“Panama Red” means different things to different folks. For those of us who grew up in the ’60s it was a particularly potent type of marijuana grown in Panama and took its name from the red clay soil. But long before “Panama Red” pot, there was a well-known bar owner in the Casco Viejo [the old “colonial” city] of Panama City, a femme fatale known as “Panama Red.”
She was a strikingly beautiful baby girl, born to the most interesting couple in Panama. Her father, Juan Cansino, originally from Spain, was considered to be one of the finest Latin musicians and dancers in the Americas. Her mother, Rosa, was also a gifted dancer, known for her Tango and Flamenco.
Rosa was studying dance in Spain when she met Juan. Captivated, Juan left his homeland to follow Rosa to Panama where they were married. They were exciting times in Panama, as it seemed travelers from around the globe came to gaze on the marvelous canal. Within a year, Rosa and Juan Cansino experienced a different kind of marvel – the arrival of their daughter, Carolina.
The Cansinos made quick friends of an American couple, Tom and Elsie Ogelsby, who had come to Panama from Alabama to lend their expertise to the Canal project. Juan and Rosa were frequent guests at the lavish parties held in the Ogelsby home. The two women also shared a passion for the game of Bridge, becoming partners, playing several times a week. Elsie, having no children of her own, took these opportunities to dote on the Cansino’s lovely daughter. It was Elsie’s habit to bring Carolina books, written in the languages of English, French, German, and Spanish. By the time Carolina was a teenager she could converse in all four languages.
It the years that followed it became clear to all that Carolina had inherited her mother’s beautiful features, but also her many musical talents. To the delight of her parents and their hosts, Carolina would often perform at the Ogelsbys’ parties. Frequently in the spotlight and in the company of cultured adults, the beautiful Carolina grew up quickly, proving herself to be worldly and wise beyond her years.
Blossoming into womanhood, Carolina was seen on the arm of many of Panama’s most eligible bachelors. It came as no surprise when Carolina began to see a well-known and extremely handsome gentleman who worked in the import/export business. Juan Carlos Esquivel was an entrepreneur with a mysterious background. Like Carolina he spoke many languages and was considered a great visionary thinker. A man of international intrigue, Juan Carlos was the “pride of Panama.”
At a time when the world was on the brink of war, the young man’s international contacts served him well and Juan Carlos became increasingly wealthy. Sadly, it is said he disappeared without a trace, leaving Carolina heartbroken. Though they had not yet married, wedding plans had been made. For many months Carolina grieved over her lost love.
Germany had just invaded Poland about the time Carolina was approached by a lawyer. It was then that Carolina learned that Juan Carlos had died from illness – and that he had not forgotten her. Upon his death, he left her several properties, including a magnificent old bar in the Casco Viejo. With the help of her parents Carolina quickly remodeled the building into an intimate nightspot with a stage where she could perform. She named the place Cantina Roja’s. Juan Carlos himself had called her “Rojas,” a pet name, referencing her beautiful auburn hair.
Word spread quickly and soon American sailors and soldiers from the Canal Zone began to frequent the bar that came to be called, simply, “Red’s Place.” And Carolina was adoringly referred to as “Panama Red,” a title she graciously accepted for the rest of her life. Though still young, Red proved to be an excellent businesswoman. Her fame grew and the bar was packed night after night. Most came to gaze at the beauty and to hear her perform, but the rum was an attraction too. Red’s rum was magnificent. Smooth enough to sip by itself, its taste was unique to Panama. Red expertly mixed her rum with Panamanian oranges, guava nectar, and guava soda to create a cocktail that became a local favorite known as a “Panama Red Sky.” The drink later inspired a song titled “Red Skies at Night.”
Red and her bar came to the attention of Buddy de Sylva and Herbert Fields of Broadway fame. They created a Broadway play and subsequent Hollywood movie they titled “Panama Hattie.” In the show, Hattie – like Red – is a bar owner and entertainer in the Casco Viejo of Panama. And like Red’s Place, American soldiers and sailors frequented Hattie’s bar. [The Legend of Panama Red]
The other day I told you about running into some guys who in their retirement had the choice of sitting in rocking chairs sipping rum . . . or making rum . . . and they decided to do both. 27 years ago they started buying rum in Panama and sticking it in oak barrels figuring that the commodity would hold its value, maybe increase in value and if worse came to worse they could at least drink it. They met an old Cuban rum maker who lived in Panama City who learned his trad in Cuba and today is considered to be the finest Master blender of premium rums in the world.
Jim Wasson and friends were here to introduce the product of their labor, Panama Red Rum, in Panama in part by co-sponsoring the Boquete Jazz Festival. They were eating at the table next to us in Boquete’s new German restaurant and we got to talking. They promised to bring me a bottle of Panama Red to sample even after I managed to spill my beer all over myself and the table. So anyway they showed up in Palmira with a bottle of Panama Red.
To ensure the highest quality rum, the creators of Panama Red blend aged rums in bourbon oak casks for ultimate character and flavor. Each small batch is distilled using locally harvested sugar cane grown in the Las Cabras de Pese region of Panama. This exceptionally smooth overproof rum offers endless versatility, making it the perfect choice for sipping straight, diluted with water and over the rocks or as a mixed beverage. With alcohol strength of 54%, Panama Red stands alone as the sole premium overproof rum on the market today.
And let me tell you this stuff is good! Smooth, mellow, buttery, carmel-like with a spicy tang, not the stuff of mixed drinks, but rum to be savored with or without ice, by the fire (yes, even in the mountains of Panama) on a rainy night.
According to Wasson,
It was a passion for great taste and smoothness that gave birth to this one-of-a kind rum. That same passion was evident in a popular Panamanian 1940′s entertainer. She was a breathtaking redheaded woman – both a singer and nightclub owner – “Zonians” called “Panama Red.” Besides her beauty, Red was well-known for the fine rum she served, which drew international celebrities such as Hemingway and John Wayne to her establishment.
Unfortunately right now Panama Red is only available at Jim’s restaurant in Florida, Panama, and Alberta and British Columbia. But it’s worth a run across the border to Canada or asking for if your cruise ship is calling in Vancouver. Hopefully soon it will be more widely available. Gerry Ford used to load up Air Force One with Coors beer before it was widely available, so maybe if Obama is visiting Canada he should load up on Panama Red. It would help ease the headaches of the White House.
And . . . here’s the best part . . . Jim also let me taste the yet-to-be-released 25-year-old crème de la crème of rum . . . Panamonte! Named, after you guessed it, Boquete’s 100-year old Panamonte Hotel. At $400 a bottle this incredibly smooth and lives up to its billing as “the smoothest rum on earth.” Nice . . . VERY nice! Chip Dykstra of Rum Howler Blog gives it 96 out of 100 and, like coffee aficionados tasting fine coffees, waxes eloquent describing . . .
“The orange peel moves to marmalade; the brown sugars move to dark rich toffee; and the pungent spices move to smells of deep dark tobacco. I also begin to smell baked apples and dry fruit (raisins and dates) as if the rum has a sherry influence (I am told it does not), and although I wonder why I did not notice it before, the scent of roasted walnuts has grown in the glass giving the overall aroma even more depth and character. This is a glass of rum which I could happily just sit and relax with, even if I was only smelling the breezes above the glass.
The initial entry into the mouth is surprisingly soft and not nearly so sweet as the nose would have led me to believe. Bittersweet chocolate, roasted walnuts, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and a very light dusting of brown sugar are the initial flavour impressions I receive. Oak spices, marzipan, Christmas cake, vanilla, more roasted walnuts and spicy tobacco wrapped in leather all follow along for the ride in a gushing river of flavour that is marvelously delicious.” [Read entire piece]
Each bottle is numbered and signed by the Master Blender, Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez Perez. If you are a rum aficionado this is something to anticipate.
Yesterday I spent a delightful afternoon with Jim and his friends at Werner Kaech’s home talking and sipping Panamonte rum. What a delight! And I learned something very interesting about the way rum is labeled in the US. One would think that a rum labeled 7 year-old or 25 year-old was just that, 7 years old or 25 years old. But ironically the way the system works in the US is just the opposite of what you would think. If a blend of rum has a few drops of 25 year-old rum it can be labeled ” 25 year-old” even although the bulk of the rum hasn’t aged at all. Jim’s Panamonte label states that every drop of Panamonte rum is 25 years-old. Big difference!