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Talking rum with expert mixologist Alex Morrell of Don Papa Rum

By Ina Yulo on 5th November 2019

“The rum market in the UK is probably the toughest on the planet,” says Alex Morrell, UK Brand Ambassador for Don Papa Rum. Though founded in the Philippines, Don Papa Rum has been taking the world by storm with its unique tropical notes and strong brand and marketing push. The single-island small batch rum is distilled from sugar cane and aged in American oak barrels.

Whilst already a big name in its native Philippines, Don Papa can now be found in restaurants and bars around the world. What does it take to compete in a complicated and competitive liquor market? Alex Morrell shares how he and the Don Papa team have tackled the British market.

How did you get into mixology? What are some of the bars/restaurants you’ve worked in?

My first serious “mixology” job was working for an events company with some of my good friends. We just wanted to make tasty drinks and have fun whilst doing it. Since then, I’ve worked for some incredible bars and people. I worked at Milk and Honey for about a year and, constantly being on London’s best bars lists, I learned a lot there. I was taught not only how to be a good bartender and how to manipulate spirits, but also what it means to be a good host.

We would take turns hosting the floor and working the bar so everyone would get a taste and knowledge of the business as a whole. Most recently though, I worked under JJ Goodman at The Covent Garden Cocktail Club. As one of London’s most famous bartenders who is known for his high volume party-throwing bars, I learned how to control large groups and send out quality drinks rapidly.

How did you first come across the Don Papa brand and what made you decide to become a brand ambassador?

I began my Don Papa career almost four years ago working for them at the festivals they were sponsoring one summer. I immediately thought this was an interesting brand; being from the Philippines it was unique, exotic, special, and something I had never seen before. Three years after that, I was given the opportunity to become the UK Brand Ambassador after meeting with Don Papa founder, which I jumped at!

Founded in the Philippines, Don Papa Rum has been taking the world by storm with its unique tropical notes. The single-island small batch rum is distilled from sugar cane and aged in American oak barrels

What does your role at Don Papa entail?

As a brand ambassador, my main role is to promote the brand. Working closely with our distributor and sales team, I am tasked with organising tasting sessions and masterclasses for our new and existing accounts and to showcase the history of the Philippines and its gorgeous islands. I have also had the opportunity to travel the world assisting our vast array of international markets with a variety of events and activations. I have been pretty lucky to also play with my creative side by working with our social media and creative agencies to develop our global social media cocktail serves.

What makes Don Papa unique as a liquor brand?

Many, many things. Its history. Its origin. Its flavour and aroma. They all play a big part in the wider brand story.  We are pretty unique in our origins and have excellent packaging to showcase where we come from and our culture. We are lucky enough to have an authentic backstory and inspiration in Papa Isio, the war hero who Don Papa is based on.  We are also privileged to have some very special barrels at our disposal and try and be as innovative as possible with our special releases such as our Sherry Cask, which is aged in not one, but four different styles of Sherry, each complimenting the last in such a unique and special way.

Don Papa events are legendary. What is Sugarlandia and how has the team brought the Don Papa spirit to cities around the world?

We know how to throw a party. Sugarlandia as a location is the Island of Negros: the home and birthplace of Don Papa. As an ideology, it is a haven for fun, mischief, escapism, and rum. Nothing is quite what it seems in Sugarlandia.  When we start with a tasty liquid, throw in some beautiful cocktails, and have an events team that is made up of possibly some of the most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, it’s pretty easy to bring Sugarlandia to life.

What has the reception for Don Papa been like in the UK?

After a slow start in the UK, we are starting to see a lot of love for the brand. Consumers and bartenders alike are attending our activations and enjoying the Don Papa culture. Our social media following in the UK is a big part of this as that’s where we can directly showcase our rums, Sugarlandia, and how to use Don Papa in cocktails. As the category grows, Don Papa will grow with it, continuing to host some incredible events whilst showcasing our delicious rums.

Don Papa Sevillana Cask Finish is a complex dry rum with nutty, almost savoury notes, paired with the citrus flavours of Spanish wines

You are a British person introducing a Filipino brand into the UK market. Did you do any research or have some sort of initiation into the culture before you started?

Wherever I travel, the first thing I do when I land is go and eat at a local restaurant. With such a vast array of authentic Filipino food in London, it wasn’t hard to get a taste of home. I also had the pleasure of travelling to the Philippines twice this year, and that was certainly an initiation. From the busy, hustle and bustle of the crazy cities, to the vast multi-coloured landscapes of the islands, it really isn’t hard to immerse yourself in authentic culture.

Where can we find Don Papa in the UK?

Our main retail outlets are Sainsbury’s, Harvey Nichols, and Majestic Wine stores. We are lucky enough to be in a range of on-trade outlets ranging from Young’s pubs right up to secret hidden hotel bars like Do Not Disturb. We also recently partnered up with The Breakfast Club for London Cocktail Week at all of their London Venues. We are mostly available in Manchester, East London, and Scotland right now, but we are adding new accounts every week!

Gin has obviously seen its time in the spotlight. Why do you think it’s time for rum to take the forefront?

There’s almost as much diversity in rum as in wine. With a variety of different sugar canes, climates, regional styles and the HUGE array of barrels we can use to age rum, there really is something for everyone. Also, the education rum brands are giving to consumers is giving them access to information that they actually care about and can understand. Rum is becoming relatable. I also think that, compared with other spirits, rum is fun and inspires playfulness; Tiki Bars are the prime example of this!

Tell me about the newly-launched Don Papa Sevillana Cask Finish

Using a blend of rums between 4-12 years old, we have combined not one but three different styles of cask. Our traditional ex-bourbon casks have been paired with olorosso sherry and a very unique Spanish “vino de naranja”, which is only found in the southern Spanish region of Sevilla, and is further aged/finished for three more years. With no added sweetness or flavourings, the barrel ageing processes really shine. A complex, dry rum with nutty, almost savoury notes, paired with the citrus flavours of the Spanish wines, it’s something pretty special.