One of the most important aspects of the American whiskey industry, from a global perspective, is the way it enables the major spirits industries of the U.K. and the Caribbean. In Scotland, used American white oak whiskey barrels are the standard for the aging of newly distilled malt whisky, making the scotch industry a symbiotic one with American production of bourbon and rye, which are exclusively aged in newly charred barrels. In the Caribbean and Central America, the same story plays out with aged rum, the vast majority of which is aged in re-used American oak. These used casks impart gentler impressions of oak and roast, allowing spirits to age for longer periods before they pick up significant, barrel-derived color and flavor.
Occasionally, though, producers in the scotch or rum industries will dabble with newly charred, or “virgin” oak, as it is known. Once considered something of a taboo in the scotch world, virgin oak has become increasingly popular as a way to shore up the color and add more assertive flavors to younger, non-age-stated spirits. In the rum world, it likewise remains something of a rarity, owing both to the greater cost of using a new barrel, and a general lack of experience in aging within newly charred oak. Used in conjunction with used barrels, though, virgin oak can produce some very exciting results in aged rum.
Some brands have long skirted on the edge of this sort of concept. One of the more notable would be Mount Gay Black Barrel, which is an aged Bajan rum blend that spends a final period of time within deeply charred, newly dumped (but still used) barrels. Panama’s Ron Abuelo brand, however, has taken that kind of concept a step further with their new-to-the-U.S. Two Oaks XII Años brand, and let me be the first to report: This is a winning combination. Thanks to a secondary aging in newly charred oak, they have achieved an impressive depth of flavor in this merely 80 proof, column-distilled rum.
A little background on Ron Abuelo: The brand is one of Panama’s most recognizable rums, and is produced at the Varela Hermanos Distillery, Hacienda San Isidro in Pesé, Panama. It forms something of a complement to the distillery’s Ron Abuelo Finish Collection, which is a series of releases finished in sherry, cognac or port barrels. This time around, however, Two Oaks XII Años is instead finished in virgin oak for an additional nine months, after its first 11 months (on average) in reused oak. These virgin oak barrels were specifically designed for Ron Abuelo by a Napa Valley cooperage house, being “strategically cut on the inside to ensure maximum surface extraction.” It rings in at an MSRP of $60—more expensive by about $15 than the brand’s core 12-year expression, but less pricey than most of the other Finish Collection brands, such as Ron Abuelo Oloroso Sherry Cask. It sits comfortably right in the middle, although the rum geeks would no doubt have appreciated a strength of at least 43% ABV (86 proof).
With all that said, let’s get to tasting.
Looking at this pour in the glass, you can tell right off the bat that the secondary aging had an effect, lending this dram a darker coloration that sits between deep bronze and mahogany. Definitely much darker than you’d typically find in a similarly aged product that spent time exclusively in second (or third) use oak.
On the nose, this is immediately a delight, hinting at sweetness and decadence as its primary themes. Pure molasses and brown sugar mingle with an array of baking spices to offer plenty of ginger molasses cookie-type notes, with hints of cloves, brown spice and sweet oak. It’s an alluringly sweet spice that is reminiscent of the aromatics I typically associate with French oak in particular.
On the palate, this is again quite spicy and warm, although we’re talking about desserty baking spices in this content rather than alcohol heat, which is quite minimal throughout. It’s still quite easy to drink, and the texture is on the lighter side (owing to the column still and lower proof), at least in comparison with the Barbados, Jamaica or Guyana aged rums that some will be familiar with. But if it doesn’t exactly have “heft,” the texture is appealingly smooth, and it conveys easy to enjoy notes of sweet caramelized sugars and baking spices (ginger, clove, allspice). This isn’t a particularly fruity rum, although there is a nice black cherry characteristic that peeks in throughout, along with a roastiness and hint of sweet (never sour) smoke.
All in all, Ron Abuelo Two Oaks XII Años isn’t what I’d call extremely complex, but it’s an effortlessly enjoyable neat drinker, with a spice profile that is irresistible. In particular, it’s very easy to imagine this as the sort of aged rum that could appeal to whiskey drinkers or convert them outright—and yes, I realize how PR people salivate over just such a pull quote. But in this case, it’s entirely accurate. The next time I want to give someone their first dram of neat aged rum, this may very well be the bottle I reach for. And I’ll be frank: I immediately find myself liking this significantly more than any of the brands I recently tasted of Bruno Mars’ SelvaRey Rum, also produced in Panama. This is the brand I’d be choosing to represent the country.
Distillery: Varela Hermanos Distillery
City: Pese, Panama
Style: Aged rum
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $60 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.