Growing up I never really enjoyed drinking rum, I was forced to drink such brands as Bacardi and Captain Morgan. That is until I visited Panama and got my first taste of Ron Abuelo, since that time I think it is safe to say I have been a loyal customer and spokesperson. There are quite a few of Caribbean countries that claim they make the best rum, but for me and for the price, it has always been Ron Abuelo. There are without doubt better quality rums on the market, for a much higher price, such as the rum from Guatemala, Ron Zacapa XO. Most recently the Varela Brothers introduced their newest premium rum, Ron Abuelo Centuria, which sparked my interest in all Panamanian rums. Panama is a very proud country, proud of their people and their products. Most everyone knows about and has tasted the very popular Panamanian rums, Ron Abuelo, Carta Vieja, and Ron Cortez, but could there be others we don’t know about? Indeed there are quite a few, and they have been around a while.
The common denominators between these unknown Panamanian rums are, Cuban Master Blender, Francisco ‘Don Pancho’ Fernandez and Company Director of PILSA (Proveedora Internacional de Licores, S.A.), Carlos Esquivel. Don Pancho began his career in Cuba, his father was a liquor and wine merchant and after receiving his degree in Microbiology, Don Pancho started his apprenticeship with the brand Ron Carta Blanca under the one of the most well-known Cuban master blenders, Don Ramon Fernandez Corrales. Don Pancho would eventually be named the Director of the Cuban Beverage Industry where he assisted in the training of Master Blenders in international distilleries all over the world, including places such as the former Soviet Union, Poland, The United Kingdom, Scotland, Canada and Madagascar. In the early 1990’s Don Pancho began working as the Master Blender for the Varela Brothers, the makers of Ron Abuelo. Carlos Esquivel had worked previously with Don Pancho for many years and was reunited when the two began working for the Varela Brothers. I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Carlos Esquivel last night and hear the entertaining stories associated with their careers and the rums they have produced along the way.
The PILSA Company was explained to me as a rum “tailor”, meaning they can assist you in any step along the way of creating your own rum, from blending and bottling to marketing and branding or even your own private brand. Their sugar cane fields and distillery are located within a few kilometers of the Varela Brothers, in Las Cabras de Pesé, Herrera. Every brand and rum produced by PILSA has been tailored for various clients around the globe. Currently they produce a total of 6 brands right here in Panama, all products of Panama that you cannot purchase nor find in any bar, club or even the duty free stores.
The oldest and most popular thus far is Zafra Master Reserve 21, taken from the Spanish word zafra which refers to the harvesting of sugar cane. This 21 year old rum was tailored for Dana Wine and Spirits, the same group who brought you Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa. Some other Panamanian rums you have never seen or purchased here in Panama are Panama Red 108 “over proof” rum, Alma de Bohemio, Debonaire, and Ron de Jeremy, the adult film star’s rum. That’s right, Ron Jeremy has his own Panamanian rum and I had the opportunity to try it as well as a few others while meeting with Carlos Esquivel and surprisingly enough, I rather enjoyed it.
The last and most notable missing rum from Panama that I had the opportunity to taste is Panamonte XXV Reserva Preciosa, a 25 year aged rum that sells anywhere from $400 – $700 a bottle depending on the location. Most aged rums are referred to as Solera rums, which is the process in rum by blending in such a way that the finished product is a mixture of ages.
This is probably one of the most important aspects of Panamonte Reserva, on the label each bottle is numbered individually, date stamped and initialed by Don Pancho himself, but also inscribed on the label is “Imported from Panama. Every Drop Aged 25 Years”. Panamonte Reserva also advertises as no additives, no artificial flavors or colors of any kind, rum in its purest form, aged in premium American white oak barrels that were previously used to age bourbon. Unlike the previous rums mentioned, Panamonte XXV is highly exclusive rum that cannot be bought at the local liquor store, regardless of your location, but rather you have to know someone within the owners of the brand to get it. I am no rum connoisseur but I know what I like and Panamonte Reserva XXV is not like anything I have ever tasted!
When speaking to Carlos he mentioned that for so many years people related rum to sipping a fruity drink with an umbrella on the beach in the Caribbean, which has now changed with the exclusive premium quality of Panamonte Reserva. When I asked Carlos the very important question of why these rums are not available in Panama the answer was simple, and made perfect sense. Don Pancho and Carlos both worked for the Varela Brothers and still keep a close working relationship, not to mention Varela has been making rum in Panama for more than 100 years! Like many other fine Panamanian products with limited production, such as coffee, rums are often exported to the countries where they can be sold at the highest price. So for now your options for purchasing Panamanian rum in Panama remain the same, but if you are a rum drinker and come across one of these brands while traveling, I would suggest buying a bottle!