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.
I am not so sure, if the experts stated are really “such experts”.
I absolutely don’t confirm nor deny, that Don Papa contains glycerin, vanillin, if it is made from neutral alcohol or if they cheat with the aging (and add any caramel colors).
However it surprises me, to hear the argument, that 10 years old whiskies can’t be found that dark. First: not true – e.g. the Jefferson Ocean has been even younger and even darker – this is due to agitation.
But even further – even most extra-anejo tequilas are very dark and are also far younger (and some rums as well). This is due to the much warmer climate in the respective regions.
Correlation does not imply causation!
It’s a good discussion to have in the open. Don Papa is a lightning rod for those that sincerely believe rum needs to be further regulated, but that’s unlikely. Some say producers should be more forthcoming, at the very least, with truth in their labeling practices.
In spite of these questions, the product is quite popular in many markets, even featured in many high end bars and restaurants. It might seem as though the consumer enjoys this experience.
The trend toward more and greater truth in labeling is a good thing that should be encouraged. Similar thorny issues with bulk whiskey, bourbon and vodka are coming to light, and the meaning of catch phrases like craft, boutique, hand-made and genuine are under increasing scrutiny.
Those who have long known about such practices are also under siege for not being more forthcoming about the “little secrets” that are well known within the industry. Trade secrets are integral to the production of spirit brands and their success often depends on these points of differentiation. You’re not going to get Coca Cola to tell you their recipe and you’re not likely to see rum producers expose their long held family secrets either, although some are more forthcoming as of late.
Even Richard Seale admits to adding food coloring to make his rums appear to be older than they really are, since consumers often base their purchase decisions and make value judgements based on the perceived age and color of rum. And, as he points out, the color of the rum aged in barrels is beautiful before watering it down to reach the 40% ABV limit most often chosen for retail purchase. So, adding color to make it look like it did before it was diluted is OK. Right? Or should his labels truthfully reflect this common practice?
The tests don’t lie and they are 100% definitive. Don Papa contains glycerine. No doubt, no debate. My question is this… If you add glycerine (and they clearly do), why lie about it?? I think people would have much less of a problem with this if the “rum” industry didn’t outright lie to consumers. They are misleading people on something that they are actually putting in their bodies and that, to me, is utterly disgraceful! Wouldn’t ever buy or drink this rubbish.