There is Such a Thing as Moonshine Terroir
Coconut Arrack in Manila
A portly man grins as he pours a clear white drink into a shot glass. Southeast of Manila, tucked in a side street of the provincial municipality of Tayabas, Quezon, lies 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: 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.
The quiet, picturesque town of Tayabas rests on the foothills of a famous volcano, Mount 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 palm in the Philippines is referred to as the tree of life; all of its parts have 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 abides by the authentic process. They have remained open for the past 100 years. The distillery stays in operation for seven months a year, adhering to the French concept of terroir. (Production is halted during the monsoon; lambanog quality is dependent on the weather, soil, and water.)
Sap from the coconut flower is collected by handlers, or mangangarit, who climb the tall coconut-palm trees. They cross, without protective harnesses, from one tree to another using bamboo poles. 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 against the rows of bottles neatly displayed on dark, wooden shelves.
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 me another shot.
71 J.P. Rizal Street, Tayabas, Quezon