Producing the Filipino coconut liquor lambanog is a treacherous process with potentially fatal consequences—harvesters (mangagarit) must climb high in the coconut tree to collect the sap, with no attachment to safety wires and moving between trees only by way of a narrow bamboo bridge 30 feet up in the air. They do this for a drink that is not priced at bleed-the-rich Cristal prices or quaffed in verandas overlooking ostentatious, Imelda Marcos-style estates. In the Philippines, lambanog is a drink of the people, and of the poor.
“It is like grappa,” says Amy Besa, owner of Cendrillon, a Filipino fusion restaurant in Soho and the first to carry pure lambanog in the city. For centuries, grappa was created and imbibed by Italian peasants from what was left after making wine—the pressed stems, pulp, and seeds of grapes. A finely distilled grappa can now fetch as much as $600. Can the same thing happen for lambanog?
Like grappa, lambanog is harvested from the stem of the fruit instead of the fruit itself (the stem is cut before the flower even develops). Once the sap is collected, it is allowed to ferment into a toddy called tuba, which is then distilled. Tastewise, the drink bears little resemblance to grappa—it’s much sweeter, more akin to a potent vodka (lambanog runs 80 to 90 proof). Unlike most of the lambanog drunk in the Philippines, the brand Besa imports is 100% pure. Because of the difficulty in collecting the sap, the local lambanog is often watered down with another cheaper neutral grain, explains Besa. “You can tell the difference.”
Cendrillon offers straight shots of lambanog, but the strong alcohol really works best as a base for cocktails—mellowed with a little buko (young coconut juice) over ice, or added to a tropical martini with buko and a passion fruit or mango sorbet. Come summer, Cendrillon will be combining it with fresh-squeezed coconut milk for their own tempting take on Coco Loco.
Personally, we’d like to see it featured on more bar menus in Manhattan—if only for a reprieve from the toxic waste-colored sour apple martini and, more recently, drinks featuring the trendy but ultimately underwhelming addition of black tea.
Is lambanog the new grappa?