Basi: The Tipple that Started a Revolution

Head up north of Manila, some 7 or 8 hours north through the Pan-Philippine Highway, and you will find yourself in the Ilocos Region of Luzon. This region is famous for its agriculture, its tobacco, its cuisine (bagnet and empanada come to mind), its status as the birthplace of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos, and not surprisingly, its basi – the local wine made from sugarcane which is plentiful in the region.

Nothing sums up the Philippines in a bottle quite like basi, the locally-fermented sugarcane wine that many northerners enjoy. Not just because it’s been consumed in the region for centuries before the Spanish conquest, but because of the history that’s tied to it.

The Wine that Triggered an Insurgency

philippine-revolutionary-spiritFew spirits can ever lay claim to causing an outbreak of rebellion, but that’s what basi did in 1807 by a couple of basi lovers in the city of present-day Piddig, Ilocos Norte; due to the Spanish colonial government’s expropriation and subsequent banning of private distillation of the popular wine, locals were forced to buy from government-approved stores. This paved the way for an insurrection by frustrated basi lovers, spreading throughout towns in the Ilocos region leaving Spanish soldiers and local residents fighting for weeks on end, until it was finally quelled after 22 days of fighting. When was the last time you saw an entire uprising stemming from the love of alcohol? Only in the Philippines.

The Basi Formulation

Basi is produced by fermenting freshly-extracted sugarcane juice in earthenware vessels called burnay by the locals – which is the only way it can ever be called proper basi. It is then flavored with ground rice, samac leaves, different pieces of bark, and java plum, with every basi maker having his or her own secret formulation, and then left to age for up to one year. As it ferments with the homemade yeast called bubud, the anaerobic fermentation process creates a delightfully sweet golden brown tipple of about 15% alcohol which is not recommended if you are trying to loose weight. But, it is the delight of many a northerner. Basi is an excellent wine to serve chilled; though there are similarly fermented wines, notably in Guyana, they don’t come close to the uniquely refreshing taste of basi. Enjoying basi can thusly be improved by using a wine cooler; finding useful information about this contraption has never been made easier than at Cooling Wine.

Basi in the Present Wine Market

In recent times, basi has captured the tastes of upmarket wine fanatics with a taste for the exotic and therefore it’s a nice idea for a gift. A local wine marketer, Basi del Diablo, has placed basi into the international wine market in 2015, largely in part to sustain the flagging livelihoods of the sugarcane farmers in the Ilocos region. Furthermore, large-scale efforts to introduce the drink to the rest of the local market has been made by Destileria Limtuaco, which is one of the oldest distilleries in the Philippines, marketing its own version of the wine. This rediscovery and little renaissance of the wine bodes well for the farmers who have made it for centuries. It’s as close as you can get the Philippine revolutionary spirit in a bottle.