Davao Region

Agdao’s ‘bahalina’ aging like fine wine – and running out

Rommel Rebollido

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Agdao’s ‘bahalina’ aging like fine wine – and running out

DUSTY. Dust-covered glass containers of aged 'bahalina' in the basement of the Davao house of known local winemaker Hedo Arcay.

Rommel Rebollido / Rappler

Bahalina is made from tuba, which undergoes a long process of fermentation. A wrong move in the process can make one end up with vinegar instead

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Hedo Arcay, a septuagenarian and well-known bahalina maker in a village in Davao City, has spent over half his life making and aging the popular local wine using a unique process taught to him by his elders who were masters of the craft.

In search of better opportunities, he left his hometown of Alicia in Bohol in the 1970s and ended up being a street vendor in the Southern Mindanao city.

Bahalina, which looks like grape wine, is made from tuba or coconut toddy, which undergoes a long process of fermentation, natural distillation, and aging.

VANISHING. A worn-out rattan chair remains in the basement of a Davao house where Hedo Arcay used to work to make ‘bahalina.’ – Rommel Rebollido / Rappler

The 71-year-old Arcay said the aging process mellows the wine, providing it with a better taste, aroma, and color. 

In the 1980s, while working for a soft drink company, Arcay decided to give bahalina production a chance. He would later quit the job and focus on making bahalina, hopeful that he could earn more from spirits than from selling colas.

‘Bahalina king’

Now, 40 years later, a wheelchair-bound Arcay realized in his old age that he had sold thousands of liters of bahalina to loyal customers who jokingly call him the “Bahalina King of Agdao,” where he built a multi-story concrete house, including a basement, using his earnings.

“If there is one person in the world’s largest city (in terms of land area) who keeps a basement packed with jars upon jars of bahalina, that’s Hedo (Arcay),” said photojournalist Keith Bacongco of his bahalina-maker friend.

Arcay’s bahalina, which comes in varying ages, presently sells for P150 a gallon, up three-fold from a decade ago.

“He sold me an eight-year-old bahalina before, but rarely can you buy any older than that now because his bahalina is highly in demand,” said Bacongco, who buys Arcay’s wine not to drink but as a food ingredient.

His earnings from bahalina provided for Arcay’s family and allowed him to send his children to school, with the youngest even attending the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Davao University.

During the pandemic lockdowns, and almost a year liquor ban in Davao, Arcay’s bahalina sales plummeted, but the winemaker was quick to point out that the ban contributed to his wine stocks’ aging process.

Arcay’s bahalina is aged in glass jars, not in plastics, to ensure better quality wine. A clean glass jar is a must in making bahalina, which can be tricky at times, he said.

“One small wrong move in the fermentation process, and you end up with vinegar instead of bahalina,” he said.

Tedious process

Making bahalina needs patience and attention because of the tedious nature of seeing to it that the tuba is 100% genuine, and not contaminated, properly strained to remove sediments and impurities, then placed in air-tight glass gallon jars, he said.

In storing the bahalina, the jar must be filled to the brim, and sealed to prevent mold from forming, which can turn the wine into vinegar.

Vanishing art

Before he got sick, Arcay spent most of his time in a rattan chair, his throne of sorts in his cellar kingdom, carefully straining tuba and bahalina.

Now suffering from liver disease, the local winemaker is unable to continue his business, which none of his children are interested in pursuing because they lack familiarity with the process and have their own families to care for.

AGING. An aging local winemaker, Hedo Arcay, sits on his wheelchair in his Davao house, unable to continue the art of bahalina-making. – Rommel Rebollido / Rappler

As a result, Arcay’s cellar throne remains unoccupied, and the remaining stocks of bahalina, with the glass jars gathering dust from the outside, are waiting to be sold. 

“Age not only mellowed but also slowed me down,” an emotional Arcay said.

The aging winemaker, however, is not in a rush to sell. He clung to the last of his precious bahalina, determined that his art of wine-making should not be lost to time. 

He said his wish is for his remaining bahalina to continue to age and improve before his fine art of wine-making disappears entirely. – Rappler.com

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