How Philippine Rums Bring History to the Modern Era of Tiki Drinks
The journey and tradition of Filipino bartenders and the tiki cocktail genre.
I first met Gelo Honrade in 2018. I was tasked with helping the boisterous bar director of New York City’s Osamil and its sister restaurant, Cafe Salmagundi, create a menu for Tiki Night. Alongside Honrade’s infectious smile and disciplined approach to cocktail invention, I dove into the project with such creative abandon that I fell in love with the tiki world.
In the classic tiki canon, rum is front and center. While the preparation and techniques are laborious at times, they bring forth unexpected flavor combinations. The presentations of such cocktails range from over-the-top to sleek and modern, yet the genre has a complicated past.
The history of tiki is fraught. Colonialism’s impact on the popular cocktail genre has overshadowed the people and history behind its star spirit: rum. While it’s true some of the most popular rums have origins in the Caribbean, the truth is that rum and other cane spirits are produced globally in more than 90 countries. And the Philippines is one of the biggest producers of and market for rum in the world. Yet it doesn’t get as much attention as other island producers—until now.
Brands such as Don Papa and Kasama have emerged in recent years, further expanding the selection of Asian rums for the world to enjoy. These brands are focused on the tradition of sugar cane cultivation in the Philippines and highlight innovations in using sugarcane juice in rum.
Although sugarcane cultivation arrived in the Philippines as early as 3000 BC and was used to make sugar for cooking as well as an array of cane wines and drinking vinegars (palek, byais, basi, intus), rum production didn’t start in the Philippines until the mid-19th century.
Enter Tanduay. The oldest rum brand in the Philippines was established in 1854. It’s a big name in Filipino drinking culture and makes up to 99% of the rum market sales on the archipelago. (It recently surpassed Bacardi as the biggest selling rum globally.) In the Philippines, go to any ihuman, a gathering where the primary objective is socializing over drinks punctuated by karaoke and snacks, and you will inevitably find a bottle of Tanduay alongside beer and potent gin.
It’s this conviviality that Honrade and I tried to capture in our themed menu. I had only been making tiki cocktails for a year when I met this veteran of the industry, who got his big break in the tiki scene at the now-shuttered Filipino restaurant Jeepney. It was through him that I first learned about and tasted Filipino rum, and I began to become more curious about rums from Asia and the world outside of the Caribbean.
FIlipino bartenders played an important role not only in getting tiki cocktail culture off the ground, but in preserving and spreading its knowledge and legacy over the years, which is now getting well-deserved attention and recognition. Manila-born Mariano Licudine consulted on cocktail workshops for hotels and resorts in the Caribbean and became the face of the Mai-Kai.
Meanwhile, Bob Esmino and Ray Barrientos opened Kon-Tiki outposts across North America. Other bartenders were poached by the many tiki bars that sprung up around the U.S., taking recipes from Don the Beachcomber and his rival, Trader Vic, along with them. Ray Buhen and his family founded the famous Tiki-Ti.
One might think tiki might still be going strong in the Philippines, but cocktail culture as we know it in the States doesn’t exist in quite the same way, says Honrade. One of the reasons is practical, he explains, “Ice is not widely available throughout the archipelago, and the bartenders there have not shown much of an interest in the history of tiki cocktails—they prefer to focus on building their own personal style and legacy in the bar world.”
The Philippines does have rum, though, and plenty of it. With the new guard of rum producers, there is yet hope that they can reclaim a spirit so deeply associated with tiki—and build upon its own catalog of rum drinks reflective of the local tastes and traditions.
Whether it’s the long-loved Tanduay or newcomers like Kasama, Philippine rums produce elegant expressions that are enjoyable neat, as is traditional, as well as suitable for a range of cocktail applications.
Philippine Rums and How to Use Them
Tanduay White Rum
Tanduay began operations in Hagonoy, in the province of Bulacan, but later moved its headquarters to Isla de Tanduay near Manila 15 years after its founding in 1854. Its tried-and-true rum remains ingrained in Filipino drinking culture; this is the everyday drinking rum of the Philippines. Tanduay takes cues from the Cuban rum style—light, dry, and crisp profile. Aged for a little under two years and then filtered, its 40% ABV is ideal for cocktails. It has a faint straw colored hue and pleasant vegetal notes on the nose, accompanied by restrained floral notes. On the palate, it is bright, crisp, and round.
Great for: A killer Cuban-style Daiquiri; an invigorating Mojito.
Produced from noble cane molasses, the original strain cultivated in Southeast Asia and subsequently imported to the Caribbean, Don Papa was created by a former Remy Cointreau executive in 2012. The rum is aged for up to seven years in American Oak casks which begets a pungent, slightly funky nose that will appeal to any fan of traditional rum. It bursts with citrus notes—candied orange peel, key lime—and has a bright, acidic finish. While some purists may find it to be a tad on the sweet side, these candied elements make it perfect for cocktailing, in particular tropical cocktails and punches.
Use it in: A pandan Painkiller.
One of the newest entries to the market, Kasama is also distilled from Noble Cane, but in this case opts to use fresh cane juice rather than molasses. Aged for seven years, it will appeal to whisky and cognac drinkers alike. The flavor profile, again, is a bit of a departure from traditional Filipino rums, and, as such, is a great ambassador for the style and for global rum in general. It has light floral notes and concentrated berry fruits on the palate. Its soft, lean mouthfeel makes it easy to sip neat, and its bright, sparkly acidity makes it ideal not only for sours, but more decadent serves.
Try this in: A not-too-cloying Piña Colada.