog. Blue collar drinkers prefer the crude, single distillation to keep costs low. 

A group of tourists take pictures in front of the rows of bottles neatly displayed on dark wood shelves. I place my usual order but the storekeep is unconvinced. A second batch of moonshine is in line for sampling. The master distiller waits for the group to leave. He sets a massive glass jug of lambanog that has been laboriously distilled five times.

The blend is smoother, the aroma lighter. My head begins to buzz.

Noventa! Ninety proof…” he beams and offers another shot.

Little is known about the origins of The Super Sub; it was likely handed down from one great bartender to another. It was well over a decade ago in Malate — along the seedier, south side of Manila — that I first encountered this lethal concoction. The struggling bohemian lot, myself included, would brave the traffic to hang out in quaint hole-in-the-wall bars and cafés enjoying eclectic local music and good vibes. You could sit and chat with strangers without worrying about your safety.

A lot has changed since then, and finding a decent place to get a drink in one of Asia’s fastest-growing cities is close to impossible.

Richard, the head bartender and a veteran of the old Penguin Café, was well known for this crudely simple mix. Traditionally, it calls for Red Horse (San Miguel’s extra-strong beer) and a shot of lambanog.

Drunk and passed via word of mouth, it rarely appears on any local Philippine drink lists. One can mistake it at first glance for a regular pint of beer, but the kick is instantaneous. As you get close to the halfway mark, the shot glass filled with moonshine starts to move. You can hear it click and clank against the mug, slowly mixing into the beer. The potent mix of the lambanog and beer allows for no ambiguity: you either like it and live to tell the tale of your hangover or never want to try it again. I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with it through the years, as you would with an old persistent lover.

* * *

Adapted from “Like a love affair, drinking moonshine is all about trust” by Shirin Bhandari, Roads & Kingdoms 2016. Follow her on Instagram @shirinbhandari.

The Super Submarine

Ingredients

1 bottle 500ml Extra Strong Beer, chilled

1 shot premium lambanog (preferably Mallari’s 80-90 proof)

1 tall beer mug

Directions

Fill shot glass with lambanog. Then using a water glass, place the shot of lambanog on the bottom of the water glass. Carefully balance the shot glass and insert it upside-down into an empty liter-sized beer mug. The upside-down shot glass filled with lambanog is then submerged, like a submarine, with the beer of your choice. Serve cold and enjoy.

LAMBANOG
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