Full disclosure, I hadn’t properly connected the Philippines with rum-production before going, and I write about alcohol for a living. That’s either on me, or them.
For many, rum is wrapped in the misappropriated tiki myth, a spirit produced in exotic countries like the Caribbean and Jamaica, latterly even lesser-tropical Wales.
In fact, for fear of sounding like the bluntest tool in the box, I didn’t know much about the Philippines as a holiday destination either, its sumptuous coral reefs, mind-blowing mountain vistas, cutting-edge restaurants, world-renowned bars, top resorts, or its claim to have some of the most biodiverse diving in the world. I certainly had no idea that it was the texting capital of the world or a mecca for karaoke fans.
Now I was halfway around the world, I had questions. ‘Where am I?’, ‘what time is it?’, ‘what’s my karaoke song?’, but more importantly, ‘is it possible for an archipelago like the Philippines, made up of 7,641 islands colonised for 350 years by the Spanish, English, Americans and Japanese, to really have a readily recognisable identity like, say, Thailand?’.
I was going to find out, no matter how many rum cocktails I had to drink or white sandy beaches I had to splay out on to get there. That’s because I’m a professional.
The first stop was the Filipino capital, Manila, which I took in bleary-eyed from the taxi, recently excavated from my long-haul slumber by a Gulf Air attendant with a sensitive bedside manner. Initial thoughts were around its charmingly faded Americana, neck-cricking high-rise blocks, super-genial locals, shopping malls, fast pace of living, countless boxing gyms and jeepneys, minibuses reworked from abandoned US army jeeps.
My Filipino food and drink awakening began in Makati, the bougie finance district. I had my first rum cocktail of the trip there, the ‘Filipino Mojito’ garnished with a lime-like fruit that also tastes of satsuma, called the calamansi. Bear in mind that the Philippines is made up of 7,107 flavours, and you’ll see why I became a greedy guzzle gannet for Filipino hospitality as the trip went on.
Case in point was my next stop, Metro Manila dining hotspot Lampara, which put into context the myriad influences on their cuisine, from Spanish to Korean, Chinese and so many in between. Toyo was another, a World’s 50 Best Restaurants-level restaurant, helmed by a chef with a couple of three-Michelin starred restaurants under his belt, delivering playfully elevated Filipino flavours, washed down with crafty rum cocktails.
If world-leading bars are your wheelhouse, give Run Rabbit Run a shot – the Philippines best bar 2020 doesn’t disappoint, complete with a ‘Dancing Queen’ singalong with a riotous hen party on the night I was there.
That brings me seamlessly onto the rum section, which is why we are all here. An hour’s internal flight takes you to Bacolod City in Negros Occidental, aka Sugarlandia, the sugar bowl of The Philippines. The country’s fourth-largest island produces most of its sugar cane, located under the smoking influence of active volcano, Mt Kanlaon, which gives the rum its fruity-smooth USP.
Impressive colonial-style houses line the road, owned by lineages of sugar barons, like the plantation I visited of the charming Gaston family, called Hacienda Rosalia.
These are houses frozen in time, run by descendants of those who came in the late 1800’s ‘sugar rush’, to make their fortune from the ancient noble cane grown there.
The name Don Papa is based on a local hero and sugar cane farmer, Papa Isio. By all accounts, a hero of the people, late 19th century rebel against the tyranny of Spanish colonisation and a spiritual leader. His statue makes him look a lot like Captain Jack Sparrow, even that is on-brand for the rum connection. I’ll drink to that, and I did; neat, on ice, in daiquiris, and at one point, from the bottle.
Getting closer to the rum production action meant jumping on the steam train at the nearby Hawaiian-Philippine Company, one of the oldest operational mills in Negros. Winding through cane fields tended by workers, there was even a man seemingly riding a giant pig on the horizon, which turned out to the native water buffalo, or carabao. You’ll pass through villages of estate workers, waving at you with their camera phones in hand to pap you. Not going to lie, it has a slightly colonial feel, but it’s worth it for the eventual arrival at the mill.
As Dickensian as it sounds, this is a majestically teetering monstrosity of a building where the cane is pressed and mulched, milling the muscovado sugar and its by-product molasses, aka ‘black gold’, from which the rum is distilled. Disclaimer, don’t fall into a press, get sprayed with boiling water or stand under the sugar shoot in the storage warehouse. I almost did all three.
Although Don Papa is perhaps the Philippines’s most premium rum brand, it’s by no means the only producer on Negros Island. Tanduay, first produced 167 years ago has been the world’s top-selling brand for the last three years, even outselling Bacardi. They also secure their heirloom cane from Negros Occidental and have distilleries dotted across the Philippines. There’s also a small-batch rum called Kasama, set up by the daughter of Belvedere and Chopin Vodka Co-Founder Tad Dorta.
Whatever your brand preference, sundowners could be the only cure for ‘mill-PTSD’, and you don’t get a much warmer welcome than at the Happy Horse Farm where you can even do some late afternoon riding, followed by a bite at The Ruins.
The latter is the frame of a mansion built as a husband’s love for his wife, the impressive skeleton that remained after it was burnt down during the war.
Talking of near extinction, massive efforts are being made to salvage and protect the remaining wild forests of Negros and their indigenous animals. Negros Forest Park, in the heart of Bacolod City, a beneficiary of Don Papa’s, is a sanctuary housing 47 species of Filipino wildlife, where you can see everything from Visayan Warty Pigs through to Rufous-Headed Hornbills.
If you want to swim with Filipino sea life, just five hours dive away is the family-run Punta Bulata resort and spa. A quick boat ride from there and you’re on Danjugan Island Sanctuary, a 43-hectare island with 5 lagoons, bat caves, white sandy beaches and mangrove forests. I snorkelled, was accepted into a shoal of clown fish, greeted a sea slug and then snacked for lunch.
In the evening, I got stuck into a traditional Kamayan feast where it’s all hands, hooves and tentacles on deck, scoffing everything from garlic rice, lechon aka suckling pig, to fresh mango and shellfish laid out on banana leaves. Then there were the late-night swims (just watch out for the protruding coral reefs, as someone in our group learnt the hard way).
I came away from The Philippines in a kaleidoscopic fever dream, well oiled by premium Don Papa rums, finished in everything from Oloroso sherry to rye whisky casks, fed with the freshest Filipino flavours, and my eyes like pinwheels gazing at the cinematic visuals.
I concluded that Filipino identity isn’t one single thing, it’s a distillate of eastern and western influences and personas. It’s the land of muscovado sugar, fine rum, spectacular landscapes, bustling city life, karaoke dives, marine dives, serene sandy beaches, the Manilan Intramuros old town with a harrowing reminder of past colonisation and massacres from ever-present bullet holes, and Toyomansi, a dipping sauce made of soy sauce, calamansi and chilli.
Now, if only we could dip life into that sauce and wash it down with Filipino rum. Make mine a Don Papa Daiquiri.
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