It’s also called “Seco” for short or Nueve Letras and Vuelve Loco, this liquor is distilled from 100% sugar cane juice. The 70-proof clear alcohol is customarily drunk neat or mixed with coconut milk and other fruits with ice as a substitute for rum or vodka.
The Panamanian national drink is the Seco Herrerano and it is produced in the Hacienda San Isidro by Varela’s Hermanos S.A., in the Herrera Province.
Seco literally means “dry”. Despite being derived from sugarcane, the liquor completely lacks the sweet taste of the sugarcane juice.
The Seco is considered as the national drink of Panama because it is the first liquor produced by Panama that uses ingredients that are purely grown in Panama. The unique climate in the country produces one-of-a-kind sugarcane which provides the alcoholic beverage its unique flavor.
As a national drink, Seco has practically become a part of the country’s major celebrations such as the Carnaval de Las Tablas, Fiestas Patrias and Festival de la Mejorana en Guararé. The locals openly drink the booze in plastic cups during parades.
As a traditional drink of the locals, Seco was initially consumed mostly in rural neighborhoods and canteens. It was previously considered as cheap low-class hooch for the average working man in the country. Because of this, Seco was often not available in fashionable bars or luxurious restaurants. The hard stuff gradually regained its popularity when modern trendy urban bars and posh joints began using the liquor for their cocktails. Today, the liquor is known to capture the Panamanian spirit that had locals and foreign tourists crave for more.
How Is Seco Made?
Seco Herrerano, the national spirit of Panama, is made by refining sugar cane extract through a four-column distiller that is charcoal filtered, which produces a patently suave light-colored spirit.
Unlike other liquors, producing Seco Herrerano requires a longer purification process to ensure the unsullied concentration of alcohol is achieved. The booze is distilled three times. This produces the clear color of the juice with a 35 percent alcohol by volume, which is stronger than normal for liquor made from sugarcane.
The sugarcane used as raw material to make Seco is grown in the valley of Pesé in the province of Herrera. This accounts for its ascribed label “Herrerano”. This area in Panama is distinctive for its optimal climatic conditions for the cultivation of sugarcane. Only a fully ripened sugar cane is used for producing Seco. The ideal sugar extract is then fermented by carefully chosen yeasts to produce distinct alcohol with incomparable quality.
While Seco Herrerano is the original and most popular brand, it is common to see this brand bundled with juice packets of piña (pineapple) or Naranja (orange). This helps to moderately drink this strong liquor.
What Makes Seco Unique?
Unlike most rum that is made from molasses, Seco is a high-proof version of rum made from sugarcane using ingredients that are exclusive to Panama.
More importantly, the distinctive terroir in the Herrera province creates a distinctive and unique flavor of Seco. Terroir refers to the all-embracing natural environment (i.e. soil and climate), which contributes to the distinguishing taste and flavor instilled in the sugarcane or alcohol where it is produced.
The region specifically has an exceptional climate characterized by the lack of summer rain known as Arco Seco. The convergence of the Pacific breeze and heat from the Caribbean island produces a stable temperature and humidity for sugarcane production and for regulating the aging process of alcohol.
Who Invented Seco?
The invention of Seco Herrerano is attributed to the Varela brothers (Varela Hermanos). Their story goes back to 1908 when a young but visionary immigrant from Spain by the name of Don José Varela Blanco, established the first sugar mill in Panama in the town of Pesé, which was called Ingenio San Isidro.
The town of Pesé in the province of Herrera is situated in a fertile valley in the center of Panama. The main economy of the town is agriculture particularly that cultivation of cane, which makes it the ideal location of the sugar mill.
Through the aspirations of his 3 eldest sons, namely José Manuel, Plinio and Julio, Don José started the refinement of sugar cane juice to produce alcoholic beverages. And it was during this time that the Seco was gradually invented and perfected.
Today, the Varela brothers have taken leadership in the liquor industry of Panama. Their company annually produces over 1.5 million boxes of alcohol that constitute nearly 90% of the national market. Their distillery and sugarcane plantation is located in the famous Hacienda Isidro where more than 700 employees work to create the best spirits in Panama. Seco now has a global reach and is sold in over 65 countries around the world.
What Is Hacienda Isidro?
Located at José Varela Blanco Street, Pesé, Herrera Province, Hacienda Isidro is a large estate which houses the distillery and sugarcane plantation of the Varela family. It is where Seco and other alcoholic drinks are produced.
The estate has become a famous tourist destination in Panama where visitors can take a tour of the milling, fermentation and distillation process of the different alcoholic beverages manufactured by the Varela brothers. This includes taking a trip to the extraction area and the aging cellars.
The hacienda has 1800 acres dedicated to sugarcane cultivation. Tourists can take a tour of the plantation and see how the tall perennial true grasses are grown. They can also be educated about the complete process of how the best spirits, namely the Seco Herrerano and Ron Abuelo, are made.
There is also a colonial house in the hacienda where visitors will get a nostalgic glimpse of the brief history of the town of Pesé and its locals until the arrival of Don Jose Varela Blanco. The museum also has pictures and descriptions of the don’s contribution to the economic development and progress of the small community.
One of the best experiences that one can get in the hacienda is the oxen carriage expedition. This excursion allows a visitor to immerse oneself in the culture of the residents. The use of oxen was the traditional transport use by the early locals. The cultural immersion allows one to better understand and appreciate the place. This is complemented by a taste of authentic Panamanian food.
Finally, a tour of the hacienda is highlighted by getting a taste of their famous liquors. One will enjoy the delicious cocktails of Abuelo libre, Mojito Panameño y Guarapo Sour, among others which is both refreshing yet strong. Visitors are then given a recipe booklet on how to make different cocktails using the best spirits in Panama.
From a humble sugar mill to becoming the biggest liquor manufacturer in Panama, Hacienda Isidro is one place where you can enjoy Seco in a rather wistful way because it is the place where the famed spirit was born and is produced.
What Are the Variations of Seco?
Aside from the original Seco Herrerano, Varela Hermanos SA distills and manufactures three other varieties of Seco namely, Seco (Dry) Herrerano Platinum; Seco (Dry) Herrerano Platinum Cranberry; and Seco (Dry) Herrerano Platinum Passion Fruit.
The Seco Herrerano Platinum is a blend of the original Seco Herrerano with the classic lemon twist. It does not need to be mixed with other concoctions. As a thirst-quenching tipple, it is normally served as an ice-cold alcoholic beverage. The Seco Herrerano Platinum Cranberry is a mixture of Dry Herrerano and cranberry juice. This blend will provide a drinker with the sweet taste of cranberry and the strong spirit of Seco. Finally, Seco Herrerano Platinum Passion Fruit is a mixture of Dry Herrerano and passion fruit (tart maracujá) for a perfect sweet and sour taste. The mixture provides an exotically sweet and slightly tart flavor that produces a unique refreshing sensation when served cold.
How to Enjoy Seco?
The best way to discover the original taste of any alcohol is to drink it straight or neat. This allows you to experience the authentic and unadulterated tang of the spirit. Drinking Seco neat is the customary way to enjoy this national drink.
Another traditional way the locals drink Seco is by mixing it with cow’s milk also known as Seco Con Vaca. This literally translates to “Seco with a cow”. Because of the strong alcohol content of Seco, people drink it with milk to delay the absorption of alcohol in the body. The use of milk is common because practically all country folks in Panama are raising cows. An alternative to cow’s milk is coconut milk.
A modern way to drink Seco is by mixing it with other tropical fruits. The most popular among which is the “Chichita Panamá” which blends Seco with grapefruit and pineapple juice. In urban bars, however, additional herbs and fruits are infused to formulate new cocktails. Among the popular Seco Concoctions included “A Taste of Miramar” which is a blend of Seco and grape juice; the Panama Dream which mixes Seco with Cinnamon; and Fresca Flores which is Seco with soda water.
What Other Spirit Brands Are Manufactured by Varela Hermanos SA?
To truly taste the Panama spirit, it would be worthwhile to try other juices made by the original creator of Seco. Aside from Seco, Varela Hermanos SA also manufactures other liquors that are equally popular in Panama.
Topping the list is Ron Abuelo Anejo (aged), 7yrs, 12yrs, Finish Collection 15yrs, and Centuria 30yrs. Whereas Seco Herrerano is the nation’s beloved clear liquor, Ron Abuelo is the dark spirit of choice characterized by its deep amber color. This specialty rum uses fermented cane honey aged rich in white oak barrels.
Another popular brand is the Stanislav Premium Vodka, which features a distillation process that was borrowed from original Russian production traditions.
The Gin Caballito is a tropical gin mixed with naturally sweet flavors citrus and juniper for a soft and light flavor. This gin is often combined with other fruit juices when served.
Ron Cortez comes in different types of rum colors and flavors namely: Ron Cortez Blanco (a clear rum); Ron Cortez Oro (golden rum); and Ron Cortez Añejo, (amber rum). Finally,
Splash Ron Jumbie is a mixture of aged rum and tropical fruits like coconut, vanilla, mango, and pineapple.
What else? Cheers!!!
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