From the land to the bottle

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INSTAGRAM.COM/LUISITARUM

“LAND is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts,” plantation owner Gerald O’Hara said to chastise his daughter Scarlett in Gone with the Wind.

In the case of Paco (name withheld by his request; “Just Paco, please,” he told this reporter), he pays tribute to the land owned by his family by making a rum out of the sugar grown on their estate. Luisita Rum, launched in 2020, is a single-estate rum, made from sugar from Hacienda Luisita and bottled right on the estate.

Wearing a straw hat when we met him during last weekend’s Whisky Live, Paco introduced himself. “I’m the farmer behind the brand. I grow the sugarcane, and I bring it all the way to the bottle. It’s a soil-to-bottle approach. We’re involved in every step of the process, and we have control over every step,” he said.

“It all begins in the soil, and the flavor comes from the soil. I firmly believe in an organic farming approach, and this is what we do in Luisita.”

THE TERROIR OF LUISITAThe French concept of terroir refers to all the environmental factors that influence a crop and give it character. This same character is believed to translate into the product’s final form. In the case of wine, conditions in soil and weather influence the grape from which the wine comes from. While one might like to think that this translates into spirits as well, for example, that’s not always the case, as the multiple processes that compose spirits may filter out character. Paco insists that that isn’t quite the case with rum, which is made from either molasses or sugarcane juice. “Rum definitely has terroir,” he said.

He brought out a map of Hacienda Luisita, with some marks in pink highlighter. The marks represent lots where sugar is grown. “These are the good lands that I chose,” he said. “Different soil types,” he said, pointing to a mark on the map’s south. “Flavor really will come from the ground. Here, there’s more sandy soil,” he pointed out. According to him, sandy soils make sugarcane mature faster, so the sugar content will not be as high. When sugarcane is planted on loamy or clay soil, the sugar content is higher due to slower maturation. “I have firsthand experience. I know that every year, the crop is different. That translates to a different taste in the molasses’ quality, which eventually translates to a different taste in the rum. It’s like a vintage.”

The molasses is processed, fermented, and aged in casks from Kentucky in the US and Jerez in Spain.

It’s the same word, terroir, thrown about at wine tastings, that made him fall in love with spirits. “My journey into spirits started with wine. I was really enamored with terroir. Each year it will taste different, each vineyard, each location. If it’s on a slope, it’s different from in the valley. That’s what we have at Luisita,” he said.

“I really fell in love with sugarcane planting,” he said, calling it his first love. “That was my first baby, and it’s still really my love.”

We had a taste of the rum: it tasted earthy, and one had a sense of the summer sun, baking earth, and grass. This was all rounded out with a note like cooked sugar, like the brown sugar bits one picks off from banana-que. “Our soil and our distillate has a signature caramelized banana flavor, better known as turon. That’s the signature note of Luisita,” he said. “No other place could produce that.”

“We decided to add value to sugar and help the farmers. We came up with the rum to help the community,” he said. “We buy their molasses from them. Because it’s in the rum, we can offer a higher price for the molasses that we buy from them.”

“It’s that connection to the people and the community. Utang na loob (debt of honor) to the people who help tend the land. It’s a partnership between the farmers and us.”

FAMILY TIES“Growing up, my grandfather always reminded us during dinner that we were not going to have this food on the table if not for the communities surrounding Luisita,” he said.

His grandfather was a son of Jose Cojuangco, Sr., whose family acquired Hacienda Luisita, a massive estate of more than 6,000 hectares, in Tarlac province. The family has been politically active: his grandfather’s sister was late former president Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, and her late son, Benigno Aquino III, in turn became president as well. Other relatives have gone into politics, and are prominent members of society, even showbiz (a cousin would be athlete Mikee Cojuangco; as well as celebrity Kris Aquino). Asked if bearing the name has any pressure, he said, “Definitely not. If anything, the pressure is something I put on myself. It’s just to continue the legacy.” But not politics: he talks about his great-grandfather’s acquisition of the hacienda in the 1950s. “He continued the tradition of being a true steward of the land. He passed that down through generations,” he said.

“I like to tell people I’m just Paco. It’s not really too much about the family. It’s really the community that was entrusted to us. I just want to leave it better than how I found it.”

Luisita can be a politically contentious name: the hacienda has been at the center of agrarian reform disputes, some of which have led to violence. Asked if he was sure about using the name, he said, “200% sure. No doubt in my mind. Simply because it’s about terroir. It has to be named after the estate it’s from,” he explained.

“I have no interest in politics. When people bring it up, it doesn’t bother me at all.”

Aside from the fact that sugar is grown here, Paco gives many reasons why rum is a perfect product for the Philippines. “In tropical countries where humidity and temperature is high, the interaction in the barrel is a lot quicker. As a rule of thumb, generally, people say that it’s three times faster than continental ageing. Three, four years here would be like 12 years in Scotland,” he said.

“The really good brands (he cites Don Papa Rum, for one), they really paved the way and showed the country and the world. I think it’s high time that we showed the world that we can actually make premium products: products that can stand side-by-side with all the well-known spirits brands in the world.”

Luisita Rum is available on liquor.ph and other online outlets. — Joseph L. Garcia

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