Mixing It Up: Erwan Heussaff Brings Craft Cocktails to the Philippines

As a cocktail enthusiast, I was instantly curious when I met Erwan Heussaff. Heussaff is the driving force behind numerous cocktail bars in the Philippines, the food and drink editor for Esquire Philippines and the voice behind the popular blog The Fat Kid Inside. Type his name into Google and you’ll quickly learn that Heussaff’s sister is a famous celebrity and his girlfriend is the popular actress Anne Curtis. But make no mistake, Heussaff has garnered fans and made a name for himself in the food and drink world without ever going to culinary school. He’s also been influential in introducing a cocktail movement to the Philippines. I interviewed Heussaff to learn more about the fusion between business and culture and his contributions to this particular culinary movement.

MISC has a column about happy hour in other countries. What is happy hour like in the Philippines, and what are the popular spirits?

In a country where the drinking age is more of a suggestion than a rule, the Philippines has a very strong drinking culture. Happy Hour here is all about volume and getting the most bang for your buck. We Filipinos love to eat, so no matter what time of the day, food is available. After work, people gather around watering holes for pulutan — local bar food that consists of pig entrails chopped up and fried in garlic and shallots — and San Miguel beers. As for spirits, we are one of the largest consumers of rum in the world.

You mentioned that the cocktail culture hasn’t blossomed until recently. What paved the way?

We were stuck in a rut that involved badly made cosmos and vodka red bulls. Two years ago, a local group opened The Blind Pig, a speakeasy that was unapologetic in its specialist approach to prohibition-era cocktails. Some people complained that the drinks were too strong or pricey because they’d never had a proper cocktail before. The Blind Pig paved the way for other bars to venture into the art, and we opened our establishments shortly after.

How has the reception been for your cocktails?

The first few months were rough, with rants about a drink taking more than three minutes to make. But slowly, people are starting to understand. We try to educate. Every month, we run a new ten-item menu composed of obscure classics and new recipes using whatever fresh produce we can get our hands on. We push people to order things other than a rum and Coke, with the goal of making cocktails a way of life here.

Tell us about some of the drinks on your menu. What makes them distinctly yours?

Aside from the local fruits and herbs we use, which I’ve never seen in bars abroad, we use local ingredients to create our shrubs, syrups and tinctures. We aren’t regulated regarding infusions so we can get quite creative with our liqueurs as well. It’s necessary since a lot of the bottles that are easy to find in Canada like Crème de Violette are impossible to get locally due to restrictive import regulations. We also use indigenous spirits like Tuba (fermented palm sap) and Lambanog (fermented sap of coconut trees) since they are absolutely fantastic for shrub and infusion making.

How are you inspired by bartenders abroad?

We look to foreign bars for inspiration and understanding of technique. In Niner Ichi Nana and Hatch 22, my bartenders are required to read PDT, The Joy of Mixology, Punch! and Craft Cocktails at Home. This gives us the framework, techniques and tools to look at local products and see how we can apply classical techniques, similar to how classical French cooking is the basis to many new-world cuisines.

Despite the newness of the craft cocktail scene, the Philippines actually has an extremely rich cocktail history. I read in the Adobo Road Cookbook that Filipino bartenders are largely responsible for bringing the tiki movement to America in the 1930s.

I believe that this happened in two waves: first, the local produce being similar to Hawaii and the availability of cane crops made it easy to produce rum-based tropical drinks. Second, Filipinos have always been a migrant population and have been known to work mostly in the hospitality business so I’m not surprised to hear that the early tiki bars in America were tended by Filipino-Americans. This history has been lost throughout the years and we are trying to bring it back, similar to the revival of bitters. We’re experimenting with tiki using our exotic fruits like mangosteen, jackfruit, soursop, guava, and nuts like pili to create an identifiable Filipino flavor.

You were in Toronto recently trying out some of our best cocktail bars. What are some similarities and differences between the Toronto and Filipino drinking scene?

The difference is that in Toronto, going to a craft cocktail bar is already habit. People will drop in for a nightcap, whereas in Manila, craft cocktail bars are still a destination that people need to make up their mind to go to. They have to really feel like a cocktail. The similarity lies in the joy of drinking. Canadians obviously love their booze and we are not ones to shy away from alcohol either.

Do you see yourself as an entrepreneur?

I told myself that if I wanted to invest fully in my creative whims, I had to have a solid business background first, bringing structure to my ideas. Everything I do has a business process to it. Because creativity is only fun until you go bankrupt.

the author

Jenny Morris