There is a moment as you drive out of Panama City on the Pan-American Highway when the city seems to cleave in two. To the right, along the Pacific shoreline, is the ruined splendour of the old town, a flaking jumble of Spanish colonial buildings the colours of Neapolitan ice cream. To the left, along the Costa del Este, modern tower blocks thrust up into the sky, glinting with the soft lighting of myriad penthouse suites. Screw up your eyes and for a moment it could almost be Miami.

Panama City may be a city of contrasts, but it’s one bound by sugar-cane spirits: from the glitziest club to the simplest roadside pit-stop, everybody drinks rum or its humbler cousin seco, a grassy white spirit distilled from fresh sugar cane juice.

The real power-player in this market is the family-owned distiller Varela Hermanos, founded in 1908 by a Spanish immigrant. Its brands Ron Abuelo and Seco Herrerano are today as much part of the scenery as Wray & Nephew in Jamaica, or Campari in Milan. Ron Abuelo is distilled from 100 per cent estate-grown sugar cane in the “Spanish style”, which means it’s distilled in long, tall column stills that tend to produce a spirit that’s lighter, more dry and less fruity than Caribbean pot still rum. Long-ageing in oak casks – accelerated by Panama’s hot and humid climate – adds layers of prune, roasted coffee, nuts and melted chocolate; the rums are sweet, but not overpowering, with an elegant silkiness.

The Varela Hermanos sugar cane plantation
The Varela Hermanos sugar cane plantation © Tito Herrera
The cellars at Varela Hermanos
The cellars at Varela Hermanos

I paid a visit to the distillery to taste its new release, Ron Abuelo Three Angels (£59.99 from Hedonism, Master of Malt or Duty Free) – a rich mahogany rum blended exclusively from casks in the top row of the warehouse, where evaporation (also known as the “angel’s share”) is at its most intense. Its concentrated notes of soft leather, sweet spices, espresso and maple pecan are prime for a digestif. And it lands at a time when the international market is increasingly thirsty for more recherché sipping rums.

Panamanians know how to party, and one rite of passage is a trip on one of the chivas, or party buses, that tour the streets complete with disco lights, rum-and-mixer drinks and DJ. There is also a side to the nightlife here that is a little more chic. In a handsome old townhouse in the Casco Viejo (Old Town), behind doors the colour of lapis lazuli, is La Bárbara, a speakeasy behind a hair salon. Under high ceilings hung with lampshades made of rattan and dried palm leaves, we drank cocktails with a touch of tiki: fragrant Mai Tais, Jamaican Sours spiked with bitters and seco highballs with pineapple, soda and mandarin syrup. On another sweltering evening, we had drinks in the Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar, where raffia furniture, palms and spinning fans meet a list of more than 50 rums from the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Cocktails at La Bárbara, from left, a Saturn, a Piña Mule “mocktail” and an Aperol Spritz
Cocktails at La Bárbara, from left, a Saturn, a Piña Mule “mocktail” and an Aperol Spritz © Marcos Alvarez
La Bárbara is hidden behind a hair salon
La Bárbara is hidden behind a hair salon © Marcos Alvarez
Varela Hermanos seco Herrerano, €13.50, Bebevino
Varela Hermanos seco Herrerano, €13.50, Bebevino
Ron Abuelo Three Angels, £59.99, Hedonism, Master of Malt or Duty Free
Ron Abuelo Three Angels, £59.99, Hedonism, Master of Malt or Duty Free

I happened to be at the popular neighbourhood restaurant Maito (drinking a Panamanian rum and coffee Old Fashioned) the night they discovered they’d been voted number six in Latin America’s 50 best restaurants for their tongue-twisting fusion of Asian, Creole and Afro-Antillean cuisine. But my favourite restaurant was Intimo, a black-lacquered 28-seater that puts modern spins on traditional Panamanian cooking, which is a melting pot of African, Spanish and Native American influences. Chef Carlos Alba served us crab fritters; citrussy tuna ceviche; black beans, white cheese and fermented watermelon; and almond-scented oatmeal with coffee ice cream. I tried a rum “Negroni” made with Ron Abuelo Two Oaks and a bittersweet Creole orange twist, and Panama’s answer to the rum and coke, the pintao or “splash”, which sees rum served long with sparkling water and just a dash of cola. There was also a non-alcoholic cooler made with the tangy red juice of the tree tomato, a cousin of the persimmon and passion fruit.

Maito serves a fusion of Asian, Creole and Afro-Antillean cuisine
Maito serves a fusion of Asian, Creole and Afro-Antillean cuisine
Café Unido coffee bar
Café Unido coffee bar © Juan Lee

The unrelentingly humid city is awash with things to quench your thirst. Street vendors sell slushy raspados made with ice shaved from giant blocks and topped with syrups, condensed milk and pineapple and sweet-and-sour tamarind. Another speciality is chicheme: a milkshake-like drink studded with sweet little corn kernels that’s a bit of an acquired taste.

Panama’s coffee scene has also blossomed in the past few years, partly because it’s now a leading grower of Geisha – a perfumed Ethiopian coffee variety that’s one of the dearest in the world. “When coffee tasters first tried it, they were convinced the grinders must have had perfume on their hands,” says Benito Bermudez of Café Unido, one of Panama City’s top coffee bars. “It has delicate notes of jasmine, peach and lemongrass and a finish that’s quite sweet, like brown sugar-cane juice.” At Café Unido, I tasted a washed Geisha made with beans from Elida Estate that had aromas of jasmine, maple and fragrant tea, as well as a “natural” Geisha from Don Pachi estate (made from beans that have been dried with the surrounding fruit or “coffee cherry”), which is more bitter and deeply flavoured, with notes of black cherry, mushroom and prune.

Whatever your poison – rum, coffee, cocktails or juice – Panama has an answer.


Alice Lascelles travelled as a guest of Ron Abuelo

Where to drink

Coffee orders at Café Unido
Coffee orders at Café Unido © Juan Lee

Café Unido
Intimo Restaurant
La Bárbara Calle 10 and Avenida B, Casco Viejo, Panama City (+507-6399 8854)
Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar 
Ron Abuelo Hacienda Tour

Where to stay

The rooftop pool at Hotal La Compañia
The rooftop pool at Hotal La Compañia

Hotel La Compañia in the old quarter is a recent addition to Hyatt’s Unbound Collection (and its first hotel in Central America). Arrayed around a lush courtyard, adjoining the crumbling ruins of a neighbouring 18th-century church, it has a rooftop pool and smart lobby bar. 
Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo is a great white wedding cake on the waterfront with palm-filled terraces, spa treatments and sweeping views.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article