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Meet the Bartender Who’s Putting Manila’s Cocktail Scene on the Map

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Kalel Demetrio (image: Richard Guevarra)

Filipino cuisine has been on the cusp of its mainstream moment for a while now. In 2015, “The Washington Post” ran an article that declared, “At long last, Filipino food arrives. What took it so long?” Then last year, the late Anthony Bourdain proclaimed the cuisine the next big thing, calling it “underrated,” “ascendant” and a “work in progress.” And finally this year, “The New York Times” published the headline “Filipino Food Finds a Place in the American Mainstream.”

As Filipino food arrives to the global stage—with restaurants like NYC’s Maharlika, D.C.’s Bad Saint and L.A.’s Lasa continuing to grow their respective followings—people are starting to look seriously at its inevitable pairing: Filipino cocktails.

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Agimat (image: Richard Guevarra)

And if the Phillipines’ cocktail scene is on the brink of a breakthrough, you can thank Kalel Demetrio. His bar is called Agimat, a Filipino word that roughly translates to “amulet” or “charm” typically used to fend off evil spirits or cast powerful spells.

Like a battle rapper, Demetrio talks a big game—he is, after all, called the Liquid Maestro. But if that seems like arrogance, you’re missing the point. For too long, he has watched the local bartending scene shy away from the very things that make it unique. “I want Filipinos to have a sense of pride, to know that we don’t have to rely on different countries’ ingredients or talents,” he says.

Demetrio (image: Richard Guevarra)

The Liquid Maestro holds court in the heart of Poblacion, the energetic nightlife scene in Manila’s central business district. Agimat, with its hundreds of jars and vials lining the walls and ceilings, is a foraging bar that champions the produce of different provinces. “I’m trying to make the agriculture thing sexy,” he says.

Demetrio believes that concepts like Agimat are showing the way forward. “The Philippines is the dark horse of the mixology world,” he says. Below, Demetrio discusses the reasons why.

Kontra Lamang Lupa, made with dark rum, purple yam, kalabasa kalingag rum, bourbon, sweet potato, local lemon and ube foam, left; and Gayuma ng Paraiso, made with dalandan liquor, white rum, guyabano ginger shrub, blue pea rosemary spritz, mint and lime (image: Richard Guevarra)

Creativity Is the New Battlefield

“I think the Philippines are emerging as one of the global players in cocktails,” says Demetrio. “Other countries might be more advanced because they are quicker to embrace technology, but with the internet, anyone can research the latest trends and techniques. You can order just about anything with the click of a mouse. So what’s the next important thing? Creativity. That’s innate in Filipinos. We’ve always made the most of what we have. Now that we have access to everything, we’re unstoppable.”

Sitting on a Produce Gold Mine

“Our country is an archipelago; therefore, we have one of the longest coastlines in the world,” says Demetrio. “There are highlands, lowlands and some of the most diverse produce you’ll find anywhere. We’re situated in the equatorial region, which is the envy of a lot of countries. I’ve traveled throughout the entire country, to its most remote sections. I saw a lot of ingredients I’d never seen before. And every time, I would think, What if those guys had a blender? If we had blenders back then, maybe they would have done amazing things.’”

Demetrio (image: Richard Guevarra)

Waste Is Not an Option

When Demetrio was just starting out, he was dismayed at the amount of waste generated by the kitchen’s daily operation. “I looked at the prices and saw how expensive everything was,” he says. “I couldn’t believe we were just throwing these things out. I began collecting the materials and experimenting with them to make different syrups and tinctures. It became a habit for me.

“When it came to fruits and vegetables, I wouldn’t let anyone throw anything away,” Demetrio says. “Finally, I built up the confidence to talk to my boss about it. I was like, ‘Here, taste this. It only cost you 12 pesos.’ He liked what I was doing so much that he finally asked me to make a menu.”

Anting Anting ni Malvar, made with gin, dalandan liquor, turmeric, ginger, rosemary, citrus bitters, wild berries and Batangas honey from Malvar, left; and Limang Mandirigma, made with five different shots of local spirits made from various floral extracts, syrups and spices (image: Richard Guevarra)

Bars for Us, by Us

“Filipinos have long been known to adapt to every colonizer,” says Demetrio. “Because of that, I think, we struggle to express our true identity. At the same time, we know that at one point we were the most cosmopolitan place in Southeast Asia. We were the leaders. But we adapted to the point of losing our identity.

“When I opened my bar, I wanted to change that,” says Demetrio. “So I put a mini jungle smack-dab in the middle of the most happening place in Manila, one of the busiest cities in the world. I wanted to bring the flavors of the jungle here. It was a concept I had long imagined. We would display no international spirits. (We’d carry them, but we wouldn’t display them.) And we’d create virtually everything, from my mixers to my stirrers, liquors, through this concept.”

Locations: Manila Philippines
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