James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Like a Love Affair, Drinking Moonshine Is All About Trust

Like a Love Affair, Drinking Moonshine Is All About Trust

The Super Sub in Manila

“I don’t know how I got home…”

A standard line after waking from the after-effects of the Super Sub.

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.

We all have our favorite bartenders. It’s like your first real love affair. They know what you want, when to listen, when to give, and you will never forget them. Richard was all that to me. A wiry, diminutive man, you’d be surprised at the amount he could get done behind the counter. A shot glass would be presented and filled up with Lambanog, a Philippine version of coconut vodka. It could go from 80-160 proof depending on the distillation. “You can handle it; try,” he’d smile. Like any trusting lover you’d take a swig and put on a brave face.

He had his own contacts, sourcing the arrack, as the liquor is more generically known across South Asia, directly from the northern island of Luzon. The island sits in the province of Quezon, where most coconut plantations and Lambanog distilleries from the time of the Spanish still exist. The real McCoy invariably comes delivered in an unlabeled bottle or emptied gallon of mineral water.

It’s all about trust.

There are newer versions infused with fruit and synthetic flavors, hoping to push blue-collar tastes toward high-end gastro-pub infusions. But honestly, none can come close to Lambanog in its purest form.

Little is known about the origins of The Super Sub; it was likely handed down from one great bartender to another. Drunk and passed through word of mouth, it rarely appears on any local Philippine drink lists. Richard was well known for this crudely simple mix.

A shot glass is filled with Lambanog. Then, using a water glass it is inserted upside-down into an empty, liter-sized beer mug. The upside-down shot glass is then submerged, like a submarine, with the beer of your choice. Traditionally, it calls for Red Horse (San Miguel’s extra-strong beer) or one of the lighter local variants.

One can mistake it at first glance for a regular pint, 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 coconut arrack 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.

Richard has since retired. We sometimes talk when time permits. He’s settled and happy with his life at home. He’s left a small mark on the Malate drinking scene, finally handing down The Super Sub to the last bar he worked for, The Oarhouse Pub of Manila.

It’s still good, but it will never be like the first.

“Who started it?” I ask him for the nth time.

He replies with a laugh, “Why? Don’t ask, kumare. Just drink!”

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