How to get the best rum deal in the breathtaking Philippines (Photo: Rob Buckhaven)

Full disclosure, I hadn’t properly associated the Philippines with rum production before going and I write about alcohol for a living. It’s either me or them.

For many, rum is shrouded in the shrouded tiki myth, a spirit made in exotic countries like the Caribbean and Jamaica, and more recently even less tropical Wales.

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In fact, for fear of not sounding like the best tool in the box, I also didn’t know much about the Philippines as a vacation destination, its lush coral reefs, breathtaking mountain vistas, state-of-the-art restaurants, world-renowned bars, first-class resorts, or claims to be one of the most biodiverse dive sites in the world. I certainly had no idea it was the texting capital of the world or a mecca for karaoke fans.

The Philippines offers the kind of view you’ll be dining by for years to come (Photo: Rob Buckhaven)
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Now that I had traveled 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 that an archipelago like the Philippines, made up of 7,641 islands, is ruled by the Spanish for 350 years? colonized? , English, American and Japanese to really have an easily recognizable identity, like Thailand?”.

I’d find out how many rum cocktails I’ve had or how many white sand beaches I had to travel to get there. That’s because I’m a pro.

The first stop was the Philippine capital of Manila, which I saw with blurry eyes in a taxi, recently roused from my long-haul sleep by a Gulf Air employee with sensitive bedside manners. First thoughts were of the charmingly faded Americana, the breakneck skyscrapers, super friendly locals, malls, the fast pace of life, countless boxing gyms and jeepneys, minivans converted from abandoned US Army jeeps.

Manila banana stall

The Philippine capital of Manila teems with friendly life and hectic trade (Photo: Rob Buckhaven)

The front of the ruin

Impressive former colonial facades along the streets of Bacolod City (Photo: Rob Buckhaven)

My Filipino food and drink awakening began in Makati, Bougie’s financial district. There I drank my first rum cocktail of the trip, the “Filipino Mojito”, garnished with a lime-like fruit that also tastes like satsuma, called calamansi. Don’t forget that the Philippines is made up of 7,107 flavors and you’ll see why I became a greedy craze for Philippine hospitality over the course of the trip.

A good example was my next stop, Lampara, Metro Manila’s culinary hot spot, which put into context the myriad influences on their cuisine, from Spanish to Korean and Chinese. Toyo was another restaurant, a World’s 50 Best Restaurant level restaurant, chef-driven with two three-Michelin star restaurants that playfully delivered upscale Filipino flavors washed down with sophisticated rum cocktails.

If leading bars are your wheelhouse, give Run Rabbit Run a shot – the best bar in the Philippines of 2020 doesn’t disappoint, complete with a “Dancing Queen” sing-along and a hilarious bachelorette party the night I went.

Which brings me seamlessly to the rum section, which is why we’re all here. A one hour domestic flight will take you to Bacolod City in Negros Occidental or Sugarlandia, the sugar bowl of the Philippines. The country’s fourth-largest island produces most of its sugar cane and is under the smoking influence of the active volcano Mt. Kanlaon, which gives the rum its fruity-smooth USP.

Impressive colonial-style houses along the road owned by sugar baron families, such as the plantation I visited, which is owned by the charming Gaston family called Hacienda Rosalia.
These are houses that have stood still in time and are run by descendants of those who came with the “sugar rush” in the late 19th century to make their fortunes from the ancient fine sugar cane grown there.

The name Don Papa is based on a local hero and sugarcane farmer, Papa Isio. By all accounts a hero of the people, a late 19th century rebel against the tyranny of Spanish colonization and a spiritual leader. His statue makes him look a lot like Captain Jack Sparrow, even that is characteristic of the rum connection. I drank to that, and I did; pure, on ice, in daiquiris and finally out of the bottle.

To get closer to rum-making, you had to hop on the steam train of the nearby Hawaiian-Philippine Company, one of Negros’ oldest operating mills. There was even a man on the horizon, who appeared to be riding a giant pig, which turned out to be the local water buffalo or carabao, as they made their way through the worker-tended sugar cane fields. You pass villages with farmhands waving at you, camera phones in hand to capture you. I won’t lie, it has a slight colonial flair to it, but it’s worth it for the final arrival at the mill.

don daddy

Don Papa Rum pays tribute to an anti-colonial Philippine hero (Photo: Rob Buckhaven)

Sugar cane truck

Trucks transport sugar cane between fields as tourists pass by (Photo: Rob Buckhaven)

As Dickensian as it sounds, this is a majestic rickety monstrosity of a building where the sugar cane is pressed and annealed, which grinds Muscovado sugar and its by-product molasses, known as “black gold”, from which the rum is distilled. Disclaimer, don’t fall into a press, get splashed with boiling water or get caught in the sugar coating. I’ve done almost all three.

While Don Papa may be the highest quality rum brand in the Philippines, it is by no means the only producer on the island of Negros. Tanduay was first created 167 years ago and has been the world’s best-selling brand for three years, surpassing even Bacardi. They are also securing their Negros Occidental legacy and have distilleries scattered throughout the Philippines. There is also a small batch of rum called Kasama, founded by Tad Dorta, Belvedere’s daughter and co-founder of Chopin Vodka.

Whatever your brand preference, sundowners may be the only cure for ‘mill PTSD’, and you don’t get much more of a warm welcome than at Happy Horse Farm, where you can even enjoy a late afternoon horseback ride followed by a snack and food in the ruins.

The latter is the skeleton of a country house built out of a man’s love for his wife, the impressive skeleton that remained after it burned down during the war.

Speaking of near extinction, huge efforts are being made to save and protect the remaining wild forests of Negroes and their native animals. Negros Forest Park, a beneficiary of Don Papa, in the heart of Bacolod City, is a sanctuary for 47 species of Philippine wildlife, where you can see everything from Visayan warthogs to Rufous-Headed Hornbills.

If you want to swim with Philippine marine life, the family-run resort and spa of Punta Bulata is just a five-hour drive from diving. A short boat ride from there and you are at the Danjugan Island Sanctuary, a 43 hectare island with 5 lagoons, bat caves, white sand beaches and mangrove forests. I snorkeled, was taken in with a school of clownfish, greeted a sea snail, and then had lunch.

Punta Bulata Resort

Get to know the underwater world of the Philippines at the Punta Bulata Resort (Photo: Rob Buckhaven)

Traditional Kamayan Festival

A traditional Kamayan feast consisted of everything from suckling pig to fresh mango (Photo: Rob Buckhaven)

In the evening I was stuck in a traditional Kamayan feast with all hands, hooves and tentacles on deck mocking everything from garlic rice, lechon aka suckling pig to fresh mango and shellfish on banana leaves. Then there was the night swimming (beware of the protruding coral reefs as someone in our group had to learn it the hard way).

Arriving from the Philippines in a kaleidoscopic fever dream, well-oiled with premium Don Papa rum, finished in everything from Oloroso sherry to rye whiskey casks, infused with the freshest Philippine flavors, my eyes stared like pinwheels at the cinematic images.

I came to the conclusion that the Filipino identity is not one thing but a distillation of Eastern and Western influences and personalities. It is the land of muscovado sugar, fine rum, spectacular scenery, vibrant city life, karaoke diving, sea diving, quiet sandy beaches, Old Manila Intramuros with a poignant reminder of past colonization and the carnage of ubiquitous bullet holes. and toyomansi, a dipping sauce made from soy sauce, calamansi, and chili.

If only we could dip life into this sauce and wash it down with Philippine rum. Make me a don papa daiquiri.