Rub on Tour: Panama


RUB ON TOUR: RUM, ROAD TRIPS & RAINY BEACHES

by Joe Macbeth


I’ve been very lucky in the last few years to have developed some very close relationships with a variety of drinks brands in my role as Bar Operations Director for Rub Smokehouse. In doing so not only have I been able to grow a fun and quirky drinks brand in our restaurants across the country but i’ve also been really blessed to go on some amazing trips around the world. My friends over at Ron Abuelo rum invited me out to Panama last week and after the fraction of a second it took me to say yes to going, I was planning my journey down to Heathrow for an exotic adventure in Central America.

It was a small party on this particular trip. I’ve been on ones with a dozen or more of us and so this merry band of eight seemed quite intimate. Joining me from the UK were Chris from The Vault in London, Cara from Hoot the Redeemer in Edinburgh, Tim from Hi-Spirits, Lydia representing Foodism magazine, Raffael and Anne-Claire from France and Alexi the European director for Ron Abuelo. It was a long trip to reach Panama City with a flight to Madrid followed by another 10 hour flight to Panama. By the time we reached our hotel we’d been travelling for about 16 hours. Now you might expect that would mean an early night and not much drinking, but this was a rum trip with 3 bartenders involved. We had already attempted to drink our flight dry of beer and wine. So after a quick refreshing shower and a dip in our hotel pool we were energised for a night out in Panama City’s old town.


My first impressions of Panama was that it was what i’d expect places like Mexico City to be like. These booming nations with a big flood of cash so that they’re effectively left with a bit of a patchwork tapestry of the old world and the new. Dozens and dozens of new towering buildings and skyscrapers clearly erected in the last few years amongst little traditional houses, old european style architecture and a few shanty towns. It was a bizarre medley that gave Panama City a really unique stamp. The city is right on the shoreline so wherever we went there was a lovely view of the ocean. The temperature was exactly what I wanted 32 degrees plus and humid. I grew up in Asia and it felt like a little bit of home to me returning to the tropics.


We arrived in the old town with Alexi who acted as our guide for the trip. He took us to a lovely little tapas restaurant built into some old ruins. There was a bar just etched out of a crumbling section of an old building and all the alcoves and corners of the old structure were lit-up with brightly coloured spotlights and hanging bulbs. It added a bit of magic to our first meal together, which only intensified when a band started playing, the drinks started flowing and the delicious food arrived at the table.


After dinner we moved onto a rooftop bar nearby. Stunning views of the night sky and the city backdrop combined with a cozy little VIP corner and a bottle of delicious Ron Abuelo rum made it very hard to call it a night. After a brief jaunt up to our hotel’s roof bar we eventually hit the hay to get ready for our road trip to the distillery the next day.


The Varela family’s Hacienda San Isidro where Ron Abuelo rum is made lies a few hours away from Panama City by road. Whilst time consuming it allowed for a few of us to catch up on some sleep in the car and take in the odd sight of Panama’s more undeveloped countryside. I had desperately needed the toilet for about the last twenty minutes of our car journey. So upon arriving at the Hacienda to discover we’d be entering past the main gate and into the estate via Ox and Cart. Well, I had mixed feelings to say the least. I would never turn down an experience and it was a great way to enter the Hacienda. But the bumps and bounces of the old dirt path on our 10 minute ride to the meeting point left things a bit dicey before I was able to refresh myself.


We sat down for a lovely Panamanian pork lunch accompanied with a few cocktails. The signature drink involved Seco, a dash of Vinegar and Fresh Pineapple Juice. It was actually a deliciously refreshing drink with a tiny bit of bitter sourness that worked well with the pineapple. Seco is Panama’s national spirit. It is distilled fermented sugarcane juice that is un-aged and bottled. The Hacienda produces more of it than even Ron Abuelo but there’s such a huge demand for it in Panama and a few bordering countries that they have no need to sell it internationally. It’s also very cheap so I most definitely bought myself a $8 bottle before our flight back to England.


But the star of the show is of course Ron Abuelo. The rum i’d flown across the Atlantic to see produced and find out more about. We stock four varieties at Rub. Ron Cortez which is the white rum iteration of the brand, Ron Abuelo Anejo, Ron Abuelo 7yr and Ron Abuelo 12yr. It’s the backbone of many of our delicious rum cocktails including our house Mojitos, Daiquiris and Zombies, and a few of our new 80s inspired originals such as the ‘If you like Pina Coladas’ which combines a blend of Ron Abuelo rums with Candy Floss, Lime, Coconut, Cream and Pineapple for a candified take on the rum classic complete with retro strawberry ice cream float and candy floss cloud. I’m not sure it’s what the Varela’s originally intended for their rum but it’s definitely tasty and popular. I think if it gets customers trying the rum and recognising the brand then it’s only a good thing.


We had already seen the vast sugarcane fields that produce the raw building blocks for the rum. But what we hadn’t seen is the process it goes through from the fields to bottle. A vast production line chomps up the sugar cane and extracts the liquid. Ron Abuelo like a surprising portion of Panama makes efforts to be green and eco friendly so all the waste product from the extraction process is reused in other ways including acting as the fuel to power the production line.

It is the molasses by product that acts as the sugar agent for Ron Abuelo rum. This is fermented with water and yeast in large vats until we’re left with an alcoholic base.

This is then distilled and passed onto the warehouses for ageing. There are over a dozen ‘bodegas’ or warehouses at the Hacienda with casks of rum stacked up in a variety of ways. The bodegas are beautifully crafted buildings as is much of the Hacienda and a real treat to view. The whole estate is old wooden buildings and lush green grass.

We headed back to the main building for a tasting of Ron Abuelo’s finish collection which I hadn’t had the opportunity to try until this point but was very excited about. Ron Abuelo do a tawny port cask finish, a oloroso cask finish, a cognac cask finish and their centuria edition that celebrates the distilleries 100 year anniversary.

The rums showcase the exceptional quality of this family owned rum that has been passed down from generation to generation of the Varela family. I developed a love for Sherry on another lucky trip to Jerez in Spain (I know you hate me right?) and i’ve really enjoyed it as both a cocktail ingredient and a spirit finish since then. The Oloroso cask finish was my personal favourite. It’s all Ron Abuelo up front and lovely nutty sherry notes at the back. After the class we were awarded a rum tasting masterclass certificate and a very special present from Ron Abuelo. A bottle of Centuria each bottled especially for us with our names imprinted on the bottles.


We kicked back on the porch with some nibbles and a fair few more drinks and watched the sunset over the Hacienda before saying our thanks and departing on the long journey to our beachside hotel. We were all a bit peckish when we finally made it there and so we headed to the only thing open at that time of night, a Panamanian fast food joint called ‘Pio Pio’. Needless to say it’ll remain in our memories for a while. If you ever mention deep fried black chicken liver to anyone on the trip I guarantee they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. In the morning a few of our group hit the local beach to dip their toes in the pacific ocean whilst I took it easy at the hotel, recovering by the pool with a few breakfast daiquiris. It was a little bit of heaven and just what I needed after a bit of unexpected stress late on the other day.  We gathered our things and headed back towards Panama City, and in particular the Panama Canal.

On our road trip we cracked open a few coconuts with more than a splash of Ron Abuelo as well as a few last minute Miami Vices we got our hotel to bottle for us. If you ever find yourselves in the backseats of a long car journey in a tropical climate then there’s nothing better to find yourself drinking.

We arrived at the Panama Canal just after lunch. It was a sight to behold. It really is a shocking feat of man-made construction. Up there with the pyramids and great wall. These great waterways split a country in two and join the Pacific and Atlantic, allowing for these behemoths of the sea, gigantic container ships to pass through these narrow little passageways. We got to see a ship passing through and whilst it is a slow process, it was fascinating to see in person.

Upon returning to the hotel we had time for a bit of a siesta before our evening festivities. I love a swimming pool and especially a jacuzzi so I opted for another dip whilst everyone got their fifty winks in and recharged for our night out. And it was probably the wisest choice anyone made that day as our night out was a long one to say the least. We ended up at a fancy dinner with some rather VIP guests. The food was delicious and definitely needed before a night of rapid fire rum in all kinds of shapes and sizes. We bounced from bar to bar until the early hours of the morning before returning back to the rooftop bar for a few more drinks. I returned to my room at 5am expecting to get some rest before our early morning trip to the beach but a quick phone call later and I was out again straight through to morning and a weary eyed breakfast on a sun-lit balcony. I'm going to avoid pictures of this particular stretch of activities. 

When Tim and I boarded our van to the beach I was definitely running on fumes having not slept since waking up at our beachside hotel the previous morning. I tried to get a kip on the journey but the party was still going for the others so I wasn’t able to get any sleep. So I tried to slowly wake myself up over the next few hours. We took a short boat journey to Isla Grande just off the coast. Lovely beaches and a beach-shack island awaited us. Unfortunately we’d used up our good luck with the weather and it was raining for most of the day. Although this didn’t damper spirits much and the guys still got a lot of swimming done. I lagged behind in the continued drinking due to exhaustion but it meant I was able to stay sober enough to get a few pics of the island.

It also meant that I was eventually able to look after the more inebriated of our group at the end of the day and carry them back on the boat. The night was a little bit more low key. We had another lovely meal followed by a few drinks back at the hotel. The final morning involved some free time to wander around the city or soak up a bit more sun and pool. I got in a mix of the two before packing my bags and heading to the airport for another lengthy journey home.


The experience was definitely once in a lifetime. I had a great time with some top notch folk and got to see a country that I never expected to visit. I’m really thankful to Hi-Spirits and Ron Abuelo for the trip. Hopefully my little story has given you all a bit of wanderlust and a desire to soak up some sun this summer. At the very least you’ve got to join us at Rub sometime soon for some lovely rum cocktails all packed full of lovely Ron Abuelo rum.

Check out our new 80s themed Cocktail Menu at rubsmokehouse.com/pages/menu and book a table for this weekend!!!