“Orange soda mixed with gasoline,” Kalel Demetrio says, thinking back to the most memorable drink he’s come across while scouring the Philippines in search of cocktail inspiration. “[On a foraging research mission] I came across some rebels and farmers living in the mountains and they showed me some of their unique regional produce and their favorite drink. I didn’t know it was gasoline at first—they drink it like a shot because it burns.”
Demetrio, known as Liquido Maestro, has spent the better part of the past decade researching and documenting rare and little-known regional Filipino produce and ingredients, with the goal of creating a cocktail culture in Manila that celebrates Filipino products. With his hands in the creation of cocktail lists at over 28 different bars and restaurants around Manila and the Philippines, Demetrio’s unique approach and focus has been instrumental in bringing Filipino cocktail culture to where it is today.
“What’s been missing is Filipino heritage and attitude,” Demetrio explains. “But my industry is now realizing the power of our own produce and our sense of patriotism is on another level now.”
To come up with creations like his coconut toddy—made with fresh coconut juice, roasted coconut, batuan (a southern Philippines green fruit tree and souring agent) and grilled rhum syrup—Demetrio has made a weekly habit of foraging and harvesting expeditions across the Philippines’ 7,100 plus islands.
“It started with going to markets and that always led to meeting hardcore farmers and then to shamans. People in the far-flung places in the mountains or jungle who use herbs and plants for medicinal purposes,” Demetrio clarifies. Ingredients like serpentina, a plant with anti-inflammatory products used in indigenous medicine to treat things from pain to diabetes, have become staples in Demetrio’s creations, taking new forms in everything from bitters to drinking vinegars and everything fermented in between.
Besides plants used in medicines or indigenous cuisines, Demetrio has also looked to indigenous tribesmen and shamans to learn how to make indigenous alcohols, such as liquor made from amukaw, a sort of wild banana, traditional to the Aeta tribe.
But it’s not just the ingredients that Demetrio has learned about from farmers and tribesmen, it’s also when to harvest them for the best possible product. “If you want the very best blossom and the plant blooms at night, it should be harvested then and immediately made into an extract,” Demetrio explains. “The worst, though, is when you have to wake up 4 AM to collect sap across a hectare of mangrove trees and it’s really dark and you only have a flashlight.”
Demetrio plays mad scientist with his findings at his fermentation cocktail lab in Manila. A long narrow room (about 4 large steps from wall to wall) housed in a nondescript building in a residential part of Manila, Demetrio’s lab is a creative genius’ perfect hodgepodge of industrial kitchen equipment, blossoming plants, indigenous relics, and research resources ranging from indigenous cookbooks to textbooks on botany. Not to forget the good stuff: the hundreds and hundreds of vials, beakers, and mason jars full of experiments in drinking vinegars, indigenous fermentations, bitters, and endless infusions.
With his hands-on approach to ingredient discovery and sourcing and the fact that many of his concoctions require equipment and techniques more commonly used in the culinary world, it’s no wonder that Demetrio has steered away from the term mixologist and earned the nickname “liquid chef.” In fact, as a young man in the industry, Demetrio started out as a cook.
“When I was a line cook, I noticed all the trimmings of fruit and veggies just being discarded, and little by little I learned how to salvage them by doing syrups and infusions,” Demetrio shared.
Demetrio’s love of produce and ingredients is longstanding—in fact, it led him (alongside his mentor and partner, Chef Robbie Goco) to open up the first all-organic restaurant in the Philippines five years ago. “[Besides foraged plants] a large part of my advocacy is to make agriculture sexy. So I work a lot with farmers to create a demand for their Filipino produce by turning them into good products in my lab. We have a highland, upland, and lowland, so as a country we can grow a lot of different produce—the only limit is creativity.”
This creativity and focus on regional produce and foraged ingredients is at the heart of Demetrio’s next project: Agimant bar. Dedicated to representing the ingredients of the Philippines, Agimant will use foraged ingredients from over 200 different islands, with each province getting a three-month turn in the spotlight so that patrons can fully immerse themselves in the ingredients and flavors of the featured area.
Cheers to that.