“We call this historical moment the third rum revolution,” explains Cristobal Srokowski, Ron Abuelo’s Global Brand Ambassador. Cristobal knows more about Rum than anyone I’ve ever met and he’s been with the Panamanian brand since before the sugar cane/molasses based spirit became the talk of every bartender from New York to Paris to Tokyo.
Frankly speaking, rum is the spirit of the moment–or at least it was before the pandemic. The resurgence of tiki culture and its rum-heavy drinks have certainly been part of the return, but it’s sipping rums that are truly turning heads. Ron Abuelo has been pushing the boundary of what is expected from the spirit, and, seemingly a bit ahead of the curve, the brand released its Finish Collection about five years ago.
The Collection is made up of three rums that have been finished in casks that most would more commonly associate with Whisky maturation: Oloroso Sherry, Tawny Port, and Napoleon Cognac. In a sense, the Panamanian brand has taken a page out of the Scotch playbook, utilizing the depth and characteristics created by extra aging in these previously used barrels. But they’ve done it one better by bringing it to the warm, humid confines of Central America, and, in turn, created a range of Rums unique amongst an increasingly competitive landscape.
Warm weather aging is nothing new. In fact, it’s been the rage of the Whisky world for about a decade. Offerings from Taiwan, Mexico, Israel, Australia, and many others have been raking in awards at global spirits competitions with younger expressions than their Scottish, Irish, and Japanese counterparts ever even considered offering.
Still, despite rum’s growing popularity, global praise for warm weather whisky, and decades of Scotch production dedicated to perfecting finishing, no one was finishing rum. That is until Luis J. Varela Jr., the third generation member of the Varela family who now runs Ron Abuelo, decided to start putting his rum in a variety of casks.
Srokowski affectionately refers to Luis as a “crazy genius” and his “adopted father,” and he was part of the discussion when Abuelo decided to finish its rum in Oloroso Sherry casks. “Nine years ago when we started to talk about the project… nobody was doing finishes,” he explains. “Pierre Ferrand was starting with this Plantation project with Cognac barrels, you had Zacapa with Pedro Ximenez barrels, some experiments, and then you had the Whiskies doing all kinds of finishes.”
Seeing an opportunity, Abuelo began experimenting with various barrels. They tried Grand Marnier barrels, Pedro Ximenez barrels, Amontillado barrels, and had interesting results with the PX. “But everyone is using Pedro Ximenez,” Cristobal relates about the now almost decade old conversation. “Whiskies are using Pedro Ximenez. Zacapa is using Pedro Ximenez.” And the brand didn’t simply want to do what everyone else was, they wanted to “do something special.”
They decided to go with a dry sherry, and began searching for one that could deliver “all the power, structure, flavor and aroma of Sherry wine, but still on the palate that [would] give you something unique. Something that no one did before.” In the end, they decided to use Oloroso.
“Oloroso is Oloroso since the beginning,” explains Cristobal about the Sherry variety, which means that it’s made from the best wines from Palomino Fino grapes. Unlike fino or manzanilla Sherries, Oloroso is oxidized from the beginning, resulting in a fortified wine that delivers the saltiness and minerality of Palomino Fino from Jerez, as well as toasted wood, almond, and citrus notes, along with a potpourri-like floral aromas. It’s that mix of those rich, rounded flavors with the salty, minerality that made them choose Oloroso barrels.
The Ron Abuelo Finish Collection is complex, and should be approached with as much thought and care as Luis and Cristobal took when choosing the Oloroso barrels. That means giving the rums time to breathe after pouring them in the glass–40 minutes for an ounce and a half, and 20 minutes for half an ounce, suggests Cristobal, who is also the one responsible for writing the tasting notes. “You would never drink a beautiful vintage of Bordeaux or Barolo or Brunello after opening it, those wines, they need time. The same with spirits.”
Much like the great wines of France and Italy, the Ron Abuelo Finish Collection also should be enjoyed alongside beautiful dishes. Cristobal recommends pairing the Oloroso with oily raw fish, like salmon, tuna, oysters, or red shrimp. The Napoleon (Cognac cask finished) is best enjoyed with duck breast, steak tartare, or foie gras. For the Tawny Port, he suggests aged cheese.
For the cigar smokers out there: Cristobal recommends enjoying the Oloroso at the beginning of the cigar, the Napoleon in the body, and then finishing with the Tawny.
To source the barrels, lately Abuelo has been working with Vasima for the Oloroso, Seguin Moreau is selecting the Cognac barrels from small chateaux and Cognac makers (they are also work with Abuelo on its Two Oaks rum), and the Tawny barrels currently come from Quinta Do Portal.
If I’m forced to choose, it’s the Port cask I feel the most affection towards. Maybe that’s because “it’s a small barrel. 200 liters, French Limousin, so bigger concentration of tannins,” as Cristobal explains. “That’s what makes it super interesting because yes at the beginning the entrance will be fruity, red berries, cherries, figs, dates, etc, but then at the end it’s super astringent. It’s dry. It’s cleaning your palate. That’s why I’m recommending this one for blue cheese, because it’s taking the fat away. It’s super interesting how balanced the profile is using small barrels.”
It really is the collection as a whole, however, that should be marveled at. With it, Ron Abuelo has provided a map to innovation for fellow rum makers, and for the Panamanian brand it’s probably only the tip of the iceberg.
You can find the Ron Abuelo Finish Collection at a variety of fine retailers or have it delivered to your door via Drizly. If you’re looking for something else special to try in their lineup, we would certainly recommend the Centuria, which Cristobal taught us about last year.