Wine makers in La Union encourage more Filipinos to take a sip of the Ilocano ‘basi’

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By KC Santos

NAGUILIAN, LA UNION – This town prides itself as the home of the original basi, or native wine made from sugarcane. Basi has been a traditional drink enjoyed by folks here since pre-war times and is, in fact, a fixture in any occasion in every household.

Visit Naguilian and you will come upon an arch that proudly claims “The Home of the Original Basi”.  Basi not only speaks of the abundance of sugar cane in this town but also the rich history of the people of Naguilian.

Arthur Cortez Jr., Administrative Officer of the La Union Provincial Tourism Office and in charge of marketing Niguilian La Union Basi Sugar Cane Wine, said basi wine making industry is one of the most prominent industries that have survived in La Union over the years.

The extracted sugarcane juice is boiled, flavored with various fruits and barks of trees before being fermented for years in earthen jars.

“We value and we really want this product to be known because it tells a lot about the people and our traditions,” said Cortez.

To support the industry, the local government has set up a manufacturing complex specifically for the continued production of the wine by groups like the Basi Producers Cooperative of Naguilian.

Cortez said wine makers in their town are very keen on producing high-grade wines since they want to preserve a traditional flavor that will remain familiar to the townsfolk of Naguilian.

Naguilian La Union Basi Sugar Cane Wine was featured during the recent “Tara Na sa Norte Travel Fair” held at Robinson’s Place Manila.

Ilocanos love their basi so much they are even willing to shed blood for it. In 1807, Pedro Mateo led the Ilocano uprising against the Spanish government, who took over the manufacturing of basi in the region.

The leaders of Naguilian declared September 16 as a non-working holiday to commemorate the Basi Revolt.

Basi is best enjoyed chilled or when mixed with other alcoholic beverages. It shares the same taste and benefits of the red wine but has an earthier flavor, according to Cortez.

But he admitted making basi more appealing to consumers is a challenge for Naguilian wine makers. While they dream of exporting basi abroad, he said their focus at present is marketing it to local buyers.

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Thank you for your comprehensive input. It’s a valid historical perspective that our readers can very much use. Please do read a separate story on the Ilocanos role in the Basi Revolt in this previous article.

Do feel free to send in some more comments on our other stories. We’d love to read more of your historical insights and go back to it as reference in the future!

MLI Ingel says:

May I know the basis of your claim that Naguilian is the “home of the original basi”?

When you talk about basi having been the “traditional drink enjoyed by folks here since the pre-war times,” are you also referring to basi having been there since before the Spaniards came?

As far as I know, at least from the 1686-1688 journal of English sailor William Dampier (published 1697) and from several books by foremost historian William Henry Scott, sugarcane cultivation and sugarcane wine were already found in many parts of the Philippine Islands in the 16th and 17th centuries. Among those mentioned in the books are Visayas and Bikol where said wine is called “intus,” and Pangasinan, Ilocos, Cagayan and Batanes where it is called “basi.” And even before those centuries, the same observation was made by the 14th century traveller Wang Tayuan.

Actually, sugarcane wine is a traditional alcoholic drink for different people around the world where sugarcane is cultivated in relatively large quantities. In that sense, I think, there is no such particular town that could claim to be “home of original basi.” Another thing, basi manufacture is in fact very particular for every maker – given each maker’s trade secret, which thus makes it difficult and un-traditional to attempt to standardize basi. The basi-making tradition is shared by a group of people in terms of the basic ingredient (sugarcane juice) and basic steps in the process, but the formula varies for every maker. Even the fermenting agents are too diverse and all we could say is that samak seems to be the most widely used.

It would have been great if you also wrote about the “rich history of the people of Naguilian” that you associate with your banner “The Home of the Original Basi.” I was wondering if you meant that the people of Naguilian were somehow involved in the Basi Revolt of 1807 which, of course, began in Piddig, Ilocos Norte under the leadership of Pedro Mateo and Salarogo Ambaristo, and ended at Bantaoay River, San Ildefonso and Vigan, both in Ilocos Sur in September 1807. I’d be glad to know the details of the Naguilian people’s participation in this revolt which occurred in Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur, at least 130 km north of Naguilian, La Union. I am missing this information in your article, especially because you mention Naguilian town having September 16 as a holiday to commemorate the Basi Revolt, yet you leave out the most important historical fact that farmers of Ilocos Norte started the uprising in July 1807, having been fed up by the Spanish colonial government’s impositions and monopolies, among which was the wine monopoly that was instituted in 1786, just five years after the tobacco monopoly was imposed in 1781. (Have you desisted from making this explanation because the revolt does not mention Naguilian at all?)

Tourism and marketing are good, but once history and culture are summoned to prop these up, they better be anchored on the correct historical and cultural footing.