Panama Rum Trip
Visit to Varela Hermanos Distillery

Panama City Skyline.

In February 2011, hot off his trip to Trinidad, The Rumelier was very lucky to be invited to Panama to visit the Varela Distillery in Pese, Panama. He had been invited along with a small group of Rum XP members to travel to Panama City and then on to the distillery in Pese, Central Panama via helicopter. This was to be a rum adventure of a lifetime.

The mode of transport to the Distillery from Panama City.

The morning after their arrival in Panama City the lucky small group of Rum XP's were driven to the local Heliport for their flight to the Varela Hermanos Distillery right in the heart of the beautiful, fertile central area of Panama. The flight initially took them right over the very famous Panama Canal. After that the two helicopters flew south west down the breathtaking coast of Panama.

Near the end of the exhilirating flight it was obvious the group was getting close to the distillery as there appeared to be sugar cane fields as far as the eye could see. The distillery could then be identified by the plumes of smoke rising from the large smoke stack off in the distance. Everybody had cameras clicking as the helicopters drew closer to the final destination. 

It can be safe to assume that The Rumelier have never dreamed he would one day arrive at a distillery by helicopter, what could be better than this for any rum lover? 

Arriving at the Varela Distillery by Helicopter.

The Distillery

The helicopters made their descent and after a fly-past of the distillery landed in a field surrounded by mango trees. All the group thanked their respective pilots and headed off for their guided tour of the distillery. Firstly they were taken to a canteen where refreshments and samples of Seco Herrerano were tasted.

After the welcome refreshments and introductions to their guide the group headed off for an indepth tour of the distillery. The first thing everyone in the group noticed and was amazed to see were ox and carts bringing in the freshly cut sugar cane to the distillery. This was like taking a step back in time, an event rarely seen in these days of mechanisation, and of course made for great photo opportunities. The group then proceeded to the extensive aging warehouses spread out around the distillery. The first one to be toured was where the rum is aged using the solera method. here only the best stocks of rum are aged. As expected the aroma of aging rum was overwhelming, something that is always a highlight of any distillery tour.

Sugar cane arriving by ox & cart for crushing.

During the dry season the permanent workforce of 200 employees increases to 500. These extra workers are all employed in sugar cane cutting in the fields immediately surrounding the distillery. The company have around 50,000 tons of sugar cane to harvest from approximately 800 hectares of fertile, cultivated land owned by the company. Much of this harvesting is still performed by hand and then delivered to the distillery by ox and cart.

It is during this harvest season that the fresh sugar cane juice is fermented and then distilled into the national drink of Panama, Seco Herrerano. During the rainy season the four column still is then employed for making rum from molasses from the nearby sugar mill. This rum is then aged in the companies extensive aging warehouses and finally blended into Ron Abuelo and Ron Cortez. Like most Caribbean distilleries once used American bourbon or whisky barrels of 200 litres are used to slow age their rums. One of the many aging warehouses is dedicated to the solera system aging process. Several new aging warehouses were in the initial stage of construction during the Rumelier's visit.

Feeding the boiler with bagasse.

When the freshly cut sugar cane arrives at the "Destileria Don Jose" it passes over a weigh station at the entrance. After being weighed the sugar cane then proceeds to the crushing mill where the cane is lifted off the carts by a large crane. It is then dropped onto a conveyor belt where it is lead to the cutter, where the long stalks of cane are reduced in size. After a quick wash the cane then proceeds to a series of three crushers which crush the sugar cane juice from the cane.

The bagasse that is leftover after crushing is stored in a cane field where it dries out before being taken back to the distillery for use as fuel for the boiler that feed the four column stainless steel continuous still. 

The Entrance to Varela Hermanos in Pese, Panama.
A statue of Don Jose Varela Blanco, the founder.

Company History

A story found numerous times in the Caribbean is that of Spanish immigrants leaving behind their homeland and coming to the tropics to establish sugar mills and rum distilleries. This is again the case when Don Jose Varela Blanco founded the Ingenio San Isidro Sugar Mill in the town of Pese, Panama in 1908. This was the first sugar mill to be established in the newly formed Republic of Panama.

The town of Pese is situated in a fertile valley in the heartland of Panama, where the main occupation of its 10,000 inhabitants is the cultivation of sugar cane. After several years of producing sugar Don Jose was persuaded by his three sons in 1936 to try his hand at the distillation of sugar cane juice. Right from the start the company was producing excellent rums and liqueurs.

From this simple start the company has dominated the liquor business in Panama with a reported 90% share of the domestic market. They produce around one million cases of liquor a year and employ a workforce of around 700 employees. 

An old photo showing how bottling used to be done.
Varela have one warehouse using solera aging.
Cutting Sugar Cane by Hand, the Old Fashioned Way.