Low-key, under-appreciated and even called a “poor man’s drink,” the lambanog has been evolving at a glacier-like pace. After all, it’s still similar to the distilled coconut wine it was over the past century or so.
Even the process of producing lambanog largely remains the same: Mangangarit, or sickle handlers, ascend tall coconut trees and collect coconut nectar in a stainless steel container. They go from one tree to another by crossing a perilous network of bamboo poles. The principles of distillation also remain true to tradition. It all leads to this end-product, a bottle of this notorious alcoholic volume, 80 to 90 proofs.
In Joselito Mallari’s distillery in Tayabas City, Quezon, however, the lambanog has been evolving fast over the past decade. He is a third-generation lambanog distiller, whose company, Mallari Distillery, will celebrate its centennial year in the business in 2018 – the oldest in the Philippines. To sustain the business, the distillery expanded the product line to appeal to a larger market base. His eight brands of lambanog now somewhat veer away from the traditional alcoholic volume of 80 to 90 proof. They now come in variations and some were even developed to cater to health buffs.
Such premium brands are the triple- and quadruple-distilled lambanog, which basically refer to the number of times the fermented sap is distilled. The lambanog known in Southern Tagalog is ordinarily distilled once. Priced from twice to five times the traditional lambanog, the premium liquor is milder in aroma and is also smoother. Like vodka, multiple distillationproduces a more purified lambanog, with the natural and “bad” agents taken out.
“Our buyers today have a different preference in lambanog. Back then, they were satisfied withthe single distillation. Today, their tastes are more discerning,” says Mallari about Filipinos who drink the liquor.
He also sees the potential in creating a drink for health-conscious individuals. Recently, he rolled out “Lamba-herb,” a 20-proof version of the distilled coconut wine for the health-conscious crowd. Lower-proof lambanog has also generally become more appealing, he says.
Aside from Mallari, another large producer in the same city, Capistrano Distillery, makes a line of flavored lambanog, which initially targeted the young crowd. The company’s products have penetrated retail outlets and malls, mainly shelved among cultural products. It has been aggressive in promoting this Philippine liquor abroad.
That fact that it is often found in the specialty or cultural goods sections of stores is proof that lambanog has yet to hit the mainstream market. Indeed, there has been an improvement in the technology and packaging, and the product line has been expanded to cater to more markets. But only a few large-scale producers exist and the seasonality in production makes it scarce as compared to other liquor products. Because production is halted during the rainy season, the Mallari Distillery operates just seven month a year. And like the French’s terroir concept, lambanog quality depends on the soil, weather and water.
Mainstream production also seems unsustainable when current demand is limited to the Filipino market. Mallari says not all foreigners are eager to have lambanog as an everyday drink. And it has several competitors, particularly vodka. In fact, lambanog is often categorized and promoted under the vodka category.
Mallari personally would rather keep lambanog a high-end novelty product. “The process and production of lambanog is craftsmanship,” he says, as the drink is a product of intensive labor; from the collection of the nectar to the processing. He argues that this small industry carves out its own high-value niche by positioning the lambanog as a highly traditional drink.