The first time I visited Hacienda San Isidro was in 2016 when I was filming a campaign to promote domestic tourism. In those times, Cubitá Boutique Resort & Spa had a tour operator called Cubitá Tours run by a Swiss. They were dedicated to developing tourism products in the area of Azuero focused on folklore. This initiative made the hotels in Chitre start to receive tourists as well as business travelers and public officials.
History of Hacienda San Isidro
Don José Varela Blanco was a Spanish emigrant who arrived in Panama in 1908. He came from a family of farmers and decided to found the first sugar mill in the republic known as “Varela Hermanos”. In those times it did not produce liquor just sugar. He met Raquel Arjona, a native of Pesé, and they had nine children. In 1936 the children convinced the father to found “Distillery La Herrerana” to distill alcohol. Originally settled in the town but for reasons of space they decided to move it to Hacienda San Isidro in 1969 with an investment of 4 million dollars.
From Hacienda San Isidro they export to more than 47 countries including the majority of South America, Central America, the United States, Europe, China and Japan. They also receive tourists who come to visit the beautiful hacienda and taste their products like Ron Abuelo and Seco Herrerano.
Sugar Cane Alcohol
Hacienda San Isidro has 1,600 hectares of sugar cane that is planted in the rainy season of Panama. From January to May is the harvest season where they cut the cane with machines and by hand. 300 people are employed during that season. Then it is carried in tractors and in ox carts (to maintain the tradition) to the mills. It is cut and the fiber is removed and then it goes through machines to extract the juice five times. The liquid passes through underground pipes to the fermentation and distillation area.
Of each ton of cane, 60 liters of juice are obtained. A thousand tons are processed per day, so they obtain 60 thousand liters of juice that when distilled become 42 thousand liters of alcohol. This happens every day for four months. They also process molasses obtained by cooking cane juice at high temperatures until its crystallized. It’s like a honey. Both go through 48 hours of fermentation to create different products.
The cane juice is distilled four times creating 99-degree alcohol. It’s extra neutral and very strong. It passes to a laboratory where it is reduced to 35% and bottled as Seco Herrerano.
The juice of fermented cane is known as ‘guarapo’, hence the word ‘guaro’ which colloquially is said to all alcoholic beverages. But in reality it should only be for the Seco Herrerano. This drink was the first produced by Varela Hermanos, the same year that the distillery opened.
Panama was part of Colombia until 1903 and there was a habit of drinking aguardiente that has a lot of anise. Panamanians did not like drinking it because it was not possible to mix it with anything. When they went to the bars they asked for ‘dry’ drinks which meant no anise. As that drink was made in Herrera, they said “give me a dry one like Herrera’s” and that’s how the name ‘Seco Herrerano’ came to be.
20 years later, in 1956, they created the first bottle of Ron Abuelo. When the rum was created the founder had already died, but there was a third generation. To honor his legacy, it was called ‘Abuelo’ (grandfather in Spanish) , which was also synonymous with aging, wisdom and experience. Apart it is easy to pronounce in other languages.
Fermented molasses has eight grades of alcohol and is distilled only once to obtain 85-degree alcohol. It passes to aging barrels to produce Ron Abuelo. They have different products: the ‘añejo’ which is the youngest, 7 years, 12 years old, Finish Collection of 15 years, Centuria of 30 years and a new product called Two Oaks of 12 years.
Hacienda San Isidro has 19 aging cellars. 18 have a pallet system with American white oak barrels since they are the only ones with tannic acid that are properties of the wood. The barrel is what gives all the characteristics to the rum including flavor, color, texture and aroma. They are bought from Jack Daniel’s and have been used a couple of times to make bourbon.
They use the paddle system because of the high evaporation that Panama has. The humidity causes the barrel to expand and contract so that oxygen enters. 10% of the barrel is lost per year. The barrels are 200 liters. If they do not do anything in 10 years, the barrel will be empty. They rotate every four years among the nine barrels of the paddle, sacrificing a barrel. The advantage is that they compete with rums from cold countries that have twice as much aging.
Only one winery, which is that of Ron Centuria, has a different system called solera. The barrel closest to the ground is called solera and is the one used for bottling since it is the oldest. Each line above is younger than the one below. Ron Centuria gets his name because it was launched in 2008 when the company turned 100 years old.
I Love Panama Chocolate
Recently I was invited to the launch of a new tour where they taste chocolate from I Love Panama Chocolate in addition to Ron Abuelo and Seco Herrerano. This brand of chocolates was founded by Jaime Justiniani and two partners. This graphic designer decided to give chocolate bars to his clients for Christmas and that’s how the idea started.
As a boy, he spent his holidays in Chiriqui with relatives and remembered that they received bars of dark chocolate from Spain. That was not found in the capital even though Panama produces cocoa. He started his line in 2015 and did not know how to make chocolates.
People wrote to him asking for chocolate with liquor and the collaboration with Ron Abuelo started, which is now a tour at Hacienda San Isidro.
If you visit Boquete you can try another venture with Panamanian cocoa Kotowa Chocolate Victoria.