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How Filipino rum company Don Papa found an international cult-following

While you may associate rum with places like Jamaica or Brazil, it’s also made a name for itself in the Philippines over the past many years. Now, after finding success in Europe and Asia, Don Papa Rum, the country's first premium rum company, has expanded distribution and come to North America; the liquor is currently available at select retailers in Mexico and California.

“Since we landed in New York and Massachusetts in 2017, we have kept an eye on California and the West Coast and were on the lookout for the right opportunity to expand,” Andrew Garcia, co-founder and managing director of Don Papa Rum, tells Mic. “California is an exciting, high-profile market, and now that we have opened up shop there, we are very much looking forward to getting Don Papa in the hands of as many people as possible.”

Don Papa ($39.99/750ml) was founded in 2011 by Stephen Carroll, a former Rémy Cointreau executive. The idea for the company came after he took a trip to Bacolod, a city on the northwest coast of Negros, which is known as “Sugarlandia” — the sugar cane capital of the Philippines (sugar cane is a staple when it comes to rum production). Although rum had been produced in the country before, it had never been manufactured in Negros, so Carroll took the opportunity to found the Bleeding Heart Rum Company (BHRC) and create Don Papa Rum. The company produced its first bottle in 2012.

Courtesy of Don Papa Rum

Seven years later, Don Papa is an international success. According to Adobo Magazine, Carroll said that the key to premium rum is in its smoothness, and to achieve this, BHRC ages its rum for seven years in American oak barrels — at the base of the Philippines' Mount Kanlaon, no less — then distills it in a way similar to whiskey.

Really, though, it all comes down to sugar cane. Without the crop or its byproducts, like molasses, there’d be no rum at all. “As sugar cane has naturally grown in the Philippines for centuries, the production and enjoyment of rum seems very much hand-in-hand with our drinking culture,” says Garcia. “With some rum brands as old as 160+ years and local consumption in the hundreds of millions of litres annually, it is safe to say we love rum back home in the Phillipines.”

In Don Papa Rum’s case, the company uses noble cane, which is higher in sucrose than other sugar cane to make its products. The sugar cane is ground by old sugar mills in Negros — known for some of the sweetest molasses in the world, according to the company — and produces a “black gold” molasses, before being distilled in the city’s ultra-humid climate. The humidity actually helps intensify the rum’s flavor, as vanilla notes are drawn out from the wood of the American oak bourbon barrels. The result is a rich rum that’s slightly sweet and fruity.

According to Garcia, it's surprising that more premium liquor companies aren't based in the Philippines. After all, in addition to sugar cane, the region is also responsible for producing some of the oldest distilled spirits, such as Arrack; palm and rice wines; and aguardiente. “It was only a matter of time that rum-making techniques from the West, specifically Spain, would come to the fore and establish itself in the Philippines,” says Garcia.

And now that they have, BHRC, at least, is making the move to Western markets. While expanding to California makes sense due to the state's large population, the company coming to Mexico actually fits into the centuries-long relationship between that country and the Philippines. According to Garcia, that link dates back to the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco in the 16th century. “At the time, both countries were administered by Spain, and the relationship continued well into the 19th century.” he explains.

As a result of that bond, an important trade route was opened up between the East and West that Garcia, for one, wants to see continue today through rum. “As this unique relationship between Mexico and the Philippines is once again thriving, our hope is for Don Papa Rum to play its part between the two countries," he says.

In Mexico City — which is often viewed as the gateway to Latin America for businesses looking to break out in that market — Don Papa will have a significant presence. “As we are aware that some of the best bars and restaurants in the world are based in CDMX, in addition to an impressive retail landscape, Don Papa has been planning its entry into the crucial Mexican market for a great deal of time now, and we’re excited to finally be here,” says Garcia.

Courtesy of Don Papa Rum

As more people around the world discover Don Papa, they'll also learn more about its history. The Don Papa name may sound like it comes from royalty, but it was actually inspired by a sugar cane farmer in the Spanish era, according to Adobo. The farmer’s name was Dionisio Magbuelas, but he was known in Negros as “Papa Isio." He’d climbed the ranks of a group of Negrense revolutionaries rebelling against Spanish authorities, and he won over many followers with his radical concepts of spirituality, agrarian reform, and nationalism. On its website, Don Papa Rum states that Papa Isio led the patriotic rising against the Spanish colonial forces, gaining independence for Negros in 1898.

That's quite a history, and Garcia believes that "the rising interest and profile of the Philippines" has led to increased international interest in Don Papa — along with smart sales partners, great timing, and the resurgence of cocktail culture, among other factors. With Don Papa Rum now making its way to more people through its expansion, it may hit your palate soon. And the best way to drink it, whether you’re a rum aficionado or newcomer to the spirit? “Personally, I usually enjoy Don Papa straight up with a single ice cube,” says Garcia. “Having said that, Don Papa in a classic cocktail, such as a Negroni or daiquiri, always hits the spot, too.” We’ll cheers to that.