I'm a rum guy. It's one of the paramount reasons I am so in love with Panama — a country long-celebrated for its rums and rum masters alike. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I got my hands on bottle #74 of Panamonte XXV rum from Jim Wasson, Owner of Panamonte Brands; the company responsible for the new luxury spirit.
I met with Jim Wasson, a 70-year-old Florida native, at a fittingly swanky hotel bar between Panama City, the country's burgeoning capital, and Tocumen, a rural district where one of the country's two international airports is built. "As a young man, I was privileged to enjoy rare aged rums from the private reserves of my grandfather's Cuban friends," Wasson told me as we sat at the bar. "As an adult, I dreamed of recreating a rum with that uniquely smooth and complex flavour. My quest took me to Panama, a land of volcanic soil, spring-fed rivers and a perfect climate for growing sugar cane."
In 1984, while he was on vacation, Jim Wasson met master rum blender, Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez Perez, at the historic El Panama Hotel in the Obarrio neighbourhood of Panama. Don Pancho, a native of Cuba, apprenticed under master blender Don Ramon Fernandez Corrales and acted as Director for Castro's Cuban Beverage Industry — he was no stranger to quality rum. After falling in love with a Panamanian woman, Don Pancho moved to Panama and produced rum for Varela Hermanos, the makers of Panama's prevalent Abuelo Rum.
"Every drop in that bottle has been aged in American white oak barrels for 25 years or more," Wasson said as I twisted off the solid wood cap, revealing a bronze band emblazoned with the ever-impressive XXV relief. He made it very clear that the molasses-based Panamonte rum, which is distilled in Las Cabras de Pes, a small town in the Herrera Province of Panama known for its sugarcane harvests, is aged without the use of the controversial solera method.
The solera method
is a process favoured by Latin American distillers of aging rum with the use of fractional blending in such a way that the final product consists of a mixture of rums with all different ages. Connoisseurs believe that rums produced using the solera method should not be allowed have an official age stamp on the label, but for obvious marketing and sales reasons, this legal grey area is often abused. The word solera was once jokingly referred to
by a rum expert as 'the Spanish for cheating.'
Panamonte Brand's attention to detail and relentless standards for incomparable quality come at a price, however. Panamonte XXV Reserva, which is currently for sale in parts of Western Canada, is in the final stages of import licensing in the United States. When it does hit the shelves in the U.S., it will come with the rather steep retail price tag of $450 per 750ml bottle — a price that rum lovers and connoisseurs alike have described as well worth it
Chip Dykstra, author of the popular online blog, The Rum Howler
, describes the initial flavour impressions of Panamonte XXV Reserva as "bittersweet chocolate, roasted walnuts, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and a very light dusting of brown sugar". Dykstra describes the rum overall as having "a robust, complex flavour which is full of character. There is a bit of an earthy quality which seems to bind everything together." Liquorature
even claims it may be "one of the most critic-proof rums ever made."
Panamonte XXV Reserva took home a gold medal at the recent San Francisco World Spirits Competition, regarded to be the most respected spirits competition on the planet. Panamonte XXV Reserva was also awarded
Gold and Double Gold medals at the 2012 International Rum Conference in Madrid, Spain. An extremely limited run of 2,500 bottles of Panamonte XXV Reserva Preciosa will be available in the United States, starting with Florida, this summer.
As I sat at the bar sipping on a glass of Panamonte XXV Reserva that was poured over a single cube of ice with one of its creators, I couldn't help but be aware of the transcendent power of alcohol and the ability it has to bury hatchets, bridge great divides, undermine politics and make every border seem crossable. Think about it: one of Reagan's Americans and one of Castro's Cubans brought together in Noriega's Panama by the determination to create the world's smoothest rum. The leaders have long fallen, the rum lives on.