How We Drink in the Philippines

[Photograph: Shubert Ciencia via Creative Commons]

I was drinking with my husband and his friends on a chilly December night in my hometown of Baguio, a mountain city in the north of the Philippines. The sky was black and clear and full of stars, and a gentle night wind passed through. Despite the warmth of my coat, the cold found its way to my hands and face, making my teeth chatter and my fingers numb. To an outside observer, it might have seemed like any other winter night.

But it wasn’t — it was more special than that. Ric and I were still newlyweds, married only since January. It was our first time celebrating the holidays together. It was my first night out with my husband’s friends, and my first time drinking with them.

Drinking in the Philippines isn’t just a way to kick back among friends; it’s also a vital part of Filipino culture. Alcohol is consumed during celebrations and special occasions, at fiestas, rice-harvesting ceremonies, and healing rituals. Its wide and varied use in the Philippines has resulted, naturally, in the production of indigenous alcoholic beverages: tapey, a moderately sweet rice wine made in the hilly regions of Mountain Province; basi, a sweet-and-sour fermented-sugarcane spirit from the northern region of Ilocos; lambanog, a vodka-like coconut arak (alcohol) made in Quezon Province; and laksoy, a bitter nipa palm liquor made in the southern city of Butuan in Mindanao.

That night represented a lot of firsts for my husband and me, but at the same time, it was also a night of the old and the familiar. My husband and I were born and raised in the same city. We were celebrating the holidays in our hometown, and we were in good company with Donnie and Ben, two friends of my husband’s since high school.

Tokwa’t baboy. [Photograph: Raleene Cabrera via Creative Commons]

We had drinks at Ben’s house — a bottle of imported whiskey, plus a few local beers and soft drinks as chasers — and we had pulutan. For Filipinos, no drinking session is complete without food, usually of the greasy and fatty variety, and that’s what pulutan is. Pulutan comes from the Filipino word pulot, meaning “to pick up.” True to the name, it’s typically finger food or, at the very least, food that can be eaten easily while drinking, and it’s shared among everyone present. While imbibing, you might enjoy sisig, a sizzling delicacy of chopped pig’s head and liver seasoned with calamansi (Filipino lime) and topped with chili peppers and an egg; crispy pata, tenderized pork leg rubbed with seasoning and spices, then deep-fried; and tokwa’t baboy, fried diced tofu and pig ears served with a sawsawan (dip) of soy sauce, vinegar, chopped onions, and chili peppers. On that night, without anything truly greasy or fatty available, we settled for some nuts and chips.

The drinking started with whiskey. After opening the bottle, Donnie poured a little whiskey into the cap and emptied it on the ground as an offering to the spirits. Then he poured whiskey into a shot glass, filling it halfway.

“Is this enough?” Donnie said, passing the shot glass to my husband.

“Yup, that’s good. Tagay!” said Ric. He drank from the shot glass and returned it to the center of the table.

As the designated pourer, or tanggero, Donnie filled the same glass with shots of whiskey throughout the night. We passed it around and took our shots in turn, making sure to drink our glasses “bottoms up.”

[Photograph: Flickr via Creative Commons]

The tanggero is one of the most distinctive features of drinking in the Philippines, and it’s an important role. The tanggero makes sure that all the drinkers have their fill, that everyone gets their fair share. The drinkers return the favor by drinking bottoms up from the glass, in the custom known as tagay. Tagay means that you trust each other enough to drink from that single glass. Tagay means everyone is united. Tagay is synonymous with goodwill and camaraderie.

As night turned to dawn and the whiskey bottle dried out, we caught up on each other’s lives. Everyone had a story to tell. We discussed the more mundane details of the present — jobs, partners, houses, cars. We reminisced about the past — adventures, arguments, and milestones. We contemplated the future of our families, our hopes and dreams. We talked, laughed, joked, and bantered. Conversation flowed easily. Between my husband and his friends, it was as if no time had passed.

All that chatter was chased away by plenty of beer and pulutan. We raised our bottles, calling out, “Kampay!” Like kanpai in Japanese, kampay is the Filipino way of saying cheers. The clinking of our glasses honored old friendships and celebrated new ones. In that moment, I felt like part of my husband’s circle of friends, having become part of their bond for the first time.

Even though they belong to everyday experiences like drinking with friends, customs like tagay and kampay affect us profoundly. The simple acts of having a designated pourer, of drinking from a single glass, of toasting, bring us together.

That night, I was a witness to the ties that bind my husband and his friends. I was a witness to the strength of their relationship. But I wasn’t an outsider. During that drinking session, because of the customs we grew up with as Filipinos, I also joined the connection. My husband’s friends and I had our hometown in common to start, and we had my husband. But now we have more than that — we also have the bond of friendship.

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