There is probably no world traveler of any age who has not suddenly confronted a situation where they become stuck, tired, and frustrated in travel limbo. Whenever it’s happened to me, the haunting melody of Blind Faith’s metaphoric song, “I Can’t Find My Way Home,” starts running through my mind, even though I am “wasted” only by fatigue and exasperation and not from ingesting any chemicals.
I thought about this recently when talking with Ron Abuelo brand ambassador Cris Srokowski on Zoom from Modena, Italy. Cris has an exciting job with the Panamanian producer of some of the world’s best and most complex rums. “They are like family to me,” he says. “I’ve worked there for more than nine years, and I’m very into it.”
I can relate to his feeling. A few years ago, I visited Ron Abuelo’s cane fields and modern distillery in Panama and met with the Varela family that owns the brand. Even as an outsider, I could feel the energy and good vibes from a team that seemed both inspired and focused on producing great spirits.
Ron Abuelo owns its own cane fields, so the purity of ingredients is assured. But what makes the brand especially interesting is its research on, and application of, the barrels used in aging its rums, whether it’s figuring out how best to char and prepare their American oak for age-stated rums or the barrels they buy from other types of spirits producers for their “Finish Collection.”
But back to Zoom and Cris, who is impeccably groomed but looking a little sleepy, even though it is mid-afternoon in Italy. “I understand you had some difficulty getting to Modena when the pandemic started,” I begin. He laughs wryly. “I usually go to Panama in February and March to help take care of visiting groups,” he says, “then Europe starts calling me. Last year, I heard about the Covid problems in northern Italy, and I became worried because that’s my main market.” He also lives there.
“I flew back to Denmark but couldn’t get a flight to Italy, so I flew to Barcelona, my hometown. Everything was normal – good. But two days later, everything shut down, and I was blocked. I had to rent a place in Barcelona, and it was three months later – in June – that I finally returned here from Barcelona.”
I asked if, as a brand ambassador, he was always traveling. “Before Covid, my normal life was three flights a week. So I went from this crazy schedule to literally stopping my life.” But soon, he says, he was back to promoting the Ron Abuelo brand with Zoom presentations.
We talk a little bit about Ron Abuelo’s newest expression, a dark mahogany rum called Ron Abuelo “XII Two Oaks” Selección Especial. Cris explains that it is a 12-year-old rum first matured in oak Bourbon barrels and then finished in first-fill, extra-charred American oak barrels. “We work with Seguin Moreau, which has a cooperage in Napa,” he says. “We asked them for new American barrels and to make incisions on the inside.” These gashes in the wood, he says, give the aging rum extra surface exposure.
The next step is intense charring. “With Bourbon barrels, they usually have a very high temperature, but only for 30 seconds,” he says. “We asked them to char for 60 minutes, but at less than half the temperature, about 180 degrees. It is the same as if you would cook something for a longer time at a lower temperature for extra flavors.” Although it is an intense char, Cris says, “It’s not like a ‘crocodile skin’ char, but it turns the carbohydrates into butterscotch and caramel flavors.” A hotter, flash toast finishes things off.
Having conferred with Cognac producers, he says, “The French told us the aging would take seven months to finish, but we tasted day to day up to nine months. The smokiness went down, and the sweetness came up.” Now, Cris says, Ron Abuelo is experimenting with barrel-room temperatures in aging, the same way that Cognac producers will vary from aging in damp cellars to the heat-toasted top floors of special barns. As he points out, this also affects the “angel’s share” or loss by evaporation, ranging from eight to 15% depending on storage conditions.
We turn to another favorite topic – rum cocktails. Before being recruited by Ron Abuelo several years ago, Cris won several awards while working behind a bar in Barcelona. “My favorite Ron Abuelo rum for cocktails is the five-year-old, which has the perfect profile for mixing,” he says, “but the favorite of bartenders is seven years. It’s our first premium rum with a perfect balance between wood and spirit, but they also like it because they can make cocktails and sell it as a premium rum.”
The 12-year-old, he would only use as a substitute for whiskey in an Old Fashioned or Manhattan. But, most of all, Cris likes to see the older rums and the Finish Collection rums enjoyed as complex sipping rums, like fine Scotch and Bourbons. “Consumers are supporting us, spending more money for rums as a luxury spirit,” he says. “I love looking behind the bar and seeing the great Ron Abuelo rums lined up on the top shelf with the Bourbons and Cognacs.”