The tale of how I got drunk with the vice president of Panama begins, most perversely, with porn.
Several months ago, an editor at a skin magazine asked me to pen an article on rum. This ain't strange. Porn mags are packed with stories on sports, video games and booze—even the horniest horndog will tire of gazing at endless pages of theatrically contorted women. This is where I, pardon the pun, come in. The article concerned itself with the rise of rhum agricole, a specialty of the French West Indies fashioned with fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, and aged rums. Taking cues from bourbon and Scotch, rum distillers such as Ron Zacapa and Mount Gay have begun releasing spirits that've slumbered in oak barrels for 10, 15 or even 30 years. Instead of being consigned to a piña colada, the heady, complex spirits are served on the rocks or straight up.
During the course of my, ahem, research, I kept circling back to Panama's Varela Hermanos, the makers of Ron Abuelo. For more than a century, familyrun Varela has been one of Panama's foremost distilleries, controlling some 90 percent of the market of Seco Herrano, a sugarcane-distilled spirit commonly mixed with fruit juice, soda or even milk. In the last decade, Varela has gotten into rum. Panama and rum? Isn't that like running a tequila distillery in North Dakota? I reached out to the distillery's reps to learn about the brand.
"We're planning a trip to Panama in a few weeks," the rep said. "Would you like to come along?" As a rule, I avoid press junkets. I'm an independent traveler. I prefer to land in foreign countries with little more than a fistful of currency and a faint understanding of the local language. Curiosity and unidentifiable street eats fuel my adventures. By contrast, orchestrated press trips lack foolhardy exploits and uncertainty. For seat-of-their-pants travelers, it's a little akin to a castrated man visiting a brothel. "You'd leave Tuesday evening and come back Friday morning," the rep wrote. Only two days being carted around like cattle? Sold.
Several weeks later, I found myself strapped into a helicopter, cruising over lush trees and sandy coastlines en route to Varela Hermanos' estate. There, donkeys dragged carts saddled with freshly sheared sugarcane. The air smelled of sweet rot. The sun beat down 93 humid degrees. Before sweat could roll down my neck, we were ushered inside an icily air-conditioned visitors room, where we found ourselves neck-deep in Ron Abuelo. The light añejo had soft notes of butterscotch, making it ideal for mixing. The seven-year-old Ron had an oaky aroma and plenty of vibrant cinnamon and brown spice notes, while the 12-year-old was a sweet and buttery vanilla-oak dream. But the masterpiece was Centuria, which was constructed from rums aged up to 30 years in oak barrels. It had creamy depth and a tongue-flooding sweetness filled with dried fruits, and a peppery, drying finish that left me lunging for another sip. "Can I have some more?" I asked the waiter, extending my glass. He obliged, and the afternoon and evening blissfully buzzed past.
The next morning, I dressed myself in shorts, slip-on sneakers and a T-shirt. We perused the canal (big ships!), the old city (stunning buildings!), then headed to a corner restaurant for lunch. Soon after settling into the bar, the restaurant's front door swung open. In strolled men wearing Secret Service earpieces. A cadre of nattily attired men, a stark counterpoint to my dirt-stained shorts and sweaty shirt, followed them. They strutted to our gaggle of writers. Gulp.
"Who's that?" I whispered to one of my journalists, pointing to the tanned center of attention. "That's the vice president of Panama," he said. "Juan Carlos Varela." Varela. Varela Hermanos distillery. The dots all connected. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Varela," I said, shaking his hand in a manly manner. He displayed his megawatt politician grin. "Care for a drink?" he said, sliding behind the bar and grabbing a Centuria bottle. It was as if Joe Biden offered to pour me a pint at my corner pub.
"I'm always thirsty," I said. Soon, I held a glass of amber Centuria ambrosia. I disappeared the liquid. The vice president filled it with more rum. I felt woozy. We sat down for lunch. Food didn't lessen my wooziness. "Another?" the vice president asked. I should've said no. It would've been a smart move. But who can say no to the vice president of Panama? A waiter topped off my cup with more rum, more rum than one man should ever drink during lunch. I toasted the vice president, then I proceeded to get smashed in a manner that'd make Americans proud.