“The islands of the Philippines have been inhabited by modern humans for more than 50,000 years,” says Ben Rojo, a New York city bartender. “With influences from all over the world, the culture is a living treasure trove for tastes both familiar and new.”
Across the country’s 7,000 islands, there are an uncountable number of dishes to explore, spanning the ubiquitous adobo, tuna dipped in calamansi and grilled over coals, sweet purple ube, and longaniza sausages that vary wildly in flavor and preparation from province to province.
“I love drawing inspiration for cocktails from Filipino culinary traditions,” Rojo continues. Over the last few years, he’s been exploring his heritage via liquid form at his 4 Wheel Tricycle pop-up alongside fellow Filipino-American bartenders Darwin Pornel, Roxanne Bangalan, and Christian Dominguez. “The food culture there is wildly diverse and hyper-regional, with bright acidity often balancing lush sweetness and umami,” he says.
It’s no surprise that those same flavors translate remarkably well to cocktails, as a number of bartenders have been finding. Look to calamansi to add a nuanced burst of bright citrus. Ube will add a mouth-coating milkiness with a subtle sweetness. Lemongrass balances out the grassiness in shochu, and tamarind adds a subtle earthy sweetness in, say, an Old Fashioned. Sweetly fragrant pandan leaves have become a bartender favorite, complementing everything from aquavit to absinthe.
Pacific Cocktail Haven’s Kevin Diedrich is “hugely into calamansi and pandan,” he says. “The latter so much that we joke we should rename PCH to Pandan Cocktail Haven. Much like vanilla here in the United States, we use pandan as a nice way to add a depth of nutty, grassy flavor to a cocktail.” He’ll use it in a tincture, a cordial (as in his Leeward Negroni), an infusion, or a syrup, as he does in his Kung Fu Pandan. “It’s great in so many shapes and forms.”
Calamansi, a small citrus fruit native to the Philippines and other Southeast Asian regions, is highly acidic and packed with flavor. “Imagine a concentrated, unripe mandarin,” says Lee Watson, the bar consultant behind the Japanese-Filipino izakaya Gugu Room in New York. It’s a fun acid to use in drinks, but Diedrich cautions that it requires a rich or fatty sweetener to balance the fruit’s “bracing, chalky” aspects.
Watson adds it to a Midori Sour riff. “The concentrated and highly acidic flavors of the calamansi add some complexity to the cocktail,” he says. Instead of using vodka, he opts for blanco tequila. “I find the green herbal and vegetal flavors work well, although I guess it’s more of a Midori-flavored Margarita.” A nori garnish brings it all together with a hint of saline.
Philippine mango is another fruit that works well in cocktails and is relatively easy to source. “Philippine mango is sweeter than the Mexican mango, which is what you typically see in the U.S.,” says Watson, who also consults on bar programs across Southeast Asia.
At Gugu Room, Watson combines Philippine mango with Japanese yuzu kosho, a condiment made with Japanese chilies fermented in yuzu, to make his El Fili Daiquiri. He notes that the fruit combines well with an array of flavors. “I’ve paired Philippine mango with herbs like basil and tarragon, spices like star anise, cloves, etc., and other spicy ingredients like jalapeño or other chilis,” he says.
Watson is also partial to langka, or jackfruit, which grows plentifully in the Philippines. “The flavor profile might be considered similar to a Philippine mango: very sweet and luscious,” he says. He pairs it with a lemongrass shochu in a cocktail on Gugu Room’s menu; Mizu makes a somewhat gin-like spirit in which fresh lemongrass is mixed with rice mash before distillation. With it, Watson makes a gimlet of sorts, using shochu instead of gin and sweet langka instead of sugar.
Of course, there’s a breadth of boozy ingredients that originate from the Philippines as well. “I love Filipino rum,” says Rojo. “Sugarcane has been a staple crop in the Philippines for more than 4000 years, and the intense fruit and tropicality of the stuff grown there is unlike anything I've ever tasted.”
Watson likens the Filipino craft-distilling industry to that of the U.S. 10 to 15 years ago: small but growing quickly and thoughtfully. Rojo notes there’s tremendous gin-making happening in the country, along with new liqueur producers popping up.
There are also more traditional products that can be used in cocktails. “I enjoy working with lambanog,” says Napier Bulanan, a bartender at Viridian in Oakland, California. “Often, it’s attributed as Filipino moonshine because it's made from coconut palm nectar, which grows wild throughout the islands. It can be made by anyone who can distill. The knowledge is often passed down as a family tradition.”
Diedrich, who also runs the beverage program of Filipino restaurant Abaca in San Francisco, has used lambanog in several cocktails over the years, specifically the Infata brand found in the U.S. “Try and think outside the box and use it in a contemporary cocktail sense, rather than in Tiki drinks,” he advises.
Bulanan will lean on lambanog in a milk punch. “I use coconut milk to clarify my Lambanog cocktail, so you're getting layers of coconut flavor,” she says. “The floral, aromatic character of coconut from the lambanog pairs well with the nutty, richness from the coconut milk clarification.” A spritz of pinipig (sweet rice) tincture further accentuates the coconut.
Like Bulanan, Rojo also finishes drinks with pinipig, but crisps and puffs the grain of rice.
Culinary Traditions, Translated to Drinks
“Texture plays a huge role in Filipino food, which is a large part of why I often find myself finishing drinks with things like pinipig (crispy puffed rice), latik (crumbly toasted coconut milk), and gulaman (silky grass jelly),” says Rojo. He’ll use gulaman in a rum Old Fashioned alongside palm sugar and pandan-infused Filipino rum.
All of these ingredients are steeped in childhood nostalgia for Rojo. One of his favorite drinks by far, a frozen ube colada, was inspired by some of his fondest childhood memories. “The Philippines has a rich confectionary tradition, and ube halaya made with purple yam has been my favorite dessert for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I realized that ube had finally made it once I saw it at Trader Joe's, and I was stoked that so many people would get to try one of my favorite flavors.”
The resulting drink calls for Don Papa rum, purple yam, coconut water, coconut milk, and pineapple juice, blended with ice and then topped with whipped coconut cream and a dusting of dehydrated blueberry. “It’s the ultimate summer sipper,” says Rojo. “There’s nothing I’d rather drink when the sun’s up.”
Bulanan finds that she most enjoys working with flavor combinations that mimic Filipino food flavors. “Savory-sour is a favorite combination of mine, as well as funky-sweet,” she says. In her Suplada Spritz, she takes the format of a Negroni Sbagliato and gives it a backbone of a Filipino adobo (soy sauce and seasoned vinegar) shrub, with gin (preferably Bimini), sweet vermouth, and cava. “You end up with something savory and dry, with just enough sour to make it interesting,” she says.
“While Filipino cuisine is starting to reach a wider audience here in the States, I think that we've only started to scratch the surface,” says Rojo. “If you've tried standbys like adobo and pancit and sinigang, I think that's incredible, and I'd only invite you to keep digging!” And, ideally, pair those foods with a drink inspired by flavors of the same origins.