"We drink when we are happy, we drink when we are sad and we drink for any other reason: inom na!”
When I have arrived in this country back in 2009 I was told that Filipinos, despite considering themselves “mild drinkers”, really love hard alcoholics.
11 years later - and 8 years in the local F&B industry - I see that this is still true: the large majority of Filipinos prefer beer, gin, rum and whiskey over wine.
Curiously, from 1960 to 2015 the percentages of alcohol consumption in the Country have not changed: 71% spirits, 27% beer and 2% of “others” of which 1.5 % Wine...
What has changed is the population, from a roughly 27 Million in 1960 to 107 Million in 2019, of which 53% are Millennials below 26 years of age. A 2018 survey established that 80.1 % of Filipino male teenagers get to drink alcohol before the age of 18 compared with 67.8% of females of the same age. Today, the preferences of the alcohol consumed by Filipinos still follow the same percentages occurred in the period considered above, although on a tripled number of consumers.
There are historical, cultural, social and economic reasons why about 98% of Filipinos don’t drink wine. And there are also their palates to be considered.
About that, in the words of Christopher Quimbo, President of a Company called Calabria (!), who is following the footsteps of his father’s Vicente Quimbo Corporation Bel Mondo Italia (!), that is the largest wine producer in the Philippines and the maker of the popular wine Novellino (!): “one of the main reasons why Filipinos don’t like drinking wine is because that they don’t like the taste: it’s bitter. A perfect example of this is our (?) spaghetti. Try bringing an Italian to Jollibee and serving him spaghetti. Here, that’s what the market wants. That’s how people consume spaghetti, Jollibee style…”.
Mr. C. Quimbo is wrong about the way wine tastes and he is wrong about the use of names, flag and trademarks that evoke Italy in order to promote and market products that are not Italian. The exploitation by Jollibee of one of Italian cuisine’s traditional products, the spaghetti, is just another proof of how immensely popular those products are in the world, even in Jollibee’s “zombie” - from an Italian perspective - version.
Mr. Quimbo is right, though, about what the majority of the Filipinos, for the time being, do like; a consequence of their so-called “sweet tooth”, that is, their sweet oriented palate...
However, most Filipinos’ tastes in wine are what they are because they don’t know better. They don’t know better because they haven’t tried and tasted anything else: wine is an acquired taste. Ten, hundred of thousands of Filipino palates are used to Novellino’s sweet taste because they have never tried other wines, sweet or else, like for instance the legendary sweet Italian reds Lambrusco or Brachetto, the worldwide famous white Moscato without mentioning the hundreds of “passiti”, the extraordinary sweet dessert wines historically produced in Italy.
While Filipinos do generally have a sweet palate, the wine importers already acknowledge that the local market for drier wines is slowly expanding as Filipino tastes progressively mature. Besides, if you are a wine lover, you probably know that wine is not bitter. To be precise: any good, fine wine is not only bitter. The "bitterness" being one of the dozens of flavors you may find in a wine. As for the spaghetti, a lot of Filipinos in Manila, despite the hundreds of fake Italian restaurants around, long for authentic Italian spaghetti al dente with the right, original all-Italian ingredients.
I would also add that it is mainly the captivating price of Novellino, not only its sweetness, that made its - fully deserved - fortune, a low price that certainly targets a larger segment of population with limited purchasing power.
In the meantime, however, the Philippines has undergone demographic changes reflecting, among others, in a greater economic spending capacity of the middle class. One of the reasons why wine exports to the Philippines picked up from 2000 to 2018 (4.4 Million Liters to 16 Million liters) is because New World wine producing countries began shipping containers of value-priced wines that upscale hotels, restaurants and retail outlets proliferating in the last decades throughout Metro Manila and the rest of the country, consistently offered to a rising number of consumers, although not meaningful in terms of percentage.
The growth of the population compensated, in the measures mentioned, the wine’s growing market share. Today, growth in wine consumption is fueled by the country’s young, educated and urbanized population (millennials and generation Z) with increasingly sophisticated tastes and easier access to restaurants and wine stores, not to mention experiences gained in countries they have visited while traveling around the world.
It is estimated that about 15-20 million Filipinos have now sufficient income to purchase wine occasionally. What wine exactly? Over a third of wine brought in by importers comes from the United States (29%) ahead of Australia (19%), Spain (15%), France (9%), Chile (9%) and Italy (6%). No matter what, Filipinos still continue to prefer hard alcoholics and this is why the Philippines remain the world's biggest market for gin: 43% of all gin in the world is consumed in this country. Gin, brandy, vodka, rum and whiskey were once again the most popular alcoholic beverages imported into the Philippines in 2019.
As for wine, although the Philippine climate is tropical, importers estimate that about 55% of wines demanded on the market are red even though white and sparkling wine recorded - in the last couple of years - a growth as well. Aside from its health benefits, importers report that many consumers shifted from hard alcoholics to red wine because of its robust taste and its higher alcohol content.
Today wine traders see an untapped potential for medium and premium wines, as well as dessert wines and private label wines. Wine is becoming increasingly popular among many Filipino consumers, along with their strong interest to learn more about pairing wines with local and foreign cuisines. Some wine lovers - with means - passionately collect wines and ventured into the wine importation business as a serious hobby. High-end wines are pre-sold to a small network of rich wine consumers even before shipments arrive.
However, since the price is still a factor for the rest of the alcohol drinking population, lower cost hard alcoholics are usually preferred by the budget consumers for a quicker kick because even if GNP and income is growing, wine is still acknowledged as a luxury product by most Filipino consumers. Traders consider 500.00 Pesos as the threshold beyond which the majority of Filipino alcohol drinkers will not be willing to spend for their booze.
But is there more to a Filipino alcohol drinker’s profile?
A recent study revealed that Filipinos drink to socialize (45.5%), to remove stress and burden (23.8%) or just to be happy (17.5%). As elsewhere in Asia (and in the rest of the world), alcohol drinking in the Philippines has been traditionally associated with happiness, success, thrill and sexual prowess, especially for the males. Furthermore, alcohol is projected as part of the day-to-day life as portrayed in soap operas, movies, comedy shows and music video channels. Social media further echo and amplify the trends.
Pigafetta wrote in his journal “Voyage Around the World” that the first catholic Mass in the Philippines was held in 1521, Easter Sunday, on an Island called “Mazaua”. During that Mass, the Eucharist was celebrated with Magellan's - blessed - sherry.
That was probably the first time Filipinos tasted the grape wine while other alcohol concoctions were already known in the archipelago as lambanog and tuba.
In fact, cited in Pigafetta's chronicles are the banquets and ceremonies he had attended with Magellan during his stay in the Philippines where he got to try a palm wine called “in their language Uraca (probably from the Arab arrack)” and a rice wine “which is stronger and better than that made from the palm”.
In pre-Spanish period alcohol drinking sessions were already embedded in the local cultures as proved by the ancient rituals of eating “pulutan” during meetings.
Spanish colonizers, on the other hand, through their three centuries long presence in the country have consistently failed to transmit to Filipinos the Old World’s culture of wine. This being an interesting subject for another article…
In 1890 the Philippines became the first country in South East Asia to open a brewery: it was La Fabrica de Cerveza de San Miguel at n.6, Calzada de Malacanang in Manila, proving once more that the conditions for alcohol consumption in the Country have been favourable all along. Even the influential Catholic Church has been implementing for centuries in the Philippines a culture where collective joyous festivities and celebrations, followed by dining, drinking and merrymaking, are not considered “sinful”.
This is why, generally, alcohol drinking is portrayed with positive images in the Philippines and focuses on values such as bonding, friendship, fun and celebration while, when with the family, it is mainly consumed on special occasions: on holidays and as a gift.
From the vineyard to the glass, wine is a cultural, emotional and commercial product. It has a real and virtual value. Wine being an acquired taste, more and more Filipinos (thanks to Ho.Re.Ca, internet, instant mobile communication and easy travel) are getting seduced by wine. In the Philippines, like other countries in Asia, drinking wine still carries a connotation of privilege, class and elegance: therefore consumer education is critical to boost wine consumption.
What is known is that, in general, high frequency Filipino wine consumers are very involved with and have a high interest in wine. So it’s important to understand a little more about those consumers and focus the attention on their demographics, attitudes and purchase behaviors.
Sarap mag wine, lalo na Italian wine!