I never thought I’d talk about rum in so much detail in a Filipino setting, probably because it’s so omnipresent in the Philippine market that we’ve taken the category for granted. What took me by surprise, however, is how it suddenly became a trend— which is about time. I could not think of a better beverage to recommend that would suit a hot tropical island setting than rum.
Rum has a rich history in the Philippines, as told by the gentlemen behind the Manila Rum Club (or MNLRC), John Go and Jake Goodwin. These two rum aficionados are on a mission to spread the good word on rum through their newly founded club’s monthly get-togethers held at the Mandalay Whisky and Cigar Bar, a cozy speakeasy hidden inside The Belle & Dragon restaurant in Legaspi Village, Makati. I got the chance to join MNLRC’s latest tasting session of rare rums, and learned so much in the process.
According to Goodwin and Go’s research, rum had been exported out of Manila Bay during the mid-1700s in conjunction with the sugar and galleon trade. They also found information on rum-making techniques used in the Caribbean which were likely brought to the Philippines, along with studies indicating Filipinos may have been the ones who taught Mexicans how to make tequila, evidenced by clay stills found in both countries. We apparently used this technology to create our version of Arrack (thought to be the etymology for alak, a word in our vernacular which pertains to alcoholic beverages), of which there were many types, ours having had rice in the mix for fermentation.
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Despite its long history and broad appeal, rum has had a harder time gaining recognition as a truly premium spirit, in part because of how it is produced and presented to the market. When I asked about how people perceive rum now, Goodwin says, “(Rum is) doing a really good job as a mainstream product. For the longest time, whisky has been dominating the spirits (category).” It helps that whisky is sold at a premium depending on how long it has been aged. Goodwin elaborates, “It’s just that, with aged spirits… it’s where this whole concept of putting a number on a bottle indicates how much you’re going to spend for the bottle.” He laments that, after having seen their whisky counterparts do it, rum makers started putting fake numbers on bottles “for a variety of reasons.” That was when complications started to happen in the rum market.
Another complication is the “rules” in making rum. Generally, each country that makes their own rum has their own set of rules. Martinique is one example. The island, being an insular region of France, has to adhere to the strict French appellation laws, similar to those used in the production of cheese and wine. Barbados, despite not being as strict with rum making compared to Martinique, has its own “spoken and unspoken” set of rules in making rum based on years of tradition. An example of a rum-making rule in Barbados is not allowing makers to add flavors post-distillation.
However, what some manufacturers started to do is to circumvent these laws to easily make mass-produced rum. For instance, a common practice is to purchase rum from Barbados, ship it to Europe, and add flavorings. What this tends to do is to make the rum lose its sense of place, identity, and style. Goodwin adds, “It gets worse. What some companies do is they take raw spirit and add a ton of sugar and a lot of caramel and rum flavorings and call it a day.”
Understandably, these ended up becoming the reasons why some people thought poorly of rum. Goodwin declares, “That’s the stand John and I made in creating MNLRC. We’re here to hopefully be able to spread the word of authenticity in rum and following geographic indicators.”
Their monthly event in Mandalay Whisky and Cigar Bar is a brilliant means to accomplish their mission. They typically feature a flight of rums, each distinctive in their regional styles and categorized according to ageing—and I certainly enjoyed sampling the nuances and complexities of each.
The unaged category featured Havana Club 3, the very subtle and floral Clément Cannes Bleue. My favorite ended up being the Rum Fire Velvet, with notes that reminded me of theater curtains. Aged rums included the flavorful Havana Club 7, Clément VSOP, and the impressively heady Rum-Bar Gold.
There were also premium rums that were available by the dram, such as the sought-after Clarin Le Rocher, the delightfully restrained Trois Rivières, very limited Rum Nation Demerara 1990 23 Years, and the wonderfully pungent HV Hampden LROK.
These were just a few, but MNLRC meets in Mandalay Whisky and Cigar Bar every month. I highly recommend people who want to learn about proper, premium rum styles to attend.
Mandalay Whisky and Cigar Bar, OPL Building Annex, 100 Don Carlos Palanca Street, Legaspi Village, Makati City, (02) 625-8828
For the next MNLRC session, follow @Jake_rummy on Instagram
Photographs by Paul del Rosario
Gail Sotelo has a WSET Level 3 Award in Wines and Spirits. She is a wine consultant, blogger, and lecturer. She owns the drink blog 2shotsandapint.com which aims to make wine and other drinks accessible to everybody, and holds classes at Enderun Colleges.