Panama may not immediately come to mind when searching for an aged, super-premium rum, but the entire concept of super-premium spirits is relatively new. It didn’t exist for the general public until about 40 years ago, when Grey Goose vodka and Patron tequila expanded the concept of connoisseurship to include hard liquor. Today, consumers have more choices than ever before when it comes to putting a memorable and distinctive spirit in their snifter.
Ron Abuelo dates to 1908, when Don José Varela arrived in the newly formed Republic of Panama from Spain and established his sugar mill, Varela Hermanos, in the town of Pesé. He began distilling rum in 1936, encouraged by his three sons. Ron Abuelo remains a family-owned company today, supervised by the third-generation Luis J. Varela Jr. All their rum is produced from sugar cane grown and hand-harvested on their own property. Perhaps more importantly, the rum is aged by a solera system which allows them to use their stores of old rum to produce a blended, consistent product.
On the entry level, Ron Abuelo makes a 7 Year ($27) and a 12 Year Gran Reserva ($41); the latter is a significant bargain for a high-quality anejo rum. Recently, however, they have released a series of luxury bottlings that takes their production to the next level.
The Ron Abuelo XII Anos Two Oaks, Seleccion Especial ($75) is a blend of rums aged between eight and 40 years, matured in white oak bourbon barrels before being finished for nine months in first fill, extra-charred American oak barrels. All that wood is evident on the nose, along with seductive aromas of honey, molasses, baking spices and vanilla. It is sumptuous on the palate, with an opulent texture, an intriguing balance between sweetness and spice, and a complex finish that seems to go on indefinitely. You could make an amazing Old Fashioned with this, but you’d be denied the pleasure of drinking it neat.
Experimentation with different barrel treatments is a trend of the moment, and Ron Abuelo features a trio of 15 Year expressions in its Finish Collection; all three spend 14 years in ex-bourbon casks before being transferred to another barrel to complete the process. Oloroso captures the essence of the smooth, nutty and slightly oxidative Sherry. Napoleon spends its final year in Cognac casks and displays the richness and amplitude of aged brandy at its best. Tawny, perhaps the most interesting of the group, exhibits a range of red fruit flavors along with the hallmark balance between sweetness and tannin typical of cask-aged Port. They retail for $75 each, and a sampler pack of three 200-ml bottles sells for $125.
At the top of the Ron Abuelo range is Centuria ($145), a family reserve with an average age of 30 years, aged in bourbon barrels and released to celebrate the centennial of the estate. This rum is everything you would hope for: deep amber in color, the nose exudes whiffs of menthol, honeysuckle and molasses. It is soft and unctuous on entry, with a delicate and complex mid palate that blends flavors of melting chocolate, white pepper, caramel and nougat. The finish is long and luxurious, reverberating for over a full minute. Since a limited number of bottles are released every year, Centuria is readily available at retail, and will make a convert out of anyone who believes that rum is whiskey’s inferior cousin.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.