When Don Bonifacio Limtuaco came to the Philippines from China, he brought with him an old family recipe for a Chinese herbal wine, passed down over the course of generations. People back then called it siok hoc tong, which roughly translates to “good fortune will come to the family.”
The “wine”—although in the strict categorical sense, it isn’t a wine but an herbal tonic— was touted as a kind of elixir, one that would bring the drinker strength and vitality. When Limtuaco founded Distileria Limtuaco in 1852, it became one of the first, if not the first company, to manufacture the medicinal drink.
One would be fair to assume that such cultural products, with unproven healing properties, would be left to the realm of old wives’ tales. Maybe you've seen your lolo or lola down a shot of the stuff to start their day.
You may also like:
- Milk tea, taho, and other things we’re putting whisky into
- The story of whisky-making in Japan began with a scion of sake brewers
- Seven Mexican tequilas we tasted for your consideration
- The 5 new local craft beers you should seek out this weekend
But over a century later, Distileria Limtuaco is still manufacturing siok hoc tong—now more commonly known as just siok tong — as its flagship product. It's not the distillery's most popular drink (you might recognize them more for their modern craft spirits, like Manille Liquer de Calamansi), but the product enjoys a niche audience comprised of committed drinkers who swear by its healing properties.
"Even back then, people would drink this herbal tonic really to increase vigor and vitality. I think it was mainly attributed to some of the things that we put inside that are natural blood tonics and blood regulators," says Aaron Aw, Business Development Manager of Distileria Limtuaco. It makes a lot of sense if you look at some of the stuff in siok tong: angelica root, cassia bark, dried dates, chrysanthemum flowers, fennel seed, and cloves sound like a lineup of ingredients you'd find in a good witch's brew.
One of its main ingredients is Tong Kuy, a ginseng-shaped root usually advised for treating anemia and weakness which is usually caused by lack of sleep and exhaustion. For men, it's said to improve sexual performance, which is the exact opposite of what you'd expect for an alcoholic drink. For women, siok tong has been said to regulate menstrual flow, and relieve dysmenorrhea. Interestingly enough, while the drink started off being mostly marketed to men (that's why you still see bottles carrying the old branding design: a buff Chinese dude who looks like he could kick your ass in a fight), it eventually became a popular product among women.
Mayen Allaga is one such drinker who lends legitimacy to rumors of the drink's powers. Her mother would buy siok tong in Binondo after going to Quiapo church for mass, and have one shot in the morning and one in the evening (two if she had trouble sleeping) every day. Her mother also claimed that the drink gave her strength to work in the convent. Because of her mother's influence, she began drinking siok tong at the age of 13 and hasn't missed a day. "It gives us strength and vitality. We are not tired when we drink siok tong."
It’s true that some of its ingredients can be healthy for the blood: angelica root is used to treat circulation problems; cassia bark, or Chinese cinnamon, can increase blood sugar uptake, which can be beneficial for patients with diabetes. But if we’re being rigorous though, there is no substantial, verified evidence to back up siok tong’s medicinal properties. Numerous testimonies of the drink’s powers, if anything, are evidence that the concoction makes for an effective placebo.
In a cocktail near you
But while supposedly medicinal, the liquid doesn't even taste like medicine. "Siok tong is like an amaro, but it's not as bitter," Aw says. It goes down smooth and tastes like a negroni with just a touch of spiciness. "I brought this product to Italy, and I had a few of the bartenders in Italy try it. And they were surprised, they really liked it! It was something that they could connect with."
Kalel Demetrio, who runs Distileria Barako and founded bars such as Agimat and Alamat in Poblacion, grew up in Tondo, and remembers seeing bottles of siok tong in his grandfather's stash. Now, as a brand ambassador for the drink, he recognizes the complexity of siok tong with the heightened senses of a mixologist. "I began to mix it with different spirits like gin, rum," he says. "And it works well because you get to enjoy a lot of ingredients," without having to mix in the other herbs and spices by yourself. "A lot of people right now have been experimenting with ingredients that are in the siok tong already."
It's easy to think that today's high-end cocktails rely on the most premium of spirits and the most exotic of bitters and aromatics, and that these concoctions can only be achieved by looking to the future. But according to Demetrio, "Everyone is looking at the past right now." Imagine: siok tong has been around for so long, older than the oldest distillery in the Philippines, and is enjoying new life in the spotlight as a drink that can compete with vermouths and Old Fashioneds. It's as vintage as vintage can get. On experimenting with siok tong in his drinks, Demetrio says, "It's really nice to incorporate a bit of story, but at the same time, a bit of magic of the past of the Filipino."
"Everybody's looking for more complex flavors," Aw tells me. And he remembers how as recently as four or five years ago, the city's drinking crowd was comfortable with rum cokes, vodka sprites, basically baby drinks. Those were dark days, in which Manila's drinkers had no choice but to settle for the devil's toilet water, AKA Jose Cuervo and Bacardi.
Nowadays you can buy siok tong—labelled as Vino de Chino or Vino Kung Fu—directly from the distillery, for extremely cheap. P60 a pop is a hell of a deal. Otherwise, you have to be a little cunning about how to find it. You can find it in a select few SM branches or various stores in the province. If you do manage to find the drink though, outside the context of bars that mark up the prices to ridiculous highs, you can bring it home, mix it with some coke or ginger ale, and live it up the way your grams and gramps did back in the day.