it grew slowly at home and abroad, but lately has become
wildly successful. in most of the 35 countries where it’s
shipped, its cultish appeal has made it the most popular
Panamanian import in any category. (Not in the United
States, perhaps, where we have baseball’s mariano rivera.
But abuelo is probably second.)
in Panama, where the Varela family is known nationwide, it is featured in literally every bar. that all four
abuelo rums are actively delicious doesn’t hurt. “abuelo
has transformed the drinking culture in Panama,” says
Luis Varela, the company’s executive vice-president. “rum
is versatile. You can sip it like a single-malt. You can mix it
in a cocktail.” and, he might have added, you can pour it
over ice and drink it with dinner.
in Panamanian terms, Varela Hermanos has a long history. Luis Varela’s grandfather, jose Varela Blanco, arrived
from Spain in the late 19th century. He settled in provincial
Pesé, which at the time was several days of laborious travel
away from Panama city, and is still a four-hour drive. He
started his sugarcane company in 1908, only five years after
the country had gained its independence
these days, the Varelas rank among
Panama’s biggest boosters. Luis’ brother,
juan carlos, has spent the last four years
serving as the country’s vice president. when i visited, he
was in the midst of a winning presidential campaign. it
would be like robert mondavi’s brother ending up in the
white House, if everyone in america drank only his wine.
as part of an effort to promote tourism, the Varela family has made guided tours of the Pesé distillery available
by appointment. the cost, US$65 a person, includes a
substantial lunch and a formal tasting. i envision visiting
a winery, but instead of rolling hills covered with vineyards there’ll be rows of sugarcane.
my first stop is Varela House, where a table full of
snacks has been laid out as a welcome. i eat ring-shaped
bread that’s typical to the region, absurdly tasty meatballs sweetened with molasses that could simultaneously
serve as a main course and a dessert, and the local queso
blanco. From there, i’m guided through the gates of the
Hacienda San isidro, which is the nearly 3,000-acre estate
where the cane is grown and the rums are made and aged.
we visit a cane field that seems to stretch endlessly
into the distance, rows and rows of what look like
seven-foot-high corn stalks but without the corn. a field
worker pulls down a stalk, trims off the leaves with a
few quick strikes of a machete, and hands me the cane.
i chew an end and suck out the wonderfully sweet
juice, which ends up getting all over my hands and
face. i don’t care. Later, i’m taken through the rum-
making process, which ends at one of the 19 identical
warehouses used for barrel aging. after a video, lead
distiller and master blender rogelio castillo leads me
through a tasting.
abuelo produces four rums. all are brown spirits
matured in used Bourbon casks, as opposed to the clear
“white rum” most commonly used as a mixer around the
world. i find them lighter, in terms of texture, than most
of the caribbean rums, yet smoother and less rustic than
rums from South america.
First is an entry-level añejo made from fermented
molasses that tastes nutty and almost refreshing, an ideal
mixer. the seven-year rum that follows is far more complex. the next one, aged for 12 years, smells of clove and
dried figs and would be perfect by itself with maybe just a
splash of water. and the top-of-the-line centuria, which
debuted in 2010, is as gracefully elegant as a fine cognac
or a single-malt scotch. meant to be sipped alone or with
just a single ice cube, it sells for the equivalent of US$150
a bottle. the sweet notes of its finish are lingering in my
mouth as we walk to lunch.
First we’re served cocktails, of course: four types, including an irresistible one involving mango, cherry syrup
and añejo. the simple food is some of the best i’ll eat in
Panama. there’s chicken soup with yucca, then beef accompanied by rice and beans, with fresh Panamanian fruit
for dessert. abuelo 7-Year and ice is on hand, but i stick to
water. i’ve only just started drinking rum with my dinner.
i’m not yet ready to have it with lunch.
THE RUM NIGHT LIFE
Back in Panama city, i spend a night seeking out the city’s
burgeoning rum culture. i visit a series of bars in the casco
Viejo, or old town. along the way, i sample rums from
Barbados, colombia, cuba, Guatemala, jamaica, martinique and Nicaragua, along with carta Vieja, a white rum
made by the only other Panamanian producer that distributes locally. (a few other boutique brands have been created for the export market.) By the end of the night, i can’t
tell any difference between the rums at all.
the next afternoon, i linger poolside at the
JW Marriott Panama Golf & Beach Resort by the
Pacific ocean, halfway between the city and distillery.
Strangely, i’m not yet tired of rum. Noticing that they have
fresh watermelon at the bar, i ask if they’d throw some in
a blender with ice and a splash of the abuelo 7-Year.
the result is a spectacularly refreshing drink with just
a touch of sweetness. i sit back in the shade of a cabana,
let the sun wash over me, and sip my invention. it tastes, i
can’t help thinking, like Panama. [
“Rum is versatile. You can sip it like a single-malt.
You can mix it in a cocktail.”