Rum of Sugarlandia

After a week in Sugarlandia with Don Papa, Eleanor Yates explores the history and production of Filipino rum.

Thriving sugarcane, ancient mills, and people who bring the spirit to life – Filipino rum is a category growing as fast as the cane it harnesses. Don Papa, premium aged, single-island rum, encompasses the Philippines’ history and identity, using its rich natural resources to create the liquid.


The Bleeding Heart Rum Company, owner of Don Papa, was founded 10 years ago by British-born Stephen Carroll after a visit to the Philippines, with much of the inspiration for the brand coming from Hacienda Rosalia, a sugar plantation owned by the Gaston family, which is still lived in today. The house itself remains unchanged with original décor, and will remain that way according to the wishes of the family. The plantation on which it sits in the province of Negros Occidental, part of the island of Negros, which is home to 4 million people. The fourth largest island in its archipelago. Negros is locally known as the sugar bowl of the Philippines, or Sugarlandia, as it produces most of the country’s sugar supply. 

Joey Gaston, caretaker of the ancestral home of the Gaston family, Hacienda Rosalia

In the late 1800s, people moved to the island to grow noble cane, the original variety of cane which was first discovered in the South Pacific centuries ago and saw the rise of Sugar Barons – those who made their fortunes from the sugar trade. This ancient variety, rather than the purple cane variety, was exported to the Caribbean and the rest of the world during the era of the ‘galleon trade’ from the mid 1500s to early 1800s. 

This saw Spanish trading ships bringing cargoes of goods to the Americas in exchange for New World silver, giving the Philippines many Spanish influences that can still be seen today. The name Don Papa is a tribute to Dionisio Magbuelas, or Papa Isio, a local hero from Negros who helped the Negrenses drive the Spanish away from the island in the 1890s during the War for Independence in 1898. The archipelago was subsequently colonised by the Americans for 48 years, giving the country a mix of influence that is still present now. The figure of Don Papa is the embodiment of the spirit of Sugarlandia.

Fresh sugarcane being prepared for tasting at Hacienda Rosalia


Crafted on the foothills of active volcano Mount Kanlaon, Don Papa rum is a molasses-based rum that uses the Spanish style of rum making rather than the French or English styles. In the world of Sugarlandia, molasses is referred to as ‘black gold’ and is the byproduct of sugar crystallisation. In the early 1900s, investors set up sugar mills. These industrial mills produce one of the sweetest molasses in the world, as they produce a sweeter sugarcane juice. The fresh cane is just as delicious as the refined version, and clearly nods to the popularity of Negros cane. 

Many hands are involved in the processing of sugar. In the Philippines, families who privately own the land the sugarcane is grown on get another group to come in and harvest the cane, which is all done by hand. From there, it goes to the mills, which are separate from the field owners. Industrialisation caused the separation of mills from the families as the nature of farms being handed down meant some weren’t as interested in the sugar trade, therefore they leased the land. On Negros sugarcane is as abundant as grass, meaning it grows and makes money in a repeating cycle. 

Sugarcane harvested by local workers near the mill in Negros Occidental

The industry is heavily reliant on relationships – pretty much everyone on the island is involved in Don Papa rum in some way. North to south of the island are the mills and fields, but where cane is sourced from can be dependent on cost, yield and relationships rather than practicality or proximity. The cane owner takes a 70% cut and the mill gets the remaining 30%. Harvest season for cane begins in September and runs until May, however this year, the mills wanted to receive cane as early as August, so it can vary year to year.

As a byproduct of the sugar industry, molasses don’t take away from it as they are typically used in rum, bioethanol and animal feeds. They are sourced from the island and then purchased by the Bago Distillery to ferment.

The resultant brew is column distilled, again using that Spanish style. The rum distillation is then brought down to 65% abv using fresh spring water and put into ex-American bourbon oak barrels. Some of these barrels are unique to Don Papa, which regularly selfsources casks. They are made from tight-grain oak, chosen carefully from American forests, seasoned, toasted and lightly charred to create a naturally darker rum. 

The rum is then aged at the foothills of Mount Kanlaon where the humid climate leads to a faster maturation, resulting in an ‘angel’s share’ that can reach up to 8%.

Isabella Curran, the original locomotive used to transport sugarcane from fields to mill


Don Papa’s growing portfolio, with bottle sales in the millions, includes the original Don Papa 7 Year Old, Masskara, Don Papa 10, Rare Cask, Sherry Cask, Sevillana, Rye Cask, last year’s Port Cask release and the launch of Gayuma. 

Don Papa Gayuma

It is typically expected in the Philippines for premium drinks to come in canister packaging, so the brand often gives local artists the opportunity to design artwork for these canisters, with the special edition Secrets of Sugarlandia donating a percentage of the sales to support conservation work. 

Don Papa also has plans to open a visitor centre in Silay, a heritage area known as the Paris of Negros, which will include a combination still to allow for experimentation, creating a brand hub for visitors. 

Like most of the world, the Philippines is not exempt from the impact of climate change on its natural habitats. As a result, Don Papa has partnered with the Talarak Foundation and the Philippine Reef & Rainforest Conservation Foundation. 

The Talarak Foundation is a conservation organisation based on Negros that maintains and breeds some of the most endangered species endemic to the region. The PRRCF, based on the stunning Danjugan Island near Negros, works to conserve the island’s habitat, including natural lagoons, a bat cave, forest and its surrounding coral reefs. 

Milling at Hawaiian-Philippine Company in an 1873 model Mirrlees Tait & Watson mill

For a long time the Philippines has been known for just producing large volumes of rum. However, Don Papa has a structured plan to not only grow the brand’s reputation as a premium label, but to protect the future of its beloved Sugarlandia and the people working hard to produce its quality rums.