Posted on | October 21, 2014
Written by | Jeffery Lindenmuth
Panama’s notoriety last century was dominated by the ambitious canal (opened in 1914) that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Today the nation is drawing attention for other reasons, among them Ron Abuelo, an aged rum whose roots date back to the decade when the canal was still being built—and which is highly regarded in its homeland of Panama. With the U.S. one of their most important markets, the Ron Abuelo brand has been making its name in more than 35 countries, growing from 5,000 cases exported up to 1 million, in just 10 years.
Founded in 1908 by Don José Varela Blanco, a young Spanish immigrant, Varela Hermanos S.A remains a family endeavor with Luis J. Varela Jr., grandson of the founder, as the current CEO. “My grandfather founded a sugar mill and evolved from sugar to become a producer of spirits. That sugarcane background is something that remains important to what we do today,” explains Varela, noting that all Ron Abuelo rums utilize fresh sugar cane juice in addition to the more popular molasses.
Age Yields Beauty
The real hallmark of Varela Hermanos and Ron Abuelo, however, is expertise as producers of fine, aged rums. “Other producers generally manufacture different types of rums: white, spiced, flavors. We set out to fulfill the potential of aged rum,” says Varela.
Where other rum brands might culminate their collection in an añejo (literally “old”), this is where the Ron Abuelo line begins. “Everything we know about producing aged rum is apparent in Ron Abuelo Añejo,” says Varela. “It is mostly aged four to five years, but also utilizes our stock of very old rums, some going back 30 to 40 years.” Nurturing rums to this stately age in a tropical climate requires no small expenditure of time and money. A typical barrel can lose 8-10% of its liquid annually due to evaporation, according to Varela. The results, however, are worth the effort.
Abuelo also produces two age-statement rums: Ron Abuelo Añejo 7 Years and Ron Abuelo Añejo 12 Years. “The process takes every year of that age statement and more!” beams Varela. “When I think about the Ron Abuelo 12 Years that will be enjoyed 12 years from now, the bulk of that blend is already in barrels today.” At the apex of Ron Abuelo is Centuria, a prestige blend introduced in 2008 for their 100th anniversary. “People thought I was crazy, because $125 was a groundbreaking price for rum. But that is what it costs to produce a rum of this complexity and quality,” says Varela.
In contrast to other elite aged spirits, Varela believes aged rum holds special appeal for its versatility—able to comfortably go places that other aged spirits traditionally do not. “It is exciting to see what has happened with single-malts and fine tequilas. But the advantage of aged rum is it is much easier to mix,” says Varela. “I love to enjoy the Abuelo 12 Years neat and on-the-rocks, but you can also make a dirty mojito or original cocktail with it. For this reason, I think aged rum can be even bigger.”
With the popularity of rum in the U.S. and the current embrace of brown spirits, Varela believes the time is right for aged rum. “There are very large categories like spiced rum that are full of young consumers. But they will not stay there forever and are positioned to go more premium,” he explains. It’s a story that has already played out in markets like Spain, historically a white rum market, where consumers have come to embrace aged rum.
While the liquid is firmly rooted in tradition, Ron Abuelo is using means to spread word about their rums. A Facebook campaign invites fans to submit their “Wise Comments” on different topics, for instance. And Ron Abuelo’s current call-to-action message, “Enjoy the Experience,” presents a compelling invitation to spirits lovers to seek out these prestigious and respectful aged rums from Panama.