Top-shelf rum is finally having its moment. According to International Wine & Spirit Research, the high-end rum market is expected to grow 5.5 million cases by 2019.
Mirroring the uptick in global spirit sales, there’s an influx of bars serving specialty cocktails in the the up-and-coming Casco Viejo district of Panama City. Partially thanks to the country’s wealth of sugarcane — which contributes to Panama’s stockpile of rum — this high-quality liquor has crossed the border and is destined for New York City.
What makes Panamanian rum different from that of other Caribbean or Central American countries? Can local sugarcane transmit an identifiable terroir?
Around Pesé — a town located in a fertile valley of the Azuero Peninsula and home to the Varela Hermanos, S.A. distillery — distinct weather patterns exist and create an unmistakable terroir. According to Ron Abuelo Rum’s global brand ambassador, Cristóbal Srokowski, the region boasts a unique climate called the Arco Seco, or Dry Arch, defined by the area’s lack of summer rain. “The confluence of air from the Pacific Ocean with heat from the Caribbean creates a microclimate of stable temperature and humidity,” says Srokowski. “This is important for controlling the aging process, and — of course — the sugarcane harvest.” Climate stability allows for precise calculations about the evolution of the rum as it ages.
As is often the case with spirits, true terroir-driven differences are often muted by producers’ hands. “I think the distiller and blender play more of a role in the final outcome than the terroir of the cane,” says Tim Cooper, who uses Panamanian rum in cocktails at Sweetwater Social (643 Broadway; 212-253-0477).
A Closer Look at Styles of Panamanian Rum
Ron Abuelo: Dark and oak-aged
In 1908, a young Spanish immigrant named Don José Varela Blanco relocated to Pesé, where he established the country’s first sugar mill. By 1936, he and his three sons began distilling alcohol from fresh-pressed juice. Nearly a century later, Luis Varela — a third-generation family member and head of the Varela Hermanos, S.A. — continues to distill spirits, including the premium Ron Abuelo line, from nearly 3,000 acres of estate-owned crops.
Ron Abuelo is one of Panama’s oldest and most popular rums. The company controls 100 percent of their production process: They grow and hand-harvest their sugarcane (without setting fire to the fields, a common practice) before distilling and aging the spirits at their estate. The company also transports a small percentage of cane to the distillery by ox and cart. As part of their sustainable, green initiatives, Ron Abuelo recycles water, uses alternative fuel sources, and helps local communities recycle bottles.
There are four core products in the Ron Abuelo family, and all are dark, oak-aged rums. The Añejo ($15.99) is delicately spiced, lending itself to use in cocktails. The 7 Años ($23.99) has notes of caramel and coconut, and works well with cigars — Ron Abuelo even developed a line of cigars, with Gurkha, imbued with the 7 Años flavor. The full-bodied 12 Años ($34.99) should be sipped…as should the richer, more complex Centuria ($140), a limited-edition bottling that draws from 30-year-old reserves aged in American whisky barrels using a solera system.
The company will soon release a trio of cask-finished rums using port, oloroso sherry, and cognac barrels. They debut in New York in two to three weeks, with an anticipated retail of $70. The rum finished in port barrels conveys the red-fruit intensity of the cask’s previous inhabitant, while the sherry barrel version extracts the nutty, savory notes of its predecessor. The cognac barrel’s effect is subtler, rounder, and slightly sweet.
Caña Brava: Cuban-style white rum
In distinct contrast to the local legacy of the family-owned Ron Abuelo, Caña Brava is a contemporary brand created by New York bartenders, for bartenders. Simon Ford, Jason Kosmas, and Dushan Zaric — cofounders of the 86 Co. — went around the world asking top bartenders what was missing from their bars’ rum reserves. The answer was always the same: a “Carta Blanca” expression.
Recognizing Panama’s abundant and “incredible” sugarcane, Ford says the team met with eleven distillers for their new project, but had trouble finding a shared vision for the partnership. “We almost gave up,” Ford explains. Then they had a chance encounter with Panamanian national Carlos Esquivel at Miami’s Rum Renaissance in 2010. After hearing the trio’s idea, Esquivel connected them to Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez. Fernandez had made rum in Cuba for 35 years as the Cuban Minister of Rum (yes, that’s a real job) before he moved to Panama to apply his talents to the local agriculture, according to Ford.
Before long, the 86 Co. team hopped on a plane to Central America, and a business was born. Their first rum launched in 2012, intended as America’s answer to Havana Club. “The style of rum we make is based on old Cuban traditions of the classic ‘Carta Blanca’ style,” Ford explains. “It is dry, which makes it a dream to work with if you are a bartender — especially for making drinks like the daiquiri — and it carries a lot of the flavor of the raw ingredient.”
The team’s Caña Brava line has two rums: the “Carta Blanca” style 3-Year-Old ($27.99), and the richer, more aged 7-Year-Old ($39.99). The list of New York bars working with the spirit reads like a who’s who guide to mavens of the NYC drinks biz: Suffolk Arms, Dante, Employees Only (which was founded by Kosmas and Zaric), Dead Rabbit, Nomad, Dear Irving, and more.
Cooper, of Sweetwater Social, vouches for the results: “I love Caña Brava, quite simply because it checks the box for all things that rum should be. Namely, it is clean, aromatic, rich, and complex. Caña Brava is helping to reestablish the Carta Blanca style of rum-making used as the foundation for the classic daiquiri and mojito. What’s not to love about that?” He adds that it’s one of the driest rums on the market, admitting that’s a bold statement to make, “but one I’m willing to be challenged on.”
Other brands of Panamanian rum
While Ron Abuelo dominates the retail space, and Caña Brava caters to bars, other Panamanian products have cropped up — though none are as widely available. For example, Ron de Jeremy is a limited-release developed for porn star Ron Jeremy, marketed as “the original adult rum.” It’s a seven-year-old dark rum crafted by the same Fernandez who distills Caña Brava.
After 50 years of making high-end booze for others, Fernandez finally released his own line of three age-expression rums called Don Pancho Origenes in 2014. The most accessibly priced is the eight-year ($40) — it is assertive and complex with tropical fruit, vegetal, and notes of sweet spice and vanilla. Aged in American white oak barrels, the rum has found its way into cocktails at the NoMad Hotel.
New York Mixing with Panama
Despite the 86 Co.’s influence on the Manhattan drinking scene, Panama’s rums are still a blip on the radar. Striking up a conversation with a couple of off-duty bartenders last week — coincidentally bellied up to the one of the bars using Caña Brava — I got blinks and blank stares in response to questions about the category. “We know Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela,” said one of the bartenders. “But I don’t believe Panama is really a thing yet.” Perhaps because Caña Brava is associated with a style more than a place?
However, at Murray Hill’s Salvation Taco (145 East 39th Street, 212-865-5800), Henry Avila does know about Panamanian rums. “Besides appreciating the history of Ron Abuelo, the brand reminds me of my own abuelo and his love for rum and fresh pressed sugarcane juice,” he says. Avila, of a mix of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, grew up in Miami. He’s been slinging drinks at Salvation Taco for the last three years, and bartending for five.
Avila uses Ron Abuelo 7 Años in the “Ron Picante” (check out the recipe below). “I chose seven-year for the base because it’s made from the fermented juice of fresh-cut sugarcane, which I think gives the rum a brighter flavor and a different kind of sweetness,” he explains. His cocktail is a variation on a classic daiquiri, made with Ancho Reyes, demerara syrup, lime juice, and a touch of Contratto orange aperitif.
At Sweetwater Social, Cooper works both Caña Brava rums into different drinks. “The Washington’s Crossing is made with Caña Brava 3 Year and is a seasonal daiquiri with Gala apple, lime, cinnamon, and maple. The vanilla, cane, and spice quality of Caña Brava works perfectly with the apple aspect. It’s essentially our shameless play on a fall daiquiri.” With Caña Brava 7 Year, Cooper makes a Pistachio Mai Tai, because he believes “the seven-year has the perfect amount of spice and complexity to play with the aroma of the pistachio and orange in the drink.”
If your spring travel plans don’t include a flight down to Panama, why not sample the rums here in New York? All these rums are available locally, and Avila shared his “Ron Picante” recipe for Voice readers to shake up at home.
Salvation Taco’s Ron Picante Courtesy of Bartender Henry Avila
Rim the a chilled coupe glass with guajillo chile salt. Lightly shake the ingredients in a cocktail shaker and strain into glass. For garnish, set a lime wheel on the rim of the glass.
Lauren Mowery is a drinks and travel writer, and Master of Wine candidate.