It is incredible how my love for rum, and more specifically Don Papa rum, can transport me from cold dreary London to the warm tropical plains of Sugarlandia. While typically a metaphor, this love did literally transport me to those warmer climates at the end of February; a once-in-a-lifetime press trip with the Don Papa team to explore the history and geography of one of my favourite tipples. Having been a fan of this rum for years, it was a dream come true.
Negros Island is perhaps not as well known as other parts of the Philippines (it wasn’t on my radar despite it being one of my favourite countries in the world) but, as the heart of Sugarlandia, it plays a vital role in the creation and distillation of Don Papa rum. The fourth largest island in the Philippines, the rich fertile soils are served well by the nearby volcano of Mount Kanalon. We met the team here after a brief pit stop at the Henry Hotel in Makiti, Manila; the newly launched direct flights from Philippines Airlines making the business class journey from Heathrow to the Filipino capital an absolute breeze. The hour-long hop from Manila to Bacolod City was even more of a breeze and, within a few minutes, we were soon driving through the sugar cane fields on our way to the Hawaiian Sugar Mills, one of the few muscovado sugar producers left in the world.
While not particularly aesthetic for photography, it was still fascinating to see how sugar is extracted from the cane on an industrial scale. As the first step in any good rum, muscovado sugar is literally the nectar of the finished Don Papa product; the creation point for that vanilla and honey flavouring that gives it such a unique, smooth taste. It was fascinating to see how tonnes upon tonnes of sugar cane was transported to the mill and then pulped so the juice could be extracted. After a tour of the factory and a ride on an antiquated steam train used to carry cargo, we made our way deep into the Tabucol heartland for lunch with Josef, a close friend of the Don Papa family.
One thing that became very apparent throughout the trip was the investment that so many people had made into Don Papa. Stephen Carroll, the founder, has unsurprisingly invested the most into his love of rum, but each and every person whom we met and were hosted by on this trip all had a part to play in its success. Josef was a lively character and a great host; befitting of his slice of paradise deep within the jungle. After more Don Papa rum (what else?) and the obligatory pork adobo and mango, we then headed back to Bacolod City for our stay at Seda Hotel.
With just enough time for a freshen up, we had an evening appointment at the Balay Ni Tana Dicang; an ancestral home very important to the Negronese history and culture. A magnificent building with some of the most incredible colonial architecture I have ever laid eyes upon, we were treated to an evening of local food, local conversation and fantastic musical performances from Matthias, the global ambassador for Don Papa rum. With full bellies and slightly weary legs, we had just enough energy to make it to yet another ancestral home that now served as a hotel and bar.
The next day we woke early for a trip to the San Miguel brewery on Bacolod, where Don Papa rum is distilled and matured. An almost Bond villain-esque establishment, drums of alcohol sit alongside huge silver pipes that glisten under the sun. All set within palm trees and a cooler ocean. We had a few photo opportunities in the plant, but the real showcase was in the Don Papa warehouse; barrels upon barrels of Don Papa being matured in various stages. The warmer climate means that Don Papa takes just seven years to reach maturation and it was certainly hot, even by Filipino standards. The struggle was all worth it though, as we had the opportunity to sample rare and unreleased rum blends that were perhaps even more special than their flagship seven year-old rum.
With more rum than food in our bellies, it was then time to head to Gaston Farm, an original sugar baron’s mansion which is now part-home part-museum. Greeted by a chorus of music from the local band, we had plenty of time to walk around the house, admiring a ridiculously complex family tree and the on-site cathedral built almost entirely from disused cartwheels (the Americans replaced cartwheels with rubber tyres when they occupied the Philippines in the Second World War). Lunch was a fantastic local feast served on a long table, with Don Papa and tales keeping time ticking on. As 4pm drew near, it was time to leave land and find ourselves a boat for the short trip to Lakawon Island…
Twenty minutes from Negros Island, Lakawon is a slice of paradise set in the aqua waters that the Philippines is so famous for. We had 24 hours of downtime on the island; the only commitments being a dinner on board the floating bar and a communal lunch on the beach. Treated to the most amazing sunset over the mountains in the distance, the evening drew to a close over traditional Filipino food and the ever-present Darker Don; a tribute to a Dark & Stormy made with Don Papa, ginger beer and a splash of bitters. The next day was prime tanning territory; the early morning sunshine quickly giving way to some very strong UV and heat. Luckily for us, the floating bar gave us great access to the cool deep waters in between cocktails. Bliss.
Back in Manila for our final two nights, we checked into the magnificent Fairmont Makati before heading to dinner at Elbert’s Steak Room; one of the most luxurious destinations in the city. An incredible five-course meal with wine pairings was enjoyed over conversation and laughter, followed by a few drinks in the beautiful downstairs bar. Of, we couldn’t resist another trip to ABV to sample some more of their award-winning cocktails afterwards.
On our final day in the Philippines, we had a morning to walk around a few of Manila’s famous street markets. Rubbing shoulders with the locals, we shopped around each stall sampling some of the local delicacies and fruits. It was then time to head to the Street Art Fair, occupying three floors of a show space in the nearby business district. Don Papa was definitely the talk of the town, with their annual artist competition being the showpiece. Ten local artists had been shortlisted, with their efforts to create artwork for the Don Papa bottle packaging drawing on both the geography and history of Sugarlandia as a region. It was awe inspiring to see such talented artists at work and a fitting end to our trip. That evening, we all said goodbye over a beautifully prepared pork lechon, along with our obligatory Don Fashioned and Darker Don cocktails, of course.
A special thanks to Philippine Airlines who flew us in Business Class from London Heathrow to Manila; the only airline to offer direct flights from London to the Philippines.