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The Ultimate Guide to Panama (Part 1): Coffee, Rum, Beaches

Isla Zapatilla, an Island off Bocas del Toro

Isla Zapatilla, an Island off Bocas del Toro

This article first appeared in USA Today Travel on June 1, 2016

The release of thousands of documents exposing secret offshore accounts of politicians and actors, recently rocketed Panama onto the global radar. But the country’s best assets are not the ones bankers are hiding, rather the ones bartenders and baristas are pouring.

Connoisseurs of booze and caffeine have known what the rest of the world is just discovering now: Panama produces some of the finest coffees and rums in the world, and both beverages have become increasingly easier to enjoy in the country.

Easier to enjoy in Panama, you wonder? Because of the high quality and cost of the raw materials, coffee growers and several rum brands have largely exported their goods to markets capable of appreciating them — and paying premium prices for them.

But the revival of Panama City is underway, especially in the historic Casco Viejo district. A UNESCO recognized site, this “new” capital of Panama founded in 1673 (the first Panama City founded in 1519, burned down in 1671), evokes a smaller, grittier Cartagena. Indeed, Panama and Colombia were once united.

Dining Room/Bar/Lobby at American Trade Hotel

Dining Room/Bar/Lobby at American Trade Hotel

Examples like the American Trade, a stunning Ace Hotel project spanning several restored buildings, testify to the gentrification of the historic quarter. Only two decades ago, building owners had all but abandoned the dilapidated, pastel-hued relics to squatters; on the opposite side of the peninsula, developers chased modern glass-and-steel dreams, instigating a high-rise building boom not unfairly compared to Miami’s.

Now that the city’s gaze has returned to its historical roots, local products have enjoyed increased appreciation. Both denizens and tourists who want to drink the country’s best coffees and booze, can visit my list of spots in Part 2 to do so.

HaciendaLENaturalCoffeeDrying

What makes Panamanian coffee so unique?

Volcán Barú, the highest mountain in Panama, soars heavenward near the western town of Boquete. On a clear day, hikers who tackle the grueling six-hour trek to the summit are rewarded with views of both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Further down its steep, emerald-hued slopes, rich in volcanic soil and bird life (some 250 species have been identified), grows the country’s most renowned and expensive coffees.

Panamanian coffee was not always so well known or capable of commanding remarkable prices. One estate, Hacienda La Esmeralda, caused a sea change, shifting perception of and demand for Central American beans. Owners, the Petersons family (largely run by Rachel Peterson), discovered an unusual variety of tree growing on their property called Geisha. Before recognizing its distinct (and later prized) cup profile, they initially replanted the cultivar across their farm for practical reasons: disease resistance.

River in Boquete

River in Boquete

In 2004, Hacienda La Esmeralda submitted Geisha lots to the Best of Panama competition. Organized by the country’s Specialty Coffee Association, judges ranked the entries and then put them up for auction online. The Petersons won the competition four years in a row, and several times since. At auction, the coffees broke record after record, jumping from $21/lb in 2004 to $350.25/lb in 2013 for a small lot of naturally processed coffee – one of the most expensive single estate coffees ever sold.

Farmers hoping to recreate the synergy between the Peterson site and the variety (and reap the resulting prices), have planted Geisha across Panama and neighboring countries. Due to the diversity of micro-climates, no two coffees will taste exactly the same.

Geisha does, however, have flavor and aromatic tendencies. The best examples tend to be bright and citrusy, often tea-like in delicacy and complexity, with a whiff of jasmine-like florals.

While Hacienda La Esmeralda only accepts trade visits, a number of farms in the region do offer tours and tastings. Their neighbors at Elida Estate, also an internationally respected producer, recently opened their doors to consumers.

Rum cocktail in Bocas

Rum cocktail in Bocas

The Provenance of Panamanian Rum

Because of the suitable climate, sugar cane has long been an important crop for Panama. Recognizing the “incredible abundance of this resource” said Simon Ford, co-founder of The 86 Co., he and his partners decided to look to the Central American country to create a ‘carta blanca’ style of rum in the spirit of Havana Club.

The 86 Co., founded by bartenders, develops spirits for bartenders. Their final product, Caña Brava, has been marketed solely overseas. Same goes for Don Pancho’s line of aged expressions called Origenes. Pancho distills both his brand and Caña Brava, and was the former Minister of Rum for Cuba where he crafted spirits for 35 years before relocating permanently to Panama.

Both of these brands are finding success. But according to Ford, The 86 Co. wants a route to the domestic market to supply the growing interest in specialty cocktails and artisan products.

Ox and Cart at Ron Abuelo

Ox and Cart at Ron Abuelo

Not all rums have built their reputation outside of Panama, however. In 1908, a young Spanish immigrant named Don José Varela Blanco moved to Pesé and established the country’s first sugar mill. By 1936, he, along with three sons, began distilling alcohol from fresh pressed sugar cane juice. Nearly a century later, Luis Varela (his brother Juan Carlos is Panama’s current president), third-generation family member and head of the Varela Hermanos, S.A. company, continues to distill spirits from estate-owned crop, including the premium Ron Abuelo line.

Ron Abuelo is now one of the nation’s oldest and most popular rums. The sugar cane fields and distillery are located in a fertile valley of the Azuero Peninsula. The region features a unique climate called the Arco Seco, or Dry Arch, defined by the area’s lack of summer rain, and rum lovers who wish to taste the spirit in its place of origin, can visit the distillery or drink it in bars throughout Panama City.

Part 2: Where to Drink, Stay, Taste, and Play in Panama

 

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Does a Rum Brand Ambassador Have the Best Job in the World?

RonAbueloBrandAmbassadorMixingupDaquiri

Cristóbal Srokowski mixing a maracuya daiquiri in Panama City.

Today in the Village Voice, I explore the rise of Panamanian rum. In tandem, I interviewed the brand ambassador of Ron Abuelo, Cristóbal Srokowski, whom I met over a couple of ginger and passion fruit daiquiris in burgeoning Panama City.

Brand ambassadors, whether for spirits or wine, lead seemingly glamorous lives. They mingle with celebrities, host events, give seminars on booze, and regularly travel the world meeting new people. It would seem life is a full-time, professional party for these lucky individuals.

Cristóbal Srokowski hails from Spain where he was “discovered” by the Ron Abuelo team while bartending in Barcelona. He now serves as the brand’s global ambassador. Does he think he has the best job in the world? His answer: most of the time.

How did you get the gig with Ron Abuelo?

Four years ago, I found Ron Abuelo in one of the biggest beverage fairs in Barcelona. After tasting it, I immediately acquired it for my venue, Harry’s Bar Barcelona. A few days later, a Latin American gentleman appeared in the bar asking to drink rum. I offered him a “new” one that I just discovered: Ron Abuelo from Panama. After mixing him a few daiquiris with Ron Abuelo 7 and passion fruit, the guy asked if I would like to collaborate with Varela Hermanos (parent company of Ron Abuelo) as the bartender for some events. It turns out, he was Alexis Guerrero, European area manager of Ron Abuelo! Next, I met the Abuelo export director who decided to give me a chance as the brand ambassador. One month after signing the contract, I was traveling for my first time to China!

Is serving as a brand ambassador the best job in the world?

Being a brand ambassador is amazing, I cannot complain but…everything has a price in life. Traveling all the time and changing your home country every six months, gets tiring. It is not an easy job; you have to be the “Mr. Happy” and “Mr. Perfect” all the time. Remember: you’re the face of the brand so you cannot afford mistakes. But if you’re open-minded and hungry for adventure and love meeting new people, being a brand ambassador is a dream job.

What are your responsibilities?

For me, there are generally five components to ambassadorship:

  • Public relations and marketing, social media developing, brand building ideas, and brand development;
  • Sales;
  • Mixology: Developing drink recipes and rum applications in gastronomy;
  • Events creation and organization; and
  • Education: preparing masterclasses for consumers, sales teams, bartenders, and wholesalers.

On top of this, I must always have a good attitude and put forth a positive image, be willing to meet different people, listen to everyone, and be able to adapt to any kind of situation.

What are the drawbacks to the job?

Being far from my beloved Barcelona and my friends, and of course changing time zones and countries four times every month.

What do you like about Ron Abuelo?

This question can be answered in one word or thousands! In short, I would say that the most important part of my product and my company is that we are a family business. My boss, Luis J. Varela, has a certain charisma; he absorbs you and makes you feel part of the family. He falls between a scientist and a magician in the way he assesses the rum blends. And the rum itself has a unique profile and taste. All of the expressions have their own character and beautiful notes!

 

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Clearly ambassadorship has its perks and pitfalls, and it’s probably not the career choice for someone who is married or has children. To read more about the rums and story of Ron Abuelo, visit the Village Voice.

Below, Srokowski shares two of his favorite Ron Abuelo recipes, including the cocktail that earned him the job.

San Isidro (long drink)

1 ½ oz Abuelo 7

1 oz passion fruit liquer (Giffard brand, if available)

¾ oz lime juice

Directions: Add all ingredients to cocktail shaker, shake. Top with Fever Tree ginger beer. Garnish with mint sprig and fresh ginger.

Francis Drake

2 oz Ron Abuelo 7 years

1 oz Passion fruit juice

4/5 oz Cinnamon syrup (Giffard brand, if available)

Dash of curry powder

Directions: Add all ingredients to cocktail shaker, shake. Pour into martini glass and garnish with half a passion fruit of strawberry.

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