I’m turning into my mother. The thought enters my head, clear as day, as I grip the armrest of my seat on an internal Philippine Airlines flight as it takes off from Manila airport. My mum is so scared of flying that she had to take an intensive course to help battle her paralysing fear. I, on the other hand, have always relished every minute of it; each jaunty rumble down the runway an indication of an adventure to come. As I get older, however, the sense of abject helplessness that comes with putting your life into the hands of a big steel bird seeps in. And so I find myself, white-knuckled, and holding onto the seat for dear life, as the smoggy sprawl of Manila grows smaller and smaller in the distance.
It doesn’t last for long, though. Once we hit cruising altitude, there is simply too much to look at from the plane window to stay nervous for long. The Philippines is made up of 7,640 islands, a geographical reality that has made this a vibrant country with a storied identity that seems both entirely cohesive and enormously contradictory at the same time. Some of these islands peel out from behind a tapestry of clouds as we take the 90-minute flight to Bacolod: the dazzling white sands of Boracay island seem to seep into striking blue ocean like a watercolour painting; the peaks of Mount Baco rise stoically out of the big blue. And then, as we come in to land on Negros island: sugar cane. Miles of it, as far as the eye can see.
That sweet crop is the lifeblood of this island, and the reason I’ve travelled 16 hours from London. I’m here to discover the history of Don Papa, a brand which has put Filipino rum on the global drinks map, and is crafting a surreal world behind the liquid: Sugarlandia. Loosely based on the island of Negros, Sugarlandia is the fictional home of Don Papa rum. What I discover over the ensuing six days, is that the line between fact and fiction can become increasingly blurred in the world of Sugarlandia – perhaps not helped when the whole world is similarly increasingly blurred by innumerable daiquiris.
The night before our flight to Negros, we were given an introduction to the Philippines – and the universe of Don Papa – with a dinner at Lampara in the heart of Manila’s Makati district. I didn’t have many expectations coming into the country, but the ones I did have were blown out of the water by this thriving city. In among the sights that are synonymous with metropolitan Asia – towering high-rises, dense smog, tuk tuk variants carrying a number of people that inevitably defies the laws of gravity, and an almost visceral contrast between the haves and the have-nots – lies a thriving culture of creativity, and a city packed full of enterprising young people looking to redefine what it means to eat and drink in their home. It was easy to see how a brand as playful as Don Papa rum had stemmed from this very attitude.
Plate after plate of modernised Filipino classics arrived like a procession of culinary education. A dish of glossy tofu sat piled high with pulled pork and pork floss, the entire thing doused in a punchy black vinegar sauce. A take on sisig, with duck meat and liver, was dressed with calamansi and chilli and topped with wafer-thin crispy onions. Every mouthful taught me more about this country than any guidebook could, and while each dish was different, they were defined by a common thread of bold, bombastic flavour.
The next day, while waxing lyrical to me about the Filipino love for Jollibee and its infamous sweet spaghetti, Joanna Kennedy, marketing manager at Don Papa, tells me, “All Filipino food is big, in-your-face flavours, be it sweet, salty or acidic.” Based on the previous evening’s meal, she couldn’t be more correct. And while the Jollibee’s spaghetti might be an acquired taste, Lampara served as the perfect launching point for learning about this idiosyncratic country.
The line between fact and fiction can become blurred in the world of Sugarlandia
Over post-dinner cocktails at The Spirits Library – a multi-level bar characterised by red and blue neon lights and a sprawling wall packed to the gunnels with spirits from around the world – we got an idea of what it meant to live in this thriving city, and a hint at what was to come ahead. “Bacolod is my favourite city in the Philippines,” Audrey Gustilo, mixologist at Oto bar and brand ambassador for Don Papa told me, when I mentioned we were flying there the next day. “They aren’t trying to be something they’re not. It just exists as it is.”
Alighting at Bacolod airport is almost comically stereotypical of entering into island life. With one luggage carousel and nothing in the way of security, we grab our bags and stroll out into the humid air to begin our journey around this saccharine island. On the drive to our first destination, Monica Llamas, co-founder of Don Papa rum, gives us a run-down of the island’s sugar-heavy history. “Negros is known as the sugar bowl of the Philippines,” she tells us, as our van veers into the oncoming lane to overtake a truck piled high with a load of the eponymous cane. It made the residents of Negros particularly wealthy, with multiple ‘sugar barons’ cropping up and building sprawling, Hacienda-style houses with their fortunes.
Don Papa is made from molasses, a by-product of the sugar-making process, which means the liquid that people sip in bars in London and beyond is intrinsically linked to this deeply historical and personal industry that defines the island of Negros. As Llamas puts it, “inadvertently, everyone on this island is involved in a bottle of Don Papa rum.” Back in the day, all the cane would be milled on the land it was farmed, but the introduction of industrialisation meant that the mills became separate. There are now 14 of them on the island, and they all have a deeply relationship-oriented partnership with the farmers that sell to them. “It’s indicative of Filipino culture,” says Llamas. “Get to know us first.”
After a nail-biting drive that would serve as an introduction to the road rules on Negros – largely, lanes are optional, overtaking is encouraged and your horn is used liberally to let anyone in your way know that they need to, er, fucking move – we arrive at our lunch destination, Hacienda Rosalia, which also happens to be the location behind the creation of Don Papa rum. As we are told, Stephen Carroll – who at the time was an executive at Rémy Cointreau – came to the hacienda while visiting the Philippines on holiday. Looking out across the sprawl of sugar cane, framed by the towering, almost otherworldly figure of Mount Canlaon beyond, he was shocked that this thriving sugar industry hadn’t turned its hand to rum. A few years later, Don Papa was born. Named not after Stephen himself – or the owners of Hacienda Rosalia – Don Papa draws its linguistic inspiration from Papa Isio, a sugar cane farmer who became a key player in the Philippine Revolution in the late 1890s, fighting to free the country from Spanish rule. One of the last rebel forces to be arrested, legend has it that the great Papa Isio was finally lured back into town by a woman he had loved unrequitedly for years – even the best of us are eventually felled by matters of the heart. He’s a fitting face for a rum that embodies the spirit of this island.
Walking into Hacienda Rosalia is like taking a step back in time. The house has been largely untouched by modern technology, and left mainly in its original state. The air is an immediate assault on the senses; aromas of soy and adobo pork from the lunch we’re about to enjoy mingled with the ubiquitous hint of sugar and an earthy undertone from the wooden villa. Imbibing the air, viscous with humidity from a thunderstorm that had passed through just before our arrival, it takes on a life of its own. It’s cloyingly hot, a thin film of sweat seeming to permanently cling to every inch of my body. And yet, even in my desperate overheating state, the house pulls me in with its magic. The Philippines has had no shortage of colonisation – with the Spanish ruling the country for more than three centuries until the late 1800s when the Americans rolled in – and yet this magnificent house and the land on which it sits have remained firmly in the hands of this Filipino family. It feels like a distillation of the power of the Filipino people – something had become increasingly apparent to me in the short 24 hours I’d spent in the country.
Just a few hours later, I find myself on a steam train, chugging slowly through fields of sugarcane. If I thought I was hot at the hacienda, this journey makes it seem like an ice box by comparison. In between ear-splitting tugs of the horn announcing our presence to those up ahead, a man feeds chunks of wood into an open furnace, just metres from my face. Rivulets of sweat tracks passages down my cheeks as we roll past men standing in the fields, machetes held aloft as they hack away at the towering stalks. “I’ve never been this far down the track,” announces our guide, eyeing their sharp-edged tools with caution.
Lanes are optional, overtaking is encouraged and your horn is used liberally
We eventually make it to our destination: the Hawaiian-Philippine Company sugar mill. Its arrival is announced by the heady aroma of caramel that seems to slowly envelope the train. As we’re handed hard hats, I take a quizzical look at this beast of a factory, eyeing up loose panes of corrugated iron and a hole in the roof, and realise we’re going in. It is, like much of the rest of the day, swelteringly hot inside, and appears a little rough and ready, to say the least. “Don’t get too close to the edge,” we’re cautioned, as we stroll past an open tank of boiling liquid – juice from the recently pressed cane – just a rusty, haphazard bar between us and an ironic death (did you hear that one about the food journalist who perished in a vat of bubbling sugar?). Contemplations of mortality aside, this factory is truly ground zero for a bottle of Don Papa rum, and firmly contextualises the liquid that we had been consuming
in medically questionable quantities.
This mill – and many others like it across Negros – is the heart of Sugarlandia, the place where sweeping fields of cane are turned from agricultural product to a powder that is transported around the world, while its byproduct is put aside to eventually become rum. The molasses are then fermented and column distilled at Bago Distillery and carted off to be aged at the foothills of Mount Canlaon, where the immense heat and humidity leads to faster maturation and the angels’ share – the amount of liquid that evaporates annually during ageing – can reach as high as 10%.
The wider rum category has garnered its fair share of purists in recent years, edging into whisky territory, where everyone has an opinion on what can be counted as a serious player. Don Papa breaks the mould of tradition, and while it may have earned itself a few naysayers, it means that this plucky young brand can be creative with what it produces. While the flagship product keeps things simple, aged in ex-bourbon American oak barrels, the wider product line includes Gayuma, which is finished in ex Rioja and Islay casks, and Masskara, a flavoured rum infused with calamansi and siling labuyo spices – alongside a host of other unique cask finished bottles, including sherry and rye.
At its core, Don Papa is a brand rooted in the Philippines. Carroll might be British, but he co-founded the company with locals Andrew Garcia and Monica Llamas. A large majority of the team – both in the Philippines and around the world – is Filipino and, crucially, the company consistently gives back to the island from which it was born. Because what is the point in building the myth of Sugarlandia if its real-life counterpart can’t be preserved?
The work they do to support the island became abundantly clear that evening. The Don Papa team had entirely transformed The Ruins, an abandoned shell of a Hacienda that was burned for three days by guerrilla forces during World War Two to stop the Japanese using it as a military base, into an homage to Sugarlandia. The night served as a celebration of the organisations they partner with; with representatives from charities like the Talarak Foundation and the Philippine Reed and Rainforest Conservation Foundation in attendance, alongside local businesses that have helped shape the Don Papa story. Over a multitude of daiquiris, conversations with these people told the story of a brand that isn’t just performing lip service to its goal of conservation, but rather one that is as wrapped up in the island of Negros as Sugarlandia is with the Don Papa brand.
The next morning, with a lightly thrumming head from one too many ill-advised nightcaps (and a vague memory of belting out ABBA at the top of my lungs while using an industrial-strength fan as a prop), we set out on our four-hour pilgrimage to Punta Bulata.
The resort sits on the shores of the south-west side of Negros island, and would act as our base for exploring the Danjugan Island marine reserve – another local project. Shortly after our departure from Bacolod the heavens opened with a monsoon so heavy it was impossible to see half a metre out the window, let alone through the windscreen. And yet, in true Negros driving-style, we somehow persevere, not once slowing the continuous beep-and-overtake process that defines the roads on the island.
Joining us for the perilous journey is Don Papa’s man-on-the-ground Ben Scharlin, a multi-hyphenate (singer, actor, presenter and all-round entertainer) Filipino who, while raised in America, returned to the island in 2017, drawn by the burgeoning creative community forming in Bacolod. “I’ve travelled all around the world,” he tells us, as we narrowly dodge a motorbike, “but there’s just something about Negros. It’s got this pull you don’t get anywhere else.”
It is a universal fact that arriving anywhere new in the dark is an entirely unsettling experience. Arriving at a place that seems to peel up out of nowhere and has no phone service, off the back of multiple hours driving through biblical rain and having to ascend a near-vertical driveway in the pitch black to get to it is borderline terrifying. Travel is exhilarating, and experiencing new cultures and places is a privilege, but there are always moments peppered throughout where home seems like an enticing option; this was one of them. And yet, just ten minutes later – standing on the edge of water so clear that even with the lingering lights from the restaurant to illuminate it, you could still see tiny crabs scrambling through the sand below – cocktail in hand, watching multiple electric storms cut through the horizon, the horror recedes and in its place remains a feeling of total peace.
It’s an emotion that endures through our 48 hours in this little corner of Negros Island, intercepted at points by bolder sentiments; pure joy at seeing the forest-filled Danjugan Island emerge around a corner as our boat motored towards it; freedom as we slowly snorkel over vibrant clusters of coral; unbridled contentment sitting on the edge of the boat, half-submerged in the water and sipping on an ice-cold San Miguel; and finally, wonder tempered by a hint of fear as I poke my head into a cave I discover is home to thousands of screeching bats.
Danjugan Island is a 43-hectare slice of Paradise just off the coast of Negros Island. The wildlife and marine sanctuary is a complete non-profit, and is home to over 572 marine species, 244 varieties of coral and 74 species of bird – alongside thriving mangrove forests and the aforementioned bats. The island and the staff who steward its protection are a crucial part of the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation’s work for education and development.
Exploring the depths of the wilderness – from its crystalline shores to a meandering lagoon and the dense forest in between – it’s hard to shake the idea that, while Don Papa might affirm that Sugarlandia is a fictional place, more than a few hints of authenticity can be found throughout the brand’s home. You might not be able to buy a plane ticket to Sugarlandia, but you can get one to Negros. And by the time you’re parked up on its shores, calamansi and Don Papa daiquiri in hand, you’d be hard-pressed to find the difference.