Rum is a spirit that most often leaves me feeling a bit let down. I usually have high hopes for them, and they only rarely deliver. I suppose the idea of rum simply intrigues more than the actual rums themselves. The Ron Santa Teresa 1796 was one that I was very pleasantly surprised by, and I’ve found others over time that have been enjoyable if not impressive. The Ron Abuelo joins company with the Santa Teresa, as one of the few that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed as a sipping rum.
Varela Hermanos, distillers of Ron Abuelo, was founded in Pesé, Panama as a sugar cane mill in 1908 by Don Jose Varela Blanco, and began distilling from their own sugar cane juice in 1936. The Ron Abuelo 7 Años brings together two different methods of rum-making. During the winter season (December through April), sugar cane juice is fermented and distilled, whereas in the warm, summer season, they use a blend of sugar cane juice and molasses. Both distillates are aged in used bourbon barrels for 7 years before bottling.
This rum struck me straightaway as different from others that I’ve tasted. Up until now, I’d only tasted molasses-based rums, and had always wanted to taste a 100% sugar cane-based rum. Even though this rum doesn’t use 100% sugar cane, there’s no doubting its increased complexity relative to the molasses-based rums that I’ve tasted. It leads me to once again want to track down a Rhum Agricole from Martinique, a Neisson or Clement for instance, all of which are governed by AOC laws stipulating the use of 100% sugar cane, along with specific aging periods and associated designations.
The color of this rum is crimson gold, with surprisingly long legs for having been bottled at 40%. The rich, complex nose has notes of bittersweet orange peel, green banana, mint, custard, and burnt sugar. The palate is lithely textured, with warm, sweet flavors of creme brûlée, crystallized orange peel, maple syrup, and ripe banana. The lengthy finish ends on a trill of nutty sweetness and subtle fruit flavors.
This is a nicely put-together rum, conveying both complexity and pleasant drinking with each sip. While not being as complex or expressive as a good scotch, this is definitely approaching the level of complexity that a good bourbon can convey. I’d certainly recommend it if you enjoy nice rums, especially given that it is a real bargain in light of its quality.
Lately, my curiosity has been piqued by a spirit that’s new to me: rum. Up until now, I’ve discounted rum, hewing to the relatively common notion that whisky was a more complex and dynamic spirit. And for someone such as myself, who is as interested in the hows, whys, and whos behind the bottles, whisky is a field rich with things to learn. I’ve made my way from scotch, to bourbon and other American spirits, and have dabbled in learning about whiskies from other countries.
But rum lay outside of this narrow (whisky-centric) worldview. As it turns out, this has been to my detriment.
Rum has a history that is at least as long, and certainly as interesting, as that of whiskey. Records of rum distilling in the Caribbean islands goes back to the 1400s, and many rum authorities believe that distillation may have been going on long before this. The logic behind this is that rum was first distilled from molasses, which itself was the by-product of sugar production, the one industry that really thrived in the Caribbean back then. Molasses was considered useless by sugar producers, and was usually thrown away. That is, until they learned how to distill it to produce rum. The international thirst for rum steadily grew to encompass all of the western European countries and the early American colonies, becoming an insatiable market for the rum distillers. And if they weren’t distilling rum, they were shipping molasses to other countries who were distilling it themselves.
The romance between rum producers and their public eventually faded, and rum fell onto hard times as its popularity waned. Still, it’s amazing to consider the argument (whether or not you accept it) that rum was truly the first American spirit, as argued by Wayne Curtis in And A Bottle Of Rum. Especially since rum plays a distant fiddle to most of the other distilled spirits on the market today, and the US government has long since proclaimed bourbon to be America’s national spirit.
Yet, while rum may reside outside of the limelight, it is by no means a dying spirit. There are a wide range of very good producers, and lots of excellent bottlings.
One of the principal elements separating the many producers, is their production method. Rum can be distilled from either molasses or sugar cane. Molasses-based rums are by far the most common, whereas sugar-cane based rums are made by relatively few distilleries, most notably all of the Martinique distilleries, where rum (known there as Rhum Agricole) is governed by a French Appellation d’Origine Controllee (AOC) designation (much like French wine). The AOC rules stipulate that rum must be made from sugar-cane, and specifies the different aging methods and age designations that can be used. Rum distilled from sugar cane is not necessarily better, just different.
Ron Santa Teresa is a Venezuelan distillery that has been distilling rum since 1796, and was the first licensed distillery in the country. They distill their rum from molasses that they obtain from a nearby sugar mill that processes sugar cane grown on the Santa Teresa estate. This satisfies most, but not all, of their production needs, and thus sugar cane is sourced from other estates to complement their own supply.
This particular bottling is unique in that it is produced using the solera method, whereby rums are transferred through a series of barrels during an aging period that may last for a decade or more. During this process, rum is transferred from barrel-to-barrel, with each barrel never being fully emptied. Thus over the course of time, rums of many different ages blend together in the different barrels, and ultimately, the last barrel in the solera ends up containing rums of significant age (and quality). In some distant way, this is similar to the approach taken by High West when they blend 6- and 16-year old ryes together and bottle them. But the significant difference is that the solera method allows the rums a longer time to marry together in the barrel, ultimately producing a spirit where the multiple rums have a better chance of coming together to form a seamless whole.
The rum pours a lovely amber with interwoven gold hues. The nose has notes of macadamia nuts, nutmeg, maple syrup, figs, and cherries. The palate has a soft, velvety body, and a gentle texture. The flavors are deeper and sweeter here than on the nose. Chewy flavors of grade B maple syrup, almonds, cherries, late-season raspberries, figs, and a subtle hint of pears. The finish is enduring with notes of maple syrup, fruits, and a hint of citrus.
This is a delectable rum, full of rich, warming flavors. You can really sense how the solera aging has softened the edges, producing a smoothly textured body that supports the rich flavors nicely. As I said earlier, I’d love to compare this to a sugar cane-based rum, just to witness the differences between the two, however subtle they may be. But as a benchmark for molasses-based rum, this is very good.