Provisions: Drinking in Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo is a community in transition. Once home to Panama’s industrial district, the area fell to ruins in the 2000s, following an exodus of the middle class and an influx of gang violence. But a district once feared is now a district vastly desired, as local hotels and restaurants are creating thoughtful, intuitive spaces, all bringing a deep-rooted sense of place to Panama’s burgeoning culinary scene.
Casco Viejo’s mixologists are giving a new twist to traditional liquor staples like Ron Abuelo and Seco Herrerano.
Casco Viejo is unique in that its new awakening is inclusive of the local community, as the majority of hotels, bars and restaurants employ residents and are actively working to incorporate social initiatives into their businesses, furthering opportunities for a neighborhood that’s endlessly vibrant and alive with a unique soul and flavor. Drawing inspiration from freshly-sourced Panamanian ingredients, Casco Viejo’s mixologists are giving a new twist to traditional liquor staples like Ron Abuelo and Seco Herrerano.
Made from sugarcane and three times distilled, no liquor is more Panamanian than Seco Herrerano – in fact, it's often considered to be the country's national spirit. The liquor’s roots derive from Panama’s Varela family, who invented Seco in 1908. Since its inception, locals have consumed the clear liquor regularly; traditionally, Seco is consumed straight from the bottle, in shot form, mixed with various fruit juices, or on Panama’s Atlantic coast, some even mix the liquor with milk to make a drink known as a seco con vaca. But Casco Viejo mixologists are transforming this Panamanian staple by incorporating it as a cocktail ingredient, the way a traditional rum or vodka would be used.
If Secco Herrerano is Panama’s most revered clear liquor, Ron Abuelo is the dark spirit of choice.
And if Secco Herrerano is Panama’s most revered clear liquor, Ron Abuelo is the dark spirit of choice. A rum reflective of the country’s tropical climate, Ron Abuelo is aged in small oak barrels, creating an excellent smoothness and complexity, perfect for even the most sophisticated and refined palates. The color is a deep amber, inclusive of vanilla and spice notes. The rum is traditionally paired with fruit flavors to balance the full-bodied texture.
Besides both being produced in Panama, there’s one more factor uniting the country’s most beloved liquors: both Seco Herrerano and Ron Abuelo are made by Varela Hermanos S.A. The company began in 1908, when Don José Varela Blanco immigrated from Spain to the newly formed Republic of Panama. He staked claim in a town called Pesé, where he established his first sugar mill in the heart of Panama’s fertile middle valley. By 1936, it was already a family affair, with Don José’s three eldest sons joining the family business, distilling sugarcane juice to form liquors.
Today, the Varela family’s third generation is producing over one million units per year, representing over 90% of Panama’s national market for liquors. (And a Varela even holds public office, as Juan Carlos Varela is the current President of Panama.) Seco Herrerano is still bottled at the company’s original plant in Pesé, with Ron Abuelo bottled in Panama, the country’s capital. The company manufactures the entire process of both liquors, from fermentation to aging, creating a balance of rich tradition and unequalled quality.
To learn more about Panama’s culture, I jumped in to the local mixology scene, trying two recipes at different establishments, both implementing innovative ways to use Seco Herrerano and Ron Abuelo with some of Panama’s locally-sourced ingredients.
The Diablo at American Trade Hotel
American Trade Hotel & Hall is Casco Viejo’s all-around standout establishment. It’s everything you would want a hotel to be, with tropical design details mixed in with a relaxed, luxury atmosphere. Chef Clara Icaza evokes this same presence to the property’s cocktail menu, where spicy and sweet meet to make the Diablo, an invigorating Ron Abuelo-based cocktail with a kick.
The Mariachi at Caliope
Caliope is an open-concept restaurant, often considered one of Panama’s best. The establishment opened in Casco Viejo in April of 2015, and beautiful murals painted by local artists Agata Surma and Hector Guillen dominate the restaurant’s walls, with a living plant wall making up the central outdoor patio. The mixology menu is spearhead by Pachanga Reyes, where he concocts a menu of drinks as beautiful as they are delicious.
The Mariachi cocktail features popular Panamanian ingredients like passion fruit and watermelon – maracuja and sandia – and can be mixed with the drinker’s choice of Seco Herrerano or tequila. May we suggest one of each?