Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Touring Varela Hermanos, S.A.: A Closer Look at Ron Abuelo

Touring a rum distillery should provide an experience that allows for a more well-rounded understanding of how that rum is created. Such experiences often yield a perspective with significantly more meaning beyond what can be obtained from the name and face of the bottle. Visiting the Varela Hermanos plantation was educational indeed and I bring you that firsthand account here, so read on.

Varela Hermanos, S.A. is located southwest of Panama City in a town called Pesé. We pass a local school on the way where children are being taught how to till the ground and others are planting seeds. Socially responsible and environmentally sustainable practices are important to Varela Hermanos as they employ are large number of workers locally. In addition, I am told they provide financial support to the local school as well as education about such agricultural practices. The entrance is marked by an archway with their name across it. Fields of new growth sugar cane can now be seen after the February harvest and provide the background for the various fruit trees that line the road to the distillery. After a tasty lunch and trying out their newly released and refreshing product Seco Herrerano Platinum, we begin the tour.
Statue of Jose Varela B.
(1874-1944)
Andrea, our tour guide, is very friendly and discusses each area beginning with the site's origin and founder, Jose Varela. In 1908, Don Jose Varela Blanco, a Spanish immigrant opened the first sugar mill in the newly formed Panama. In the background, three rows of five warehouses are used to store and age Ron Abuelo. Each Bodega de Añejamiento holds 7200 barrels except for No. 3, which holds 6000 barrels. Enter rum heaven! The rum in Bodega No. 3 dates to 1978 and is aged using a solera method. These barrels are stacked on their sides in a pyramid style.

Bodega de Añejamiento No.3
To contrast, the vertical barrels on pallets in the other Bodegas are not undergoing a solera process of aging (see photos). Ron Abuelo is aged in American white oak barrels acquired from Jack Daniel's. After being used once by Jack Daniel's, each barrel is inspected and hand selected for quality to ensure optimal and consistent results when aging the rum.
Barrels Aging Solera Style
Bodega de Añejamiento No. 3

Barrels Aging
Bodega de Añejamiento No. 2
The sugar cane is harvested here each February and they are proud to inform us of their responsible methods of cultivation. Varela Hermanos employs ox cart and wagon for transporting sugar cane from closer fields and trucks for the more distant ones due to the size (2000 acres) of their land. In addition, and as mentioned in an earlier post, they are one of the few rum producers that do not burn their fields after harvest.

Ox pulling cart of sugar cane to the weighing scale
Instead they hire local labor to prepare the fields manually. This prevents exposing the sugar cane and land to harmful substances released by the use of machines and burning of the remaining cane fields. Such processes require more time and monetary resources but demonstrate commitment to eco-friendly and socially responsible practices. Upon cutting the sugar cane, it is first weighed and may then go to the refinery to produce molasses for making Ron Abuelo or is pressed onsite for its juice, which is is used for the production of Seco Herrerano. The used cane stalks are then dried, bundled and become the energy source that fuels the boilers. Waste not, want not!

 Pressed sugar cane drying
(background)
 
Feeding sugar cane to the boiler
Varela Hermanos, S.A. utilizes several different yeasts and spring water to ferment the molasses and fresh pressed sugar cane juice, taking 36-48 hours per batch. The product is then distilled
Fermentation Cylinders
using only column stills prior to testing, aging and blending. The bottling and distribution site is located a few
Column Still
minutes driving time towards town right next door to Jose Varela's original house. Bottling is observably a very mechanical, machine-oriented process and in my opinion contrasts with that of the aging and blending art form: human-oriented and palate driven. Inside the bottling facility, I learn they have a recycling process for bottles locally. Ron Abuelo is bottled at 37.5% and 40% ABV for the local and majority of international markets (with exception of Spain) respectively.

Ron Abuelo Añejo
Bottling Facility













Ron Abuelo: An Intimate Tasting

Restaurant Casuale was the perfect setting for an intimate tasting of Ron Abuelo. Ron Abuelo's complete line of rums selectively paired with fine cuisine from master chef Fabricio Torcivia...oh yeah! The tasting was led by Ricardo Henríquez, Director de Investigación y Desarrollo, and Daniel Fábrega, Director de Exportación, and although formal in setting it moved forward in a very casual and freindly fashion. Ron Abuelo 501 is in session! Ricardo is full of information and despite his youthful appearance, his title of Master Blender became readily apparent in his answers; highly articulate, tailored to your understanding in technical details and tastefully mature. He explained that four processes are occurring during the maturation process, which imparts the aromas, flavor and overall character of the rum.

Ricardo Henríquez and Daniel Fábrega of Ron Abuelo
Restaurant Casuale
First, there is extraction of the color and flavors from the wood. Second, oxidation begins as the spirit is exposed to air over time. We are told the barrels are filled with 190 of the 200 liters in each barrel, hence its constant interaction with air as it ages. Third, the marriage of the chemicals over time. Although unstated, I can attest to some love in this relationship. The fourth process is the concentration of the rum due to evaporation. We begin tasting each rum beginning with Ron Abuelo Añejo, then Ron Abuelo 7yr, followed by Ron Abuleo 12yr and finally Ron Abuelo Centuria. Note, Ron Abuelo Añejo does not provide an age statement as its older siblings, Ron Abuelo 7yr and 12yr. I learn the name Añejo was given to stay true to the traditional style of naming aged rums and other spirits. However, further questions revealed it to be a blend of  rums aged a minimum of five years. As we move to the 7yr and 12yr, several of the processes Ricardo describes become more pronounced and resolute as the balance of sweetness, toastiness and woody highlights are appreciated.

Ron Abuelo Tasting
I also learn that the blend making up these products contain some rums aged up to 20 years. The final rum to be tasted, Ron Abuelo Centuria, was named, as it may sound, to celebrate "a century of rum-making tradition" at Varela Hermanos, S.A. Although this article is not meant to be a formal review of the product, I will add that the presentation of the Centuria is elegant and a visual spectacle. From its wood laden interior to its clean magnet closure, this classy casing pairs well with its sophisticated
taste profile. The Centuria's complexity and extended finish mark the end of an incredible evening. Winning!



A very special thank you to Richard March, VP Sales and Marketing, and Andrea for an insightful tour of Varela Hermanos, S.A.

Cheers to Ricardo Henríquez and Danny Fábrega for their informative discussion on and tasting of Ron Abuelo!

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