The Secret History of Medicinal Wines in Cebu

Contrary to popular belief, the indigenous Filipinos already have their own version of medicinal wines and the modern incarnation of these drinks are

Tonics, elixirs, cure-alls, and other concoctions have been around for centuries but it was only in the past century when these products have been mass-produced on an industrial scale. Although properly called 'medicinal wines,' these types of drinks got a bad rap to a certain degree as it is claimed to clear a lot of illnesses. Its popularity grew during a time when there was high mortality because of epidemics and public health challenges.

It is widely believed that medicinal wines were introduced by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century when they brought their traditional baijiu and snake wine. However, their "exotic" concoctions might be too much for some so they experimented to make it more acceptable to the taste of the locals. They incorporated more herbal mix and natural ingredients to make it more appealing.

Contrary to popular belief, the indigenous Filipinos already have their own version of medicinal wines and the modern incarnation of these drinks are shall we say a fusion of these traditions. In order to keep up with the times from competing energy drinks from Western brands, age-old medicinal wines have to modernize and adapt to the changing consumer landscape.

Indigenous Roots

Before the Spanish reach the islands, ancient Filipinos have already developed their own medicinal wines. There are certain food and drinks that are treated as medicine because of their purported healing properties. That is why shamans and medicine men, called "albularyos," have developed their own concoctions to treat everything from headaches and body pains to serious health conditions.

The indigenous wines, made from rice, sugarcane, and palm, are part of the traditional 'tapay' fermentation process as these drinks were fermented inside earthen jars, known as 'tapayan.' These were consumed both for recreation and religious purposes prominent in the animist rituals of the various anito religions. By the time the Spanish colonizers arrived, they recorded heavy consumption of tubâ and other alcoholic beverages. The concepts of 'tagayan' or 'inuman' were already embedded in the collective social consciousness so that social drinking formed an important aspect of Filipino culture.

Chinese Influence

The usage of 'wine' in Chinese is not precise since the word 'jiu' is used for a wide variety of alcoholic beverages like beer (pi jiu), red wine (hong jiu) and liquor (bai jiu). Alcoholic drinks are intimately related to the social, ethical, religious, economic and other aspects of life.

In ancient times, drinking alcohol took place with certain forms of etiquette and strict rules, such as kneeling down first, then pouring some alcohol on the ground to thank the earth for providing grains and food and then start drinking. Further, alcoholic beverages were incorporated into religious ceremonies both as a sacrificial offering for the gods or for the dead and as a drink during festivals featuring divine states of drunkenness.


Their medicinal wines were developed to treat and prevent diseases, promote good health, and enrich people's restorative culture. Throughout history, their medicinal wines have evolved with different characteristics. Records of medicated wine in oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty (1765 BC-1122 BC) may be the earliest relevant records ever found. There are 25 medical cases of Chunyu Yi, a famous physician of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), of which two are about treatments with medicated wine.

"The Treatise on Cold Pathogenic and Miscellaneous Diseases" by Zhang Zhongjing provides a formulation for safflower wine, Chinese ephedra decoction and other medicated wines. Some are made of medicines, some are obtained by decocting medicines with wine, and some are produced by simmering medicines with the mixture of wine and water, as wine can strengthen the effects of the medicines and help cure diseases.

Sun Simiao's "Thousand Pieces of Gold Formulae" recorded over 80 medicated wine formulations covering medical, surgical, gynaecological and tonic aspects. "The Principles of Correct Diet" by Hu Sihui, a court therapist during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 AD-1368 AD), features diet therapy that provides more than 10 medicated wine formulations noted for better nourishing and tonic functions.

Unlike bai jiu, snake wine infuses whole snakes in rice wine or grain alcohol. The drink was first recorded to have been consumed in China during the Western Zhou dynasty (1040–770 BC) and considered an important curative and believed to reinvigorate a person according to traditional Chinese medicine. It soon spread to other places like Goa (India), Vietnam, Okinawa (Japan), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia.

Spread of Influence

As the Chinese have been trading with ancient Filipinos for centuries so goes for the search for more exotic ingredients for their medicinal wines. Animals and animal parts are also used like snakes, frogs, bats, bear paws, tiger bone (illegal, but underground trade persists), the penis of various animals such as tiger, deer, bull, as well as deer antlers and rhinoceros horn, among many others.

The demand is enormous for the curative powers of these wine elixirs that many animals have become endangered. Soon, their influence spread through the islands and their techniques were incorporated in the way we make tonics and other remedies.

The Fusion of Cultures

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Chinese have immigrated to Southeast Asia, especially the Philippines. They brought their culture of medicinal wines and knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine with them. They tried to adapt to the Filipino taste so that their brand of medicinal wines would become distinct and different from the traditional flavors and taste back in the mainland. A Flipino-Chinese fusion has emerged.


One of the most popular herbal liquor or Chinese rice wine was called "sioktong" or "vino de chino." It is actually the brand name of the medicinal wine from the famous Binondo institution Limtuaco Distillery. It was used as a herbal tonic or elixir to increase vigor and vitality since it used natural blood tonics and regulators from angelica root, cassia bark, dried dates, chrysanthemum flowers, fennel seeds, and cloves.

Vino Kulafu

It sounds so Filipino but it's actually a Chinese medicinal wine. Vino Kulafu was named after the legendary Filipino jungle hero and it has become the choice Chinese wine of the south. Vino Kulafu prides itself on having 12 authentic Chinese botanical herbs known for their various health benefits.

Fighter Wine

It looks similar to Vino Kulafu but Fighter Wine shows a Chinese strongman character flexing his muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Actually, the guy on the label looks eerily similar to the founder Uy Ma Suy. He left his hometown of Amoy in China's Fujian province to seek a better life in the Philippines. He joined fellow immigrants where they congregated in the Plaridel area, which is the heart of the Cebu Chinatown.

He brought his expertise in traditional Chinese medicine where he sold his own brand of medicinal wine called Vino Uy Ma Suy. It became known as a potent, cure-all elixir for different types of ailments such as "kabuhi" or heartburn/stomach spasm, menstrual cramps, diarrhea, and fatigue, among others.

The Future

In order to keep up with the changing times, many Chinese wine manufacturers have decided to adopt new ways of getting younger people to drink their products as they have a much older demographic, to begin with.

Uy Ma Suy has expanded, modernized and diversified by introducing new brands of alcoholic beverages to respond to the changing needs and tastes of the market - from classic products Fighter Wine, Fighter Fifty, Red Lion Sioktong, Red Falcon Mallorca, and Mustang to the premium products like Drunk Barista, Zing Ginger Liqueur and Cebu Mango Rum.

Vino Kulafu is now mixed with everyone's favorite non-alcoholic beverages and powdered drinks. Interestingly, it is the recipient of a Gold Quality Award by Monde Selection, The International Quality Institute, in Belgium.

Gone are days when these traditional drinks are just for old people and pregnant women, it's being elevated so that it's available in bars or nightclubs as a trendy cocktail for younger people.


Gibbs, H.D.; Holmes, W.C. (1912). "The Alcohol Industry of the Philippine Islands Part II: Distilled Liquors; their Consumption and Manufacture" (PDF). The Philippine Journal of Science.

Lasco, Gideon. "Tagay: Why there's no Tagalog word for "cheers" and other notes on Filipino drinking culture". Health, Culture, and Society in the Philippines.

Lato-Ruffolo, Cris Evert; Alburo Ruaya, Robie. "12 surprising reasons why you have to try this drink now." CDN Life!



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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: The Secret History of Medicinal Wines in Cebu
The Secret History of Medicinal Wines in Cebu
Contrary to popular belief, the indigenous Filipinos already have their own version of medicinal wines and the modern incarnation of these drinks are
Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger
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