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Among the VuQopolitans: Turning Filipino Moonshine Into Premium Vodka 

At the launch party, they were dancing in the movie-set street

Wednesday, Jun 3 2009
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The Philippines has given America, its former colonial master, many wonderful things over the years: giggly nurses; chicken adobo; Manny Pacquiao; YouTube videos of Thriller-dancing prisoners; a cozy tropical place to hang out during World War II. The brand-new Filipino vodka, the first of its kind, is no exception.

Most vodkas are made of potatoes or wheat. VuQo is made from coconut. It is the classier, sexier, younger cousin of lambanog, the potent moonshine favored in certain drinking circles in the Philippine provinces. And when I say drinking circles, I mean men sitting in circles, slugging back the stiff, fermented drink on lazy Sundays, or after work, or after cockfights, or whenever.

Lambanog, however, is one thing America isn’t having. VuQo’s manufacturers at first tried to bring straight lambanog to the U.S., but the Western palate revolted.

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“One person said it tastes like feet,” says marketing executive Giselle Arroyo at VuQo’s U.S. launch party, shaking her head ruefully. “It’s not that it’s dirty. But you know how lambanog is made, in a bucket with rainwater and dogs and bugs and chickens running around in the backyard.”

So they refined the lambanog into vodka. Cleansed the impurities away in copper stills. It took a long time to distill out the funk.

“Four years. It took four years to bring this drink to America,” Arroyo says. She is in a celebratory mood. Puffs of smoke from her cigar glow blue in the swirling lights. “It is an incredibly difficult process to bring a foreign product to the U.S. market.”

Now that it’s here, it will be marketed as a premium vodka, on par with Absolut, less snooty than Grey Goose. Twenty-four dollars per chic, frosted-glass bottle. The liquid is cool, smooth, burning sweetly on the tongue, so crisp it evaporates almost as soon as it hits the lips. Its tag line: “Every tribe has a ritual. Every drink has a history.”

And what a history. Urban legend says one sip of it makes you insane. Then there’s the worker, the mangagarit’s dangerous climb, sickle in hand, up a 30-foot coconut tree to collect the sap from the flowers of the tree of life — occasionally the tree of death if he falls and cracks his skull, like, well, a coconut.

A worthy sacrifice for a drink “that sealed brotherhoods and with which the day’s bounty was enjoyed and shared.”

Now, a popular Filipino actor alights on the red carpet. Then his mom. Then his dad. Then his aunt and uncle. These family members are not celebrities, but the shutterbugs photograph them all the same. By the way, the brotherhood of Filipino-native paparazzi? Way more aggressive than their stateside counterparts.

They are hoping for their favorite fighter, Manny Pacquiao, but he couldn’t make it this time around. When he trounced De La Hoya last December, guests at Pacquiao’s after-fight party drank VuQo, which sponsored the event. Pacman the Destroyer is currently in General Santos City (official slogan: “The tuna capital of the Philippines”) with his wife and children.

Choreographed dancing fills the void: a mix of break dance, hip-hop, voguing and mime. “Like a great fried rice, each ingredient brings its own unique flavor to the mix,” says the MC. “Give it up for Pride Rice!”

“See, it’s a play on words,” one woman explains to her friend. So is VuQo, which sounds like buko, Tagalog for coconut.

Bartenders are mixing VuQotonics, and cranberry and VuQo, and VuQotinis. The brave are taking shots of it in tiny plastic cups. It’s an intense drink, and if you don’t like vodka, you won’t like it in its unadulterated form. The girls here tend to prefer their VuQopolitans.

“Does it taste like rubbing alcohol?” one asks.

“What? No. I don’t know,” says another, over the thumping music. “But it tastes like rubbing alcohol.”

As an alternative, guests are sipping small glasses of Haliya, a mango dessert wine. It pairs well with spicy foods. But alas, no bagoong or lechón at this Hollywood affair! VuQo will be sold in the mother country but only at the airport. This is because the Philippines’ moneyed class will only drink it and like it and love it if people in the United States do so first.

In case you’ve never found yourself staggering home from one of our soirees with a to-go plate of something salty and drippy while waving goodbye to your hundred new best friends, you should know that Filipinos party hard. And this party is no different. Fog is blasting from balconies. People are dancing in the streets. Actually, the venue is a street. Specifically, the New York Street back-lot exterior set at CBS Studios, where CSI is sometimes filmed.

The DJ is handing out drinks and cigars from a stage, which looks sort of like a boxing ring. The sexy, scantily clad girls are gyrating on each corner of the ring, and the other, more conservative girls are hating on them. “That should be the gold standard of dance moves. If hooker strippers are doing it, don’t do it.”

Others are wishing the good times would never end. “I love this party,” says one girl. “I want my wedding to be like this.”

By the end, people linger on the stoops of buildings and on stairways and on the curb. People who I imagine will be in serious pain tomorrow. But Rich Cabael, VuQo Inc.’s elegant, youthful CEO, shakes his head dismissively. “It’s so smooth and clean,” he says. “The hangover is minimal.”

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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