On May 4, 2014, the people of Panama elected Juan Carlos Varela as President of Panama for a term of 6 years. His name has been very familiar to many (or most) of the Panamaian people and even visitors to Panama for a very long time, even way before he held public office.
Frank & I had seen their products in the stores since our arrival in Panama but didn’t really think too much about it until Juan Carlos Varela ascended to the presidency. Then we would joke about his family’s liquor business. But, all joking aside, we decided this year that we wanted to observe first-hand just what the Varela distillery is all about. To that end, our friend Jeff organized a tour to the distillery in Pesé, Panama.
We were a group of 10 (since admission was cheaper with a larger group), so, naturally we split up into 2 groups of 5 to travel the approximately 3 hours to Pesé from Coronado. We all knew the destination. Both navigators plugged the information into their respective Waze apps. And off we went–almost never to see each other again!
Somewhere along the way, we missed a prescribed turn. Well, you know how they “recalculate”? Something must have gone awry on those backcountry roads in the province of Herrera. We drove and drove on roads that were dirt, not blacktop. It didn’t seem right, but it was what Waze said (remember the good old days when we followed maps and our own intuition?). Finally, at one point, we were headed into what seemed like the great beyond. There was a man next to the road who waved at us with his machete and, when we stopped, informed us that we could not possibly continue down this road because it was completely populated by cattle. We told him our destination and he did his best not to laugh. He tried to tell us just how to get back to where we needed to be, but his non-existent English and my poor Spanish just were not doing the trick. Finally, we gave him a scrap of paper and a pen and he drew this map:
Oh my! We are so trusting. First of all, we had to manage to turn around on this narrow, wet, one-lane dirt road–a Herculean task for Frank. We envisioned ourselves mired hopelessly in the plentiful mud on the sides of the road. Finally, after backing about 50 feet (without going off the straight and narrow), Frank attempted a 3-point (or 5-point or 11-point) turn. He backed into a kind of driveway, whereupon the lady at that particular house graciously opened her gate and invited us to back all the way into her front yard! So, our turn did end up being only a 3-pointer! We were on our way!
Not quite. Following the map from the Man with the Machete, we found a little town with a church and a cemetery, just as he had drawn, and we began to circle and circle and circle. Long (very long) story short, eventually, when we had already been driving for 3 hours and 45 minutes, we managed to flag down a truck and ask (I in my very broken Spanish) how we would get to the town of Pesé. Fortunately the girl spoke pretty good English. We called our friends, who had been at the destination for an hour at this time, who gave the phone to the guide so that he could give her explicit instructions!
We arrived—late! The rest of the group, not only ours but another group of bankers who had come in a helicopter (note to self: next time, take a helicopter). They had graciously waited for us! Well, we were only 20 minutes late (when we had built in at least an hour for incidentals).
Finally in Pesé, we took a tour of the Varela family home from the early part of the 20th century, then drove to the present-day distillery, where we were taken by oxcart from the front gate to the welcome area. They provided snacks and drinks for us before beginning the tour of the facilities.
Now, a distillery is a distillery is a distillery. But this distillery in Panama is a distillery with a social conscience.
If you know anything about rum, you know it is made in some way from sugar cane. This is why it is the national drink of so many Central American countries and Caribbean islands, due to their prolific production of sugar cane. As you can imagine, in the early years of the Varela distillery, they grew a lot of sugar cane which needed to be harvested in its season. This harvesting was done by the local workers, providing a good living for the local families. As time went on, more and more cane growers were moving to machine-harvested cane–Varela, also, but with a difference: they reserve, even to this day, 20% of their production for the local workers to harvest. It is not the most efficient. It is not the most profitable. It is, simply said, socially responsible. The Varela family owes a longstanding debt to the people of this small town for their faithful work and support of the distillery.
In addition, the distillery strives to be as sustainable as possible by utilizing the leaves from the cane plants for their fuel. After the cane is harvested, the leaves are baled and stored for energy needs throughout the distillation process. Water that is used in the process is collected at the end and retained for irrigating the plants of the next crop. I know there are other ways that Varela Hermanos strive to be sustainable, but these were the main ones that impressed me.
Although we were visiting at a time when no distillation was happening, we toured the buildings and observed the vats, machinery and workmen who were laboring diligently to maintain, repair and upgrade the existing equipment. We were led into the aging barns and given a fascinating education on the aging process for rum. I am ashamed to say that I really cannot remember how many tens of thousands of bottles of rum Varela Hermanos produces each year, but it is impressive. They produce not only quality rum (a 4-year-old, 7-year-old, 12-year-old and a 25-year-old which has won the highest awards on the world stage) but also a neutral liquor product called Seco Herrerano. This product represents the bulk of their overall production and is their biggest seller.
Very interesting to me was the fact that the sugar cane, as it is harvested, is used in the production of the Seco Herrerano, but not in the production of the rum. That is because the rum is produced from the sorghum, a by-product of the sugar refining process. So Varela purchases this sorghum from sugar refineries for use in the production of their Ron Abuelo. Things you never know! I can remember sorghum molasses at my grandparents’ house when I was a kid. I am pretty certain that my grandmother, whose mother was a member of the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union, for you young-uns), had no idea that she had infant rum sitting in her kitchen!!
After our tour of the facility and aging barns, we settled into a lovely hall with tables set for lunch and rum tasting. We enjoyed a lovely lunch that included a lovely fruit punch (laced or unlaced), salad, roast pork with rice and a delicious flan for dessert. It was nice, but what we all really wanted was to uncover those snifters at each place and to start our rum education! That beautiful amber liquid resting serenely in the bottom of those glasses seemed to be whispering to me.
Finally we began. Some background was given on each of the products we would try. The Añejo, which is a 4-year old rum, then the 7-year old, the 12-year old and finally the Centuria, which is a 25-year old rum. We were told of the international competitions in which they had participated and the fact that the Centuria has won the most coveted prizes in the world for a rum of its age. Funny how, when you are talking about anything alcoholic, those age categories represent something so very different from, say, a ski race with age brackets. In those, the older the bracket, the less you expect of the participants. With rum, much is expected of those older rums and Ron Abuelo Centuria delivers.
As we began tasting, our guide explained just what we wanted to look for in the “legs,” the “bouquet” and overtones. We tipped, we blew, we inhaled, we sipped. Wow! What an eye-opener.
I must confess that I have never really thought much of rum except as a prop for Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. It seemed to me to be a pirate’s drink that didn’t require much flavor or character and was best mixed into something else. I think differently now. I have always been a lover of cognac and schnapps (the real kind, not that sweet junk they sell to people who really only wanted syrup with a kick), but now I have added rum to that list. We left the Varela distillery with a 750 ml bottle of the 12-year old Ron Abuelo and a couple of their branded Ron Abuelo snifters. The level of the contents of the bottle has gone down considerably and the glasses have been washed many times–and we truly have enjoyed consuming our purchase!
This is not meant to be an exhaustive treatise on the production of rum, but rather just relating one of our experiences here in Panama. I would definitely recommend this tour to anyone and everyone. A little piece of Panama history.