Barrel-Aged Rums, the Next Big Thing?

Tasting fine aged Ron Abuelo rums in Panama.
Ron Abuelo rum
Ron Abuelo

Ron Abuelo rum

Unlike most other liquor categories, rum has never really produced a blockbuster super-premium or luxury brand. But could fine aged rums from Panama — a country not previously well-known as a producer of sugar cane-based spirits — be the first to break the cheap-rum barrier?

Varela Hermanos' Ron Abuelo brand is betting on breaking out with three aged rums, unusual for a category better known for cohabiting with Coke and keeping Caribbean cruise vessels afloat in Piña Coladas. In addition to its basic anejo or aged rum (about $15), Ron Abuelo is now producing a seven-year-old ($25), a 12-year-old ($35), and a super-aged 30-year-old marque called Centuria ($130) which will shortly reach American shores on an inbound vessel from the country's famous canal.

Aged spirits are not unusual for scotch or cognac, where evaporation from long aging in wooden barrels or casks — called the angels' share — is low, only about two percent annually in cool Scotland. In the Caribbean, the angels are much more greedy, taking up to eight to 10 percent annually in pirate-like fashion. For that reason, rums are usually not aged in wood at all (light rums) or just for a year or so (dark rums), typically in bourbon barrels.

"In the past five years, we have gone from making 5,000 cases of rum to 100,000," says Luis Varela. His family established a sugar mill in the small town of Pese, about a four hour drive southwest of Panama City, in 1908 and started producing rum in 1936. Much of their production went to other companies such as Bacardi, whose operations in Panama they purchased in 1996, and to make Seco Herrerano, a neutral spirit from cane juice that has been called Panama's national drink.