Traveling tipplers, mark this in your itineraries: The Philippines loves a strong drink. Beer and spirits have long had a place in the local culture, thanks to the Catholic Church's complete toleration of alcohol and centuries of indigenous production that even Spanish conquest failed to stop.
Filipinos are so attached to their drinks, the U.S. government (which ran the Philippines between 1898 and 1946) backed off from enforcing Prohibition in their island colony. When not even Elliot Ness could get between the Pinoys and their San Miguel beers, you know the former take their alcohol seriously.
Drinking on the Streets
So it will come to pass when you're traveling through the Philippines that you'll be invited to drink with the locals. Good friends drink together, and new friends are made over drinks – it's the way of the Filipino.
In the cities, you might be invited to come with them to the local bars. In more middle-class, working-class and rural areas, you might find the locals sharing a bottle of gin outside the local sari-sari (variety) store, and you may get invited to join them.
When invited, it's rude to say no. Instead of refusing outright, the polite thing to do is to stay for one round of drinks before begging off. But what will you end up drinking – and how will you end up drinking it?
Choose Your Poison
The Philippines' long experience with intoxicating drinks can be told from the many locally-brewed choices on offer.
- Beer: Beer is perhaps the Philippines' most famous export – the locally-produced San Miguel Beer brand is a major player throughout the region. San Miguel is losing the beer war against a sister brand – Red Horse Beer's higher alcohol content has made it more popular among cost-conscious drinkers.
- Hard liquor: Filipinos now prefer gin and rum over beer for a very simple reason: Lower cost for a quicker kick. The Philippines is the world's biggest market for gin, bar none - 43 percent of all gin in the world is consumed in the Philippines, amounting to about 22 million cases a year. Quality ranges from premium gins to dirt-cheap rotgut variants known colloquially as "gin bulag" (gin so bad, it'll blind you).
- Indigenous spirits: The world's number one producer of coconuts can do some pretty wonderful things with coconut sap. Tuba and lambanog (the latter a distillate of the former) are commonly imbibed out in the provinces, though flavored lambanog has found some favor in the cities. North of Manila, around the Ilocos region, locals drink basi, a fermented drink made from sugarcane. In the mountainous villages surrounding Baguio, the locals drink tapuy, which is brewed from ground rice and corn.
The Philippines makes the cheapest spirits in Asia. Bottles of San Miguel Beer can be picked up for about PHP 40 (less than $1) in a 7-Eleven or sari-sari store or up to PHP 150 (about $3.50) in a high-end bar. The popular Ginebra San Miguel brand of gin costs less than PHP 80 (about $1.75) for a liter bottle at a convenience store.
When drinking with Filipinos, follow the local drinking etiquette to get into the swing of things.
- Alay sa demonyo: Filipinos start their drinking sessions by pouring a shot on the ground; this is called "alay sa demonyo", or offering to the spirits.
- Tagayan: Instead of being provided individual glasses, drinkers share one glass. A designated pourer tops up the glass and passes it around - "tagay" - round-robin style. When the glass gets to you, you are expected to drink it all, bottoms-up.
- Pulutan: Filipinos like to eat bar chow alongside their drinks. This comes on a large plate to be shared with the rest of the group. Local drinkers favor deep-fried or fatty foods, including (but not limited to) the duck embryo known as balut.
Reasons to Drink
"We [Filipinos] drink for only three good reasons," explains the anonymous narrator in Alejandro Roces' hilarious short story We Filipinos are Mild Drinkers. "We drink when we are very happy. We drink when we are very sad. And we drink for any other reason."
It's true, Filipinos need little excuse to drink – they'll welcome any reason to do shots with friends. That means you'll find little circles of drinkers in cities like Metro Manila and far-flung areas like Siargao; it's near-impossible to find a corner of the Philippines without a popular spot for drinks.
The drinking culture truly comes into its own during one of the Philippines' fervent fiestas. You might find yourself pressed with drinks from every side while walking down a crowded side street during Cebu's Sinulog Festival. The process repeats itself during Davao's Kadayawan and multiplies tremendously during the famously alcohol-soaked LaBoracay festival in Boracay.
So get your liver ready when flying to any one of the Philippines' top tourist spots: The locals will welcome you and then sit you down for a drink. Or three, or five. As they say, Inom na! (Let's drink!)