Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Tagay: Why there's no Tagalog word for "cheers" and other notes on Filipino drinking culture

by Gideon Lasco, MD

I was with my family in a restaurant in Tagaytay, and the discussion went to wine. My brother-in-law, an American with a keen interest in Filipino culture, inquired about the Tagalog word for "cheers". To which, we couldn't come up with an answer. In social gatherings, "Cheers" is used, and in more informal settings sometimes men also use "kampay" which comes from the Japanese "kanpai"(乾杯). "We just use cheers, I guess," we replied, to his disappointment.

The question lingered in my mind, and I felt that to answer his question adequately, we need to look at Filipino drinking culture, which predates the coming of the Europeans.

When Magellan arrived in the Philippines in 1521, his and his men found alcohol being drank by the locals. Aquino and Persoon (2008:198) notes: "That the inhabitants prepared their own drinks and and were big drinkers were what the Spaniards discovered when they landed in the Visayas." Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan's chronicler, took note of the tuba, distilled wine from coconut, which he considered to be "stronger and better", comparing it to Spanish brandy (Fernandez, 2013). 

The tuba is still around, with the same process unchanged for several centuries, and so have other kinds of indigenous liquor, such as the lambanog of Batangas and Quezon, the basi of the Ilocos Region. When I went to Southern Cebu last year to climb a mountain, there was tuba available at the trailhead.

How do people drink these beverages? In what context? Drinking, as in many cultures around the world, is for celebrations, and for enacting social relationships (Heath, 1976). But what is interesting is the way liquor is drunk in the Philippines (2011:199).
Only one glass is used and a tangero (person assigned of pouring gin in the glass) is assigned. He pours out the same amount in the glass and passes it around, everyone drinking, with no one spared. The tagay ('shot') may be immediately followed by another shot of 'chaser' (water or Coca-Cola). This goes on in rotation until the supply ends or drinkers surrender or are 'dead drunk', whichever comes first.
(I must offer an addendum by saying that the tanggero doesn't always pour the same amount in the glass. When there are women in the group, he may put less, and when he wants to make someone really drunk, he puts more!) 

There are other niceties of this ritual, including offering the first portion to the ground, for the spirits. This draws on Filipino folk beliefs. There are unwritten rules, and participants are expected to join the drinking until the liquor has ran out. Finally, then there is the pulutan - the finger foods that come with the drink. I've had interesting forms of pulutan - dog meat in and raw fish in Batanes - and this ought to be an interesting topic for Nutritional Anthropology. 

Interestingly, it seems that tagay has always been part of Filipino drinking culture, as it appears in the earliest Spanish-Tagalog dictionaries. In the Miguel Ruiz vocabolario of 1630, an entry for tagay is as follows: 
La racion de vino ya echada en la escudilla que se da y deputa para uno, mana ang tagay mo: esta es tu racion o porcion de vino; Um: l. managay: repartir o dar de beber vino, o cosa que emborracha; y si. m. magtagay, an: aquien: y si. m. Pagtagayan, i. l. ipanagay.nombre: tagayan: la escudilla diputada para beber vino; Catagayan: una escudilla de vino. ff. Patagayin. y mejor. Papanagayin: a quien se manda dar de beber; y si. m. Papagtagayin, Patagayin:a quien, y si. m. Papagtagayan. ipa: l.ipapanàgay: el vino que; y si. m. ipapagtagay. sinonimos: tudyo, baric. Vide: singgàlong.
Then, as now, tagay is defined as the rationing of the liquor around the group using just one cup. Strikingly, this cup is also given a name in the same vocabulario passage, one that is familiar in street corners on Friday nights: tagayan.

Lending credence to the antiquity of this practice, the 'sharing of the glass' also figures in one of the most iconic scenes in Filipino history, the 'blood compact' between Miguel Lopez de Legaspi and Sikatuna (Katuna), where the two sealed their alliance by sandugo, means of sharing a glass of liquor mixed with their blood (see Aguilar, 2010 for an interesting discussion of the blood compact).

This, I believe, answers my brother-in-law's question. We do not say "cheers" because in our drinking culture, we do not raise our glasses and join them together, as Europeans do. This is because when we drink, there is only one glass. Thus, while we do bring our glasses together, we are joined in one glass, which is passed around in what we call 'tagay'. 

Today, beer has become a very popular drink in the country, and San Miguel Beer has become the iconic Filipino beverage. In cosmopolitan settings, so have cocktails and wines. But in much of the country, consumption of hard liquor - gin, rum, brandy, and of course tuba and lambanog - remains very high.


Whatever form the inuman takes, we do say "cheers", as we have already absorbed the word, just as we have acquired the word serbesa 'from the Spanish cerveza.  But we have a deeper idea of sharing, of coming together, which is the 'tagay', drinking with just one cup, signifying and substantiating the ties that bind us together.

Quezon City
January 7, 2015


Aquino, D. M., & Persoon, G. A. (2011). TRADITION AND CHANGE: BEER CONSUMPTION IN NORTHEAST LUZON, PHILIPPINES. Liquid Bread: Beer and Brewing in Cross-Cultural Perspective, 7, 197.

Fernandez, D. G. (2013). Historias, Cronicas, Vocabularios: Some Spanish Sources for Research in Philippine Food. Budhi: A Journal of Ideas and Culture, 5(3 6.1), 259-275.

Francisco, J. (ed.) (1997). Bocabulario Tagalo by Miguel Ruiz (1630[1997]). Pulong: Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City.

Heath, D. B. (1976). Anthropological perspectives on alcohol: An historical review. Cross-Cultural Approaches to the Study of Alcohol: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, 41-101.


  1. May I add, Doc....,I'm from Quezon Province so drinking is a norm. If a person excused himself to pee and did not return, we consider his act as "umihi sa Alabat" (crossed the sea to Alabat Island) meaning he went home for good. Nice article. Kelan tayo tatagay?

  2. informative and interesting article! thanks for sharing. had fun reading ;)

  3. This is an awesome article! Napaka ganda talaga ng kultura natin. Sa simpleng tagayan hanggang sa sandugo. :)

  4. The same question was asked of me by Korean friends. I said we usually use "Cheers". I'm aware of our 'tagay' culture but didn't go as far as connecting it to the fact that we don't have a Filipino word for "Cheers".

  5. Wow great article! Thanks


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