Don Papa Rare-Cask Series - A pleasant surprise...
Updated: Nov 29, 2020
So here’s the story - Horecava 2020. One of Europes largest hospitality fairs held each year in Amsterdam. Of course I try to make my rounds and taste new and exciting things as well as dip in to a few old favourites. As I am strolling through the spirit hall, I am stopped by a friend of mine who happens to be the Don Papa rep for the Netherlands. Henk Hetzel. Great guy…but in my mind, the rum does not interest me at all.
We have a little chat and Henk asks me if I would like to try a few of the rums that he has at his stand. I laugh and respectfully decline his offer.
Henk then insists that there are things that I need to try and that I should keep an open mind. He assures me that these are not the standard Don Papa offerings that I am used to…So I bite.
We make our way to his stand where he proceeds to pour 3 rums, from admittedly beautiful bottles (hats off to Don Papa for their stunning designs - this they have always done well)…I am to try the Sevillana Cask, the Sherry Cask and the Rare Cask offerings.
Before I get to these rums, let’s give a little history and context - Don Papa (largely known for its original 7 year old bottling) has been the subject of quite a lot of controversy in the rum world since its release in 2012. This rum hails from the Philippines and is released by the Bleeding Hart Company. It is produced from molasses and is distilled on multicolumn stills. So far so good…where the controversy comes in is what happens to the rum after this point; not only is a heavy amount of sugar added to the rum, but also previous lab tests revealed the addition of both glycerin (for texture of course) and vanillin (I should note that I have been informed that more recent lab tests have showed that the glycerin has been removed, although that is not the point of this story). The result is a rum that tastes (and feels) more like a cream soda and cola ice cream float than it does like rum. On top of this, no information about these additives are listed anywhere on the bottle nor on the website. Despite being overly sweet and artificial tasting, Don Papa has done a remarkable marketing job and remains one of the best selling rums on the market...I won’t go in to more detail on these issues as they have been covered and discussed at length on many forums and blogs (such as thefatrumpirate.com and thelonecaner.com).
What I can sum up are my tasting notes of this standard Don Papa offering:
Don Papa 7 40%
Didn’t bother with the hydrometer.
On the nose - NOPE.*
On the palate - NOPE.*
(*In my humble opinion)
With this context, one can understand the scepticism I had with the newer Don Papa releases. One beacon of hope did come to mind though, and that was the Rum & Cane Philippines XO that Gregers Nielsen had introduced me to on a recent visit to ’t Spui-tje, the local rum-focused brown café here in Amsterdam. A wildly interesting rum. A flavour bomb of tropical fruits and new car tires…perhaps there could be a decent spirit under the Don Papa 7 after all?
So lets dig in to the rums:
Sevillana Cask Finish 40% abv.
Measured at 40.4% abv. by hydrometer
This is a blend of rums ranging from 4 to 12 years of age on ex-bourbon barrels. The rum is then finished with 3 years of ageing split across ex-Oloroso Sherry casks and ex-Orange wine barrels from Seville (Vino de Naranja), hence the name…
On the nose - Glue, varnish, nail polish. This is definitely oil heavy. In a wonderful and mind bending way. Completely unexpected. I do also find it hard to not notice something that reminds me of coca cola…however here it does not come across as artificial. Licorice root. Stewed cherries. Nutmeg. Light hints of vanilla. The longer I focus on these notes, the more then blend in with other floral notes. Lavender mainly. Also a tonne of fruit. I’ve already mentioned cherries with the cola notes, but there are definitely other berries tagging along. Overripe strawberries and a pretty heavy amount of bitter orange peel. Take these fruity notes and oxidise them and then blend them with some nutty almond notes, and we might be getting close to what is going on here…It is a little all over the map. One thing I can say is that the wood is not overly dominant in my opinion. Very light oaky notes, mainly vanillin and mild baking spices, but the dirty oil and fruit are 100% in the driver seat here. Wild.
On the palate - The oily notes do carry over here. First up we do get the white wood-glue mixed with some diesel notes. I might even say that the floral notes come before the fruit. Lots of lavender and sweet violets. Followed by orange bitters. I say orange bitters because it's not like bitter orange. It’s actually orange bitters. Think Angostura Orange with all the pimento, cloves and spice notes to go along with it. Actually gives a similar drying mouthfeel to tasting bitters. Not necessarily a bad thing. Not necessarily a good thing. Just what it is. With every sip there is an upfront explosion of this orange and oxidised Madeira-like notes, but it is somewhat short lived. The flavour however is not short lived, just the initial intensity. Light woody notes, with a nice smoke element. I am left with a long and lingering petrol note that is actually quite pleasant. I would say mouthfeel and heat would be about what I would expect at 40%. Pretty tame on the alcohol side of things. Finish is very dry. Perhaps a bit too dry-ing for my liking. Could have had a bit more oily mouthfeel on the finish for me. Definitely an interesting experience to say the least.
Sherry Cask Finish 45% abv.
Measured at 45.6% abv. by hydrometer
This is again a blend of rums aged up to 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels. This time, the finish includes 3 different ex-sherry barrels including Fino, PX and Cream (which I have understood is a “Sweet Oloroso” - a combination of Oloroso and PX).
On the noes - A lot more dark red fruits here than on the Sevillana cask. Plums, cherries, sweet raspberries, some dried raisins and prunes, although mainly towards the fresh fruit. I get a lot more oak coming through here. Dry oak. Lots of spice. Cinnamon. Cardamon. Nice level of vanilla. The same oily notes that I got on the Sevillana are also present here, although somewhat more subdued behind the fruit and wood. Absolutely brings me towards cola, but again in an intriguing, not unnaturally aggressive way. Also, the higher alcohol here definitely comes through. You can tell that this is going to be a bit hotter than the last. Lots of floral aspects here as well. I’m not that great with flowers, but I would move away from lavender in this case and more towards violet and rose petals. Interestingly, I pick up on some green notes on the nose. Green capsicum and green peppercorns. Hints of dust and old dry storage room. The sherry is definitely prominent here although more sweet red fruits than oxidised tones, which is quite nice. Perhaps a bit of iron? Somewhat like the smell of a bloody nose…Maybe some know this smell better than others?
On the palate - Yup. Same red fruits that I picked up on the nose. Much more green mixed in with the fruits though. Reminds me a bit of mint and strawberries. Green pepper and cherries. Somewhat odd, but interesting. I don’t get as much wood on the palate as I felt coming through on the nose. A little bit of dry oak. Not overly spicy. Perhaps a bit of dry cinnamon bark. The oily, glue and varnish notes are here and they do linger a bit, although less so than on the Sevillana casks. Could be due to the the slightly higher alcohol/evaporating feel that I get with this one. Finish is somewhat short. Leaves me with a flavour that reminds me of Stracciatella (vanilla ice cream with dark chocolate flakes). Quite a nice flavour, just wish it was a bit bolder and longer.
Don Papa Rare Cask 50.5%
Measured at 50.3% abv. by hydrometer
This rum undergoes a double wood ageing, first consisting of ex-Bourbon American Oak barrels for 4 years followed by American Oak ex-Rioja barrels that have been, according to the brand, “Shaved, Super Toasted and Roasted”. This second ageing takes place over 18 months. The final liquid comes out of the barrel at 63.5% and is brought down to 50.5% abv. for bottling. The liquid is unblended and unfiltered. This, in theory, is getting closer to the base product upon which the other Don Papas are built…let’s see.
On the nose - Heavy finishes move aside. No more orange. No more cherries (or maybe a bit of cherries if I dig deep). Here the base spirit behind the above two is shining bright. Oil and spice. Funky diesel, glue, outdoor deck varnish with a touch of burnt rubber. Dark dank wood. Brings me to the cottage as a child, using old thrown-away wood to build a tree fort. Heavy cinnamon and clove notes coming through here with a generous pinch of fresh cracked black pepper. Dark chocolate. Vanilla. The cola notes are gone in this one. Slightly dried floral notes, but very much in the background. Dried red fruits. Prunes, raisins, figs (which all make sense considering the ex-Rioja barrels). The more I dig in I do find a little bit of strawberry bubble gum. Minty green notes as well. Old school hubba bubba. You can tell there is some alcohol here but it seems well integrated. Just adds a richness that makes me want to dive in.
On the palate - BANG. That’s an explosion of flavour. Way more than I was expecting, and the nose already promised quite a lot. Again, I just have to start with writing oil and spice. Tonnes of rubber. Nail polish. Glue. You can see that this is the base behind the above two cask finishes. Lots of wet wood with steeped cinnamon, cardamon, cloves and a lot of ginger! Lapsang tea. Vanilla. Cocoa nibs. Slightly smokey with hints of dark roast coffee. Picking up certain bubble gum notes that I got on the nose as well. Old dried out strawberry bubble gum with mild toothpaste notes. This doesn’t sound necessarily good, but somehow I think that it works here. A bit of floral notes, which have been common all the way through. Here they seem somewhat darker and less fresh-flower-like. The abv definitely helps elevate this one above the others. Nice mouthfeel. Slightly oily, with a tingling burn. Long finish that leaves me with the lovely taste of a rubber boot with gum that has been chewed for too long.
I like it. Much more than the others. They were interesting but the finishes took over too much for me and masked the base spirit underneath. It indeed reminds me of the Rum & Cane Philippines XO that I mentioned above.
One thing I can definitely say is that I was shocked, in a good way, when I was dragged against my will to the Don Papa stand. These rums are truly interesting. They do not appear to be sweetened. The mouthfeel argues against glycerin. No artificial vanilla to be found.
What I like about this is that it shows that someone is listening. The rum world has expressed concerns and opinions and there is a response. Don Papa indeed has made an effort with these releases to move away from the 7-year coke float and instead released products that represent the quality of spirit they are able to produce.
This brings to light another issue that is often overlooked in recent discussions on rum forums and communities - brands that have been, or are, associated with controversy (most often sugar additives), are labelled as such and "that is that". Don Papa is a good example of this. Yes, they do release certain products that many in-the-know rummies wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. As a result, any effort towards producing rums that are in line with what the rum communities are asking for, are immediately dismissed. I can’t even count the number of times I have seen people posting pictures of the above discussed releases, and the sole response is anger, comments and jokes about sugar and recommendations to “stay away”. Having now tried these rums, I can only assume that the people talking about how overly sweet these rums are, have not actually tried them themselves. They are simply making judgements based on the original releases - which I completely understand. I did the same (and will likely continue to do so with other brands, until my eyes are opened again). BUT! This did make me think - if a brand tries to listen. If a brand tries to release what we ask for, but we don’t give them a chance, why should they bother? Unfortunately, the truth is, they could easily continue to only produce the sweet rums that get us all up in arms, and their sales would be just fine. They don’t need to change for us…If they try anyways, and people just dismiss the products, then multiple things could happen; One, many people will miss out on some potentially very interesting rums. Two, such brands may stop making an effort and focus entirely on flooding the market with sweet things that sell. And three, it may slow the conversion of people to rum drinkers - although I don’t appreciate the standard release, the fact is that MANY people do buy it. MANY people do like it. If even a small percentage of these people then become aware of the “higher-end” Don Papa offerings, this is a great step in the right direction for getting them to explore other rum avenues.
It’s a hard discussion to write about and even to wrap my head around, but I think it’s an interesting one to be had.
I will finish with a follow-up story - I recently put the Rare Cask as my entry in to a blind tasting I was a part of, with quite a few rum people who’s opinions I (and many others in the rum world) respect - I won’t call out names, but you know who you are. The rum performed incredibly well in the scoring, with majority of people having it amongst the top of the night. One particularly strong sceptic of all things sweet (especially Don Papa), scored it as his top rum in the tasting. The look of horror on his face as I unveiled the bottle still makes me laugh.
If nothing else, it’s worth a try.