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A lot of companies claim to be family owned and operated, but Varela Hermanos, the producers of Ron Abuelo rum, is one that truly practices what they preach.
"Abuelo is my baby," notes a proud Luis J. Varela Jr, at the Ron Abuelo rum tasting in Tribeca’s Brandy Library.
Varela, the current CEO and the founder's grandson, notes that beginning with its birth in 1908 Varela Hermanos built a company with strong roots. The company is a leading producer of spirits in Panama and holds 90,000 barrels and counting.
"Aged rum in the United States has a lot of potential," he begins. His goal is to make U.S. drinkers appreciate the complexities of aged rum, and is looking to Spain as the model. Twenty years ago, Spain's attitude towards rum was similar to what the U.S. exhibits now, using mostly clear rum to create fruity tropical drinks. Spain now has moved from carrying nearly 90 percent white rum to 90 percent aged rum, a turnover the company is hoping to initiate in the United States.
By using sugar cane instead of the molasses typically fermented to create rum, Ron Abuelo’s products have flavor profiles ranging from light and almond-y to richly smooth with a maple finish. They are great for drinking neat, creating typical rum-based drinks, or substituting spirits in classic drinks such as the Manhattan.
The rum, aged traditionally in American white oak barrels with a 200L capacity, not only increases output, but helps to alleviate barrels lost. Nearly 2 percent of the barrels used to create scotch in Scotland are lost each year; a small number when compared to 10 percent of the barrels lost on the Varela Hermanos plantation due to Panama’s heat and humidity.
Beyond providing a quality product, Varela says the company prides itself on giving back to the people. Supporting the Special Olympics in Panama and planting a tree for every person who passes the finish line is only one of the community driven tasks the company participates in annually.
Varela Hermanos also has a tech center and an arts center geared towards fostering education and creativity in young children. The company was the first rum company to avoid burning sugar cane harvested for rum production (which makes cutting easier), and are one of the few companies that still hand harvest.
After a brief lesson on the company's history and the ins and outs of aged rum, we move on to the real reason we have gathered in Tribeca’s aptly named Brandy Library, rum tasting. Before we begin we are given a quick rundown of each product we will taste; Ron Abuelo Anejo, 7 Anos, 12 Anos, and Centuria. "Each one has a particular characteristic," we are told, "each is very different."
It's easy to see why most of the advertising done by Varela Hermanos is through trying the product. I never imagined rum could exhibit such an array of flavor profiles and texture. The Ron Abuelo Anejo ($16/750mL) is a younger aged rum good for drinking on the rocks or in mixed drinks. It is drier compared to most aged rums, and is often used in a "tinted”, Panama's take on the rum and coke, using only soda water and a splash of cola.
The Ron Abuelo 7 Anos ($23/750mL) is where we begin to notice the surprising nuances aged rum can exhibit. It's sweet with dry fruit and a smooth, thicker consistency than its younger brother. My favorite, the 12 Anos ($33/750mL), has a nice concentration in aroma and flavor because it still holds the tannin which is typically extracted from white rum. It has notes of oak, vanilla, clove, and cinnamon. "Oh man, do you smell that?!" one woman asks her friend. "It smells like maple syrup."
Finally, we taste the crème de la crème, the Ron Abuelo Centuria, which is only produced in small quantities each year. Its buttery, toffee undertones come from age and the careful combination of vintages aged from seven to 30 years. At $130 a bottle, you are truly getting what you pay for; the product is so smooth you could easily enjoy it neat.
It's this product that has won Ron Abuelo a number of awards in the United States. These awards are used to promote internationally, and partly account for the drastic increase in sales in the last 10 years; a growth that is easy to understand after enjoying the products.