’ve come to Panama in search of the country’s new rum
culture. it doesn’t take long to find it. an hour after stepping off the plane, i’m dining with friends of friends at
La Posta in the capital city’s downtown, which looks like
miami with taller skyscrapers. Even before we get our
menus, we’re sipping abuelo Libres, a complicated version of rum-and-coke that involves fresh mint, lemon,
simple syrup, club soda, a splash of cola and Panama’s
own abuelo rum. i finish one. then i have another.
Food arrives: a tangy shrimp ceviche, some delicately
fried calamari, sea bass steamed in parchment paper. our
server distributes wine glasses. He’s back moments later
to fill each glass with … not one of the italian wines on
display around the room, but a tinkle of ice. then he sets
a bottle of abuelo 7-Year on the table. and that—straight
rum with ice—is what we drink the rest of the night.
this, it turns out, is quite a good idea. the 7-Year is
deliciously smooth. though i never would have tried
it with a meal on my own, its vanilla and honey notes
actually do the work of a barrel-fermented chardonnay
with the seafood. i resolve to try this at home.
A COUNTRY IN SEARCH OF ITS DRINK
Panama is the kind of country you’d associate with
rum. it’s warm, and there’s not only a coastline full of
beaches on the atlantic ocean, but another one on the
Pacific. For years, though, Panamanians drank world-
wide brands such as Bacardi and myers’s and produced
little rum of their own. their national drink, if there
was such a thing, was Seco, a neutral spirit distilled
from sugarcane that is available only on the isthmus
and has no real taste. (imagine a vodka made from rum
and you’ll be close enough.)
Starting in the 1930s, Seco Herrerano—named after
the province of Herrera—became ubiquitous in nearly
every bar and restaurant in the country, and most private
homes. it wasn’t uncommon, odd as it sounds, to have it
mixed with milk. Even today, Seco Herrerano is available
pretty much everywhere. there’s no restaurant so fancy
that it doesn’t have a bottle tucked away somewhere.
But Panama has changed markedly since inheriting its
eponymous canal from the United States in 1999. these
days, the canal earns hundreds of millions of dollars
weekly in tariffs. that income, pumped into the national
economy, has raised the country’s lifestyle in a way that
can’t help but attract tourists, especially when combined
with safe and stable democracy. there’s world-class
shopping, fine dining, museums, resorts. the visitors
who step off those planes arrive seeking sun and sand,
a glimpse of the canal—and, typically, rum.
A RUM FAMILY HISTORY
Varela Hermanos, the family-owned company that invented Seco Herrerano, launched the abuelo brand in 1976.