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A taste of Bacolod’s history

A tour into the heartland of rum, Chicken Inasal, and beautiful mansions

The story of rum begins when a sugar cane farmer takes his harvest to a mill. There, a sugar cane processed into sugar and molasses. Most of the mills here in Bacolod have been operating since the 1920s, making them outdated and inefficient—but its inefficiency is the reason the molasses of Negros are of better quality.

When the mill is fully efficient, sugar extraction is maximized, therefore, molasses tend to be drier, not as sweet. In the old mills, sugar leaks into molasses adding to the aroma and making it sweeter.

The molasses are then brought to distilleries to be processed into alcohol. One distillery, Distileria Bago, a subsidiary of Ginebra San Miguel, produces the rum for Don Papa.

Bleeding Heart Rum Company, the makers of Don Papa, toured us around Bacolod to show the whole process of rum making. Don Papa Rum is a small batch, single island premium body rum made here in Negros.

After going through months of development, the end result is a light amber colored spirit with a fruity vanilla flavor, which is delicate on the palate and aged in American oak barrels. “But beyond the barrels is our climate. The humidity, the locale, the general climate of Negros is what’s unique to the taste as well,” said Andrew Garcia, managing director of Don Papa, Asia Pacific.

The name and brand was inspired by the volcanic soil of the foothills of Mount Kanlaon, which created fertile land where sugar cane could grow, as well as by Papa Isio, a patriot, a babaylan, and an unsung hero of the revolution. “We really wanted to make the brand something that the region could be proud of. It is a discovery brand, from the taste to the way it looks to the label,” said Andrew.

Don Papa is making waves in Europe, especially in Germany where the demand is growing. The company hopes to penetrate the American market soon.

On the local front, the winners of the first Don Papa Art Competition were announced during the recently concluded Art Fair Philippines, an annual event where the best of the best in the Philippine art world get to exhibit their masterpieces.

Artists were tasked to reimagine the canister of Don Papa Rum inspired by the story of Papa Isio and the island of Negros. The winning design will be released as a limited edition secondary canister to be sold locally and internationally starting October 2016.

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  • BACOLOD'S FINEST Clockwise from top left above: Victor Magsaysay and Josef  Sagemüller, boneless chicken inasal; Lina’s al fresco dining

    BACOLOD'S FINEST Clockwise from top left above: Victor Magsaysay and Josef Sagemüller, boneless chicken inasal; Lina’s al fresco dining

  • LACED WITH HISTORY (Above): A Don Papa mix; (lef) Chapel of cart wheels

    LACED WITH HISTORY (Above): A Don Papa mix; (lef) Chapel of cart wheels

Stop number one: A tour of a hacienda

In 1920, an idle land was cultivated into a sugar cane plantation. It is now home to the famed Gaston Mansion, built in 1933. Joey, a fifth generation Gaston, shares, “The plantations in Asia are unique in a sense because they were started from scratch. People moved from across the island, settled, and established plantations.” In the early 1900s when there was still open trade between the US and the Philippines, the Philippines was the number one supplier of refined sugar to America. To this day, Negros is still one of the largest producers of sugar in the Philippines and even in Southeast Asia.

The sole resident of the mansion is Monsignor Guillermo “GG” Gaston, who accepts private lunch and dinner appointments, when he personally prepares food for the guests. A tour of the house will reveal that the structure is made from balayong, an endemic wood which is connected with pegs without any nails. The furniture is locally made. There is also an impressive collection of dinnerware stored in wooden cabinets. During the war, all of the plates were crated, buried, and then cemented over by Joey’s grandmother. The Japanese ransacked homes back then, and because of quick thinking, the Gaston matriarch was able to save these intricate pieces that are now on display at the mansion. You may also recognize this house in Peque Gallaga’s obra, Oro, Plata, Mata.


Stop number two: Chapel of Cartwheels

Designed by Monsignor GG himself, this symbolic chapel was a bridge for Catholicism back in the 1960s. When the Second Vatican Council convened, they wanted to address the issue about the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. In order to inculcate the Catholic faith, they began translating prayers and the holy mass into the native languages of the people. “Aside from helping and translating the prayers in Latin into Hiligaynon, he decided to design a place of worship that would express the Vatican II principles,” Joey shares.

Monsignor GG decided to have the chapel in a circular form instead of the traditional cruciform. He used indigenous materials that farmers could relate to. Before rubber tires were introduced, the cartwheel was a very common instrument in moving objects around the hacienda. The discarded wheels were used as the main feature of the chapel and stood as the walls of the structure. It was also used as a graphical tool to teach catechism. It symbolized the Holy Trinity having God the father at the center, Jesus Christ as the spokes which signified the many ways to get to the Father and lastly the rim as the Holy Spirit which kept everybody focused on the Father.

“It was pretty revolutionary at that time,” said Joey. There were also other features that helped the chapel be more approachable to both locals and Muslims as well. Jesus has Asian features, Mary is clothed in Filipino attire, the downspout is Maranaw-inspired and there are gongs instead of church bells to call people for worship so that Muslims would feel welcome.


Stop number three: A gastronomic tour

Home of the famous chicken inasal, Negros definitely does not disappoint. We also had other fusion dishes such as sisig with quail eggs and truffle oil; alubati salad with salted egg, pork cracklings and ginger soy sauce and sesame seed dressing; and Laswa, a traditional Ilonggo dish, interpreted by Chef Victor Magsaysay, had three types of mushrooms, saluyot, lemongrass, and young ginger which he described as being fantastic and abundant in Bacolod.

We were very lucky to have Josef Sagemüller, owner of Lina’s and the newly opened Mahjong Club as our host. Lina’s was the house of his grandmother Lina Montilla. Josef shared stories about how the house was built and family legends before and after World War II. Right after the war, his great grandfather wanted to build a mansion, but they ran out of money. His grandmother then used all the doors intended for the mansion and made them into walls instead. Now, well-preserved family portraits hang at the Mahjong Club and with them around, it’s pure pleasure sitting there in vintage furniture, looking at the narra walls, appreciating how rich these stories are.