I recently reviewed Don Papa Rum, and the response from some in the rum community was quite passionate. I’d unintentionally waded into an ongoing controversy on what is and what isn’t rum, an energetic debate in which Don Papa has become a flashpoint. To explore the issue, I reached out to a couple rum authorities who had commented on the review.
Richard Seale is the Master Distiller and Blender at Four Square Distillery in Barbados, which has been in his family for four generations. In an email statement, Seale expressed dissatisfaction at the liberties manufactures can take with rum. He mentioned that US law requires rum to be distilled below 95%, and that EU regulations forbid the use of pure alcohol to make rum. He warned that, “the problem comes with enforcement, as it is impossible to prove that a spirit was made from pure alcohol.”
Seale asserted that Don Papa was sourced from a plant in the Philippines that produces rum, gin, and vodka made from alcohol. By his own estimation, Seale said “It is almost certainly made from alcohol. I can discern no rum flavor when tasted.”
To further his argument that Don Papa should not be considered rum, Seale said that its levels of added sugar, glycerine and vanilla had prompted the French government to label it “Rhum Vanille”—though not before thousands of cases had been sold in the country.
Seale said that rum labeling is less clear-cut in the United States, whose laws allow rum to contain 2.5% of non-rum ingredients for the purpose of blending and uniformity across batches.
“They are supposed to be only blenders that are ‘essential to the class,’ but who knows what that is, and the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) is increasingly liberal. So it is possible that Don Papa could pass the TTB,” Seale said.
He added that American whiskeys were also allowed to add up to 2.5% of additional blending ingredients, but that the rules required to produce specific categories such as bourbon prevented abuses.
“This means that in practice the rum category is flooded with doctored rums and added sugars and added sherry masquerading as premium rum,” Seale said.
Josh Miller, who writes about Rum at Inu A Kena, seconded Seale’s assertions that Don Papa was being spiked with additives. Via e-mail Miller spoke about hydrometer tests, which can be used to detect sugar levels and additives in rums.
As evidence, Miller linked me to two databases that claimed to contain information on Don Papa discovered through hydrometer tests conducted by Scandinavian governments and rum enthusiasts. The first link from The Rum Project asserts that Don Papa contains between 25-29 grams of sugar. Miller shared another hydrometer test published by French-language blog DuRhum that cites Don Papa as having 2.4 grams per/liter of glycerin and 359 milligrams per/liter of vanillin.
Miller also cast doubt on Don Papa’s 7 and 10 year age statements, calling them “Questionable at best, given the company’s timeline and the general lack of long-aged rum in the Philippines.”
“They also claim their rum’s color comes from the cask treatment,” Miller said. “Why are there no 10 year whiskies with a black color like Don Papa 10? Clearly, it’s caramel color.”
After exchanging emails with Seale and Miller I asked Don Papa to respond to some of their assertions. Via-email, a representative from Don Papa had this to say:
“Don Papa is a column distilled rum, from local cane molasses, which has been aged in oak on the island. It is sweet and fruity in style and does not contain any glycerine. A small amount of sugar is then added in the final blending process to round off the product.”
After I asked some more specific questions, the representative told me: “The molasses is fermented with our proprietary yeast and the ‘wash’ is between 8% and 9% ABV. The wash is then column distilled at between 91% and 93% ABV, and the resultant rum is then aged in American oak casks at 65% ABV.”
Questions regarding France’s “Rhum Vanille” classification and caramel coloring were not answered.
We’ll update this post with more information if it becomes available.