Saving Rum From The Angels With Ron Abuelo

To celebrate Rum Day, we speak to global brand ambassador Cristóbal (Cris) Srokowski about Panama’s oldest rum distillery, Ron Abuelo

By: Tiff Christie|August 16,2021

Where there is a wealth of sugar cane, there is also a fair chance that you will find rum. And that is very true for Panamanian rum brand Ron Abuelo.
With a name that literally means grandfather’s rum in Spanish. The story of this brand is one of location, fermented molasses and family.
We speak to global brand ambassador Cristóbal (Cris) Srokowski, who is in Rome, about rum expressions and of course, how best to explore the Ron Abuelo range.

For more information, go to or connect with the brand on Instagram via @ronabuelorum (USA) or @ronabueloeurope (europe)


Read Full Transcript

Tiff: Where there is a wealth of sugar cane, there is also a fair chance that you will find rum. And that is very true for Panamanian rum brand Ron Abuelo.
With a name that literally means grandfather's rum in Spanish. The story of this brand is one of location, fermented molasses and family.
We speak to global brand ambassador Cristóbal (Cris) Srokowski, who is in Rome, about rum expressions and of course, how best to explore the Ron Abuelo range.
Thank you for joining us, Chris.
Cris: Thank you for this interview. I hope you're all safe and healthy. It is a pleasure to share with you our passionate and our family history.
Tiff: Now I believe the brand originated from Panama's first sugar mill.
Cris: Yes, the company was founded by Don José Varela Blanco. He was a young, Spanish adventurer, he had traveled around the America's arrived to Panama, when Panama was still part of the big Colombia. And then, after five years of the Panamanian independence, which was in 1903, he founded the first Panamanian sugar cane mill called Ingenio San Isidro with his Panamanian wife, Raquel Arjona, in this really small village called Pesé, which is now around four hours by car from Panama City, the capital.
Tiff: Now I believe after running the sugar cane mill for quite a while in the late thirties, the family started to produce rum, with the brand producing its first bottle in 1956. Is that the case?
Cris: Yes. Is that correct? In the fifties? The founder of the company. Don José already living other life.
So the second generation of the family in honour of the founder that passed away they decided to call the brand Abuelo, which means grandfather in Spanish. And the reason also was because they already had their third generation. So in honour of the grandfather and to keep all the family values and tradition, and actually was a very accurate name for aged rums, they decided to call the brand officially Abuelo.
Tiff: If the family started growing sugar cane, what was it about rum that interested them?
Cris: Don José started with sugar and sugar cane, but his children, when they grew up, they studied engineering. They have this vision and, speak with their father about doing aguardiente and spirits made from sugar cane.
And of course rum, so Don José also saw this Inspiring idea and allowed his children to twist the business and create something completely new. And actually since then, the company was specialized in spirits from sugar cane and, of course, rums until nowadays when basically we are still managed by family members.
Tiff: It's quite rare among spirit companies to have a family controlled company for over a hundred years. How have they managed that?
Cris: Lots of tradition, lots of discussions, of course, lots of passion. And, after 113 years since 1908 until now, the company still in family hands and the CEO of the company, Louis Jose Barela, he's actually the grandson of the founder. Currently the shares are still in hands of cousins and his brothers etc, but we are very proud of this Panamanian history and tradition, and we are very proud not to share any percentage of the company with any multinational.
Tiff: Now the brand is also in a unique position as it controls a hundred percent of its production process. Can you go through what that means?
Cris: We are one of the few companies that control, as you said, one hundred percent of production process, which means from the sugar cane fields, until the bottling plant, all the products are produced in Panama, in the same estate. That's why we can call ourselves a single estate rum. The rum is bottled in Panama as well and from Panama, it is exported to more than 45, actually 46 countries around the globe.
Tiff: Can you walk us through the rum's journey from sugar cane to bottling?.
Cris: Currently we have one thousand 600 hectors of our own sugar cane. Using five different typologies of this cane adapted to the specific climate, temperatures in general and terroir of our Panamanian country. The terroir is composed part by bicanic sandy soil, part by clay. That's why, we had to adapt this sugar cane typologies.
Panama has only two seasons, the dry season that goes from January to April and then the wet season that goes from May to December. During the dry season, we will harvest the sugar cane. The harvesting in Panama is called Zafra, and after this, we are transporting the sugarcane to the mills, squeezing, using the fibre to burn it and leaves to burn it and create a sustainable energy.
We are fermenting juices and molasses, then distilling, ageing and bottling everything in the same place.
Tiff: Now you mentioned the size of the estate. How much of that is the sugar fields and how much of that is the distillery?
Cris: 1,600 hectares is the sugar cane plantation. We have a big extension of warehouses - 19 actually. Inside of this 19 warehouses, you can find more than hundred thousand barrels of rum. Of course we have the juice extraction part, the fermentators, which are four continuous fermentators and one batch fermentator plus the containers where we are multiplying the yeasts, plus our set of columns. I'm not sure about the extension, but most of the land, most of hacienda is the big sugar cane plantation.
Tiff: Okay. Now I believe you hand harvest your sugar cane. Why is that?
Cris: Hand harvesting is made because of two reasons, the first we have the social project mainly, where we are giving work to more than 160 local people from Pesé down. And we all know if we would use only the harvesting machines, lots of people would lose their work.
So we keep doing the traditional harvesting by hand to keep those people in their job positions. Of course we are also using harvesting machines for the parts of the field that are far away from the distillery and the town.
And we are cutting it we are harvesting in green for two reasons. First of all because we want to avoid any kind of pollution. As you may know when you burn, there are some ashes going up and then the wind is transporting those ashes and contaminating the environment and the area. So we don't want to do that. Second of all, even though the influence of the burning is minimum in the quality of the sugar cane juice, still you have to be very careful when you burn the fields, because if the fire, if the temperature is too much, then you are affecting the flavour and the aromas and the organoleptic profile in general of the sugarcane. So that's why we are harvesting in green and then transporting everything to our mill.
Tiff: Now, I believe you still transport the sugar cane to the distillery by ox and cart.
Cris: Yeah. That's very interesting because some of the parts of our field, which are near our distillery, the ground is not so accessible with big trucks. So we use those cart and ox to transport the cane to more stable grounds and we put them inside the big trucks that will help us to move the huge quantities of this gain to our distillery.
Tiff: Do you think that retaining a lot of traditional methods as you have actually affects the quality and taste of the rum in the end?
Cris: Absolutely. We've been living in a world and we still do, that lots of things became industrial and they lost their soul and love for details. And actually now, the whole world is doing couple of steps backwards and people are willing to come back to tradition, to what is real, to organic, to eat that was not affected by chemicals.
So we've been doing this for over a hundred years and we've always been convinced that, investing time, passion, and love to every single detail at the end. And of course is making the difference in our final product, right? In, in the final liquid, we are giving to the world..
Tiff: Now the brand has four products in your classic range. The añejo, the seven años, the 12 años and the Centuria. Can you run through each and explain the differences? Both in terms of ageing and flavour.
Cris: Okay. We have 19 warehouses, as I said before. 18 warehouses are using what the world called vintage pallet system of ageing, which means refilling the barrels between them with the liquid of the same age in every 2, 3, 5, 4 or 10 years, depending on your angel's shares.
For example, scotch whiskeys are doing this between nine to 11 years. Cognac is doing this every five to six years. Jamaica, for example is doing this every three years. We have to refill the barrels every two years to keep the barrels full with the liquid of the same age. And the reason why we are doing this is because our angel's share is super, super high.
And you can imagine that scotch whiskey is losing 1.5 to 3% average but here, we are losing in Panama from eight to 15% per year. This is an average of 10%. So that's why every two years we just need to put the liquid together, to keep those of vintages, pure vintages. Then select those vintages to create our rum profiles, we are blending young rums with old rums The reason why we do this is because even though the percentage of the vintages is changing, the profile and the weighted average will be always the same, always precise. We are blending, as I said, young rums with old rums and finding this perfect balance and unique tastes and flavours, we are transmitting through our rum range.
So Anejo, 7, 12 and Centuria are called classic range because we are using only American Oak ex-Bourbon. Añejo, seven and 12, are using this vintage pallet system and Centuria, which is our top of the range, is the only one that is using a Solera system coming from one warehouse, the warehouse number three, where we have 7,200 barrels in solera system, blending rums from 12 up to 43 years, creating this weighted average of 30 years.
And this is what Centuria is. We are only doing 10,000 bottles per year for the whole world. So it's a very limited edition. But Añejo, seven and 12, as I said, are blending vintages. Añejo goes from five to 4 43 with a weighted average of five, 7 years goes from five to forty-three weighted average seven and 12 goes from eight to forty-three weighted average 12.
The reason why we are using rums that are 43 years old is because our oldest reserves are from 1978. We are one of the few companies in the world that actually possess stocks of such an old rum and we are very proud of it.
Tiff: And what would the difference in flavors be between those four?
Cris: Añejo is offering very fresh aromas, such as a young wood, some grassyness, you will feel some tropical flavours such as banana, light hints of smokiness and is perfect for any kind of drinks. We designed this product to be beautiful for any kind of a soft drink combination or more long drinks and a massive cocktails. Abuelo seven years is our first premium rum actually is the favourite choice of all the bartenders and also the whiskey lovers searching for the perfect balance between the spirit and the Oak. Abuelo 7 is just beautiful, mix it with any kind of favour.
You can use it with bitters and vermouth, such as cocktail El Presidente such as rum Negroni, or you can do even a rum Boulevardier or something more fresh such as rum Crusta, old Cuban or even premier Mojito right. Abuelo 12 actually is our best seller in Europe. I have to confess this is one is my favourite one. Abuelo 12 is possibly one of the best traditional rums, value for money on the market.
So we are coming from Abuelo 7 which has this fantastic minerality, some mature apricot flavor, dates, vanilla, cinnamon.
And this profile is evolving in Abuelo 12, where we will perceive a plums, chocolate, cacao, coffee beans. We will perceive this intense vanilla, this buttery texture on our palette. That's why Abuelo 12 is just fantastic to, drink it straight up, on the rocks or even mix it in classic drinks, like a rum Manhattan or rum Old Fashioned.
And of course, for medium body cigars, those cigars that you're smoking in 30, 40 minutes with mature tobacco leaves, but still medium time smoke, or desserts to pair with 75%. .
Centuria is called Centuria because we launch it when the company celebrate one century of history.
And here we have an exquisite result that is coming back to the fruits freshness. You will perceive sweet citrus, Pecan Nut. You will feel this very mature apricot, that you could already feel in Abuelo 7, in the Abuelo Centuria are just exploding. The flavour and aroma range is super huge. And of course you need lots of time and lots of patience, because if you serve, I don't know, one ounce and a half of Abuelo Centuria in a glass you need to wait at least 45, 40 minutes, so the oxygen is taking out the tannins that are not allowing the rest of the aromas to come up. So you have to be patient.
Tiff: People are always fascinated by Solera aged spirits. Can you talk us through a little bit more about the process for the Centuria?
Cris: Yeah. The Centuria as I said, is aged in a warehouse, number three of our hacienda, there we are blending our family reserves from 12 years, the youngest ones up to rums from 1978, rums they finished 43 years of ageing. We are using the traditional solera system, like in the south of Spain, which is calculating the percentages and measuring the weighted average that remains on the last line of our Solera.
Lots of other brands are just declaring the last drop. We choose to do solera system, how we should be, calculating the weighted average, as I said Centuria is a 30 years old rum. And we are only doing a 10,000 litres per year. Imagine, as I said before, our angel's share is incredibly high, so costs a lot to keep this rum in the barrels and, save them from the angels.
Tiff: Of course. Now Two Oaks is your latest. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?
Cris: We wanted to offer to the market something different. The family and the company was always focusing into something different, something original, something unique, and that's why we analyzed the possibility to cover the gap between our Abuelo 12 years and our 15 years finished collection, but also a gift to the consumers, something that they are asking for, which is very intense, structured, and dedicate rums.
We already do a very long research when we produce the finished collection. I think eight years ago already, something like this. So we been working with the best barrel maker from France this company's called Seguin Moreau. They are doing the top quality barrels for a spectacular wine chateaus. They're doing beautiful barrels for the best cognacs and Armagnacs. And of course they are also producing barrels in the Napa valley, California.
That's why we decided to make a very particular proposition to them. Our Abuelo 12 years was always something different. If you Abuelo Anejo, 7, 12 & Centuria, they have the same motif between them, the freshness, the fruitiness, the raisins, apricot, minerality, but Abuelo 12 was always a little bit different, more chocolatey, more intense, more Woody.
That's why we wanted to do some experiments with Abuelo 12 as the base, and that's why we ask Seguin Moreau to prepare a very special barrel for us. First of all, we asked them to make a new American Oak barrel. So Virgin American Oak, then we ask them to do some inside cuts over the inside part of the staves, to create more extraction surface, extraction of the aromas, the woody flavours. And then instead of carbonising the inside part of this barrel at very high temperatures with gas fire for 30, 40 seconds, like Bourbon does, we ask them to do a natural wood fire at low temperature, one hundred 80 degrees, and then do this roasting process, this intense toasting process for one hour.
So no 30 seconds like bourbon, but one hour at low temperature arriving to eight millimeters of char. Bourbon are usually chairing until four millimeters, we achieved eight millimeters without ashes. So without the burn flavours, because we are using low temperatures.
What is happening inside of the barrel? So with this intense toasting, we are transforming all the carbohydrates of the wood into caramel and butterscotch flavours. We are transforming the wood into all the spiciness and all the huge universe of toasted flavours.
And of course we are lowering down the tannins which are antioxidants and tannins are giving us a stringency on the palate. That's why lowering them down, we are achieving, an extra smoothness, a very delicate texture. So we are using those very particular barrels to finish for the last nine months, the Abuelo 12 years, two Oaks. So the Abuelo 12 years, Two Oaks is called Two Oaks because we are using American Oak ex-bourbon that like the rest of the Abuelos. And then the last nine months we are finishing this product inside of those new, twicely toasted barrels, achieving an extra intense flavour, oakyness and extra smooth texture.
Tiff: That sounds amazing.
Cris: Yeah. Is unique is fantastic.
Tiff: Now, additionally, I believe that you also produced three cask finished rums. Do you want to run us through those as well?
Cris: Absolutely. Eight years ago or nine years ago for our first time with the owner of the company, Luis Varela, we talk about this project, actually. I remember we'd been in Guanzhou China. We just opened the Chinese market at that time. And he showed me some drawing s, some ideas at that time they'd been like one or two companies using some particular barrels such as Ximinez or cognac barrels.
So we decide not to do one, but three finishes to offer to the world something completely different and a new, different way to enjoy rum, something that nobody did before with a collection of three.
Of course, we did lots of experiments. We tried with Grand Marnier barrels. We try with Pedro Ximinez barrels. We tried with, of course, different sherry ones, different types of cognac. And at the end we choose three unique used barrels from three top suppliers from Europe, which are 500 liters, big toneles, big barrels are used to produce sherry oloroso. Sherry oloroso is one of the six typologies of sherry wine. And it's a very mineral, dry and oxidated sherry wine, right? Sherry wines are fortified wines from Jerez de la Frontera also the profile and it's very magical. And even the way how they do it they think to do a lot also since the beginning, that's why they are selecting the best wines adding after fermentation this grape spirit going over 15.5% alcohol, and then they are filling those barrels and thanks to this high percentage of alcohol, this fungus called el velo de flor is not appearing. So since the beginning oloroso is passing through this very oxidated process inside of those big barrels. So we are buying every year, those barrels because like our finished collection are only using once the sherry cognac and port barrels, and then we are selling and buying again.
So we are buying every year those used barrels from Sherry oloroso. To do this unique finish where the Oloroso barrel will give to our rum, this minerality and saltiness, and the aftertaste will be on the side of toasted almonds and toasted bread.
Whiskey drinkers, they love our 15 years oloroso also because actually the last year, most of the Highland, Speyside, Campbelltown Scotch whiskies, , they've been using sherry oloroso due to its quality and richness. Then we have our cognac cask finish. The company doing the selection of those barrels is Seguin Moreau, our partners for Two Oaks. We are buying this limousine French Oak casks to XO cognac Napoleon. So we get this ripe fruit flavour, mature oakiness, we get these raisins, light cacao flavour. A very dry start, but then super smooth end, a very elegant, very balanced. The equilibrium of this product is fantastic.
That's why we always suggest, if you're trying all three, 15 years, we always suggest Napoleon to be the second one. And then we have and we know all or what cognac is that is a spirit made from three, sometimes four typologies of grape and Napoleon are cognacs aged under 10 years because some couple of three years ago, the cognac law changed and now XO means minimum 10 years, but we are not very interested in so used barrels because what we are searching for this fruity freshness from the grapes. That's why we are using the Napoleon casks.
Finally we have the tawny port cask finish. We are buying from a producer that is also using French limousin. Those are small barriers of 250 litres ex tawny port. Tawny port are the most aged port wines from a Porto north of Portugal. This is also a fortified wine. They are adding this grape spirit, this Brandy during fermentation cadding stopping the fermentation, killing the yeast. So not all the sugars are becoming alcohol. That's why the wine is sweet, but alcoholically strong because of this spirit addition. Tawny are the most aged port wines and the flavour that we will get out from this used barrels from Porto, are, of course, red fruits, figs, amarena cherries, red fruits, lots of the sweetness at the beginning, and a very interesting dryness at the end because the small French limousin barrel has a higher concentration of tannins. Obviously. That's why at the end we have this beautiful, clean and dry ???.
Tiff: You've spoken a little bit about the weather effect of the ageing process. What is it though that makes Ron Abuelo special amongst Caribbean rums.
Cris: We have a super huge humidity. The whole year we have temperatures that goes from 27 to 35 degrees with a humidity from 75 to 100%. This means a huge angel share, but thanks to this huge angel share, we will have also a very fast, third series aroma extraction, so the wood flavours, right faster extraction from the wood, but also a very fast concentration. Yes. So in terms of ageing, one year in Panama is like 40 years in Scotland. So we are ageing very fast and the results are spectacular.
Tiff: Now, if someone were to pick up a bottle of any of your expressions for the first time, how should they first experience it.
Cris: I would totally suggest try the Abuelo 12 years, straight up, serve it in a port or wine glass or cognac balloon glass, wait for, I don't know, 15 minutes, so we'll get open and then just enjoy straight up. Abuelo 12 by far is my favorite, that's the truth because like the balance and the wood intensity is just beautiful, but all Abuelo's have its own profile, and honestly is a matter of personal taste, but if I would suggest so, Abuelo 12. And something that you definitely have to do is drink a daiquiri made with Abuelo 7 is just mind blowing. If you have the chance, I would suggest you to pair the finish collections with a specific type of chocolate, such as oloroso with a chocolate with sea salt or salty caramel, the Napoleon cognac cask finish with chocolate and citrus, like a grapefruit or orange and the tawny port cask finished the dark chocolate with red fruits.
If you want to experiment a little bit more, since years we've been doing around the world, lots food pairings especially with the finished collection, where we are serving to our customers in collaboration of top restaurants around the world. Some finger foods designed for the finished collection would be raw, oily fish with a lot of sauce, such as, red shrimp tartare or tina, salmon, oysters, a roe obviously, foie duck breast, meat carpaccio or any kind of pâté with the Napoleon and blue cheese with the tawny port cask finish.
And of course, if you have time and patience, you have to try straight up the Centuria, but you need, at least, as I said before, 40, 45 minutes, so the tannins go away and you can enjoy the full range that Centuria can offer you.
Tiff: Now, if you were to put any of the rums into a cocktail, what would you choose to use .
Cris: Abuelo 7 daiquiri for sure. I would say, a cocktail we call Abuelo Coffee which is ounce and a half of Abuelo 7, half ounce of a good coffee liqueur, ice, and top off with a dry tonic water. Or the Panama Mule is half Lime squeezed in a glass, two and a half Abuelo 7, ice and ginger beer. Those drinks are fabulous. For the Abuelo 12, I would definitely say rum Manhattan or rum Old Fashioned. Those drinks are with Apollo seven or 12 are just perfect.
Tiff: What does the future hold for the brand?
Cris: Keep growing. We are increasing our team of ambassadors.
We are studying the possibility of new products that soon will be available on the market. We still want to keep our tradition and share our passion and love for rum category with the world, so means lots of travels, lots of activations, lots of tastings, and and yeah, and lots of love sharing.
Tiff: And whereabouts are you sharing that love? Where is the rum available?
Cris: Currently? We are in 46 countries around the world. We started the Asian market eight years ago. You can find Abuelo in Japan, Singapore, China and Taiwan. In America, we are in most of the Latin American countries.
Of course, the States, Canada, you can find it in Bahamas, Bermuda, Belize, Saint Martin, Cayman Islands, all central America. In Europe, we are almost everywhere. Our main markets are obviously Germany, France, Italy, Czech Republic, Spain. We are very proud of the work we've been doing because even in small countries like Denmark, the rum is very well known.
We are currently working on opening new markets. So there's lots of work to do that's for sure. And 46 countries is that is a huge amount of let's say partners and Abuelo lovers around the world.
Tiff: Now, of course, if people want more information, they can go to your website, which is or connect with the brand on your social.
Cris: Absolutely. We have in Instagram AbueloEurope. You can even contact me directly in C S R O K O in Instagram. Like it's very easy to find us actually. So please do. We are very happy to help with any kind of run production doubts, or any kind of information about what we do in Panama.
Tiff: Excellent. Look, thank you so much, Chris, for taking the time to speak with us
Cris: It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.

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