Although most assume that rum is Panama’s national liquor, it’s actually Seco—an 80-proof, white spirit distilled from sugarcane.
So, how does it differ from rum? It’s not made from molasses—as most rum is—but most local foodies and chefs say there is no difference, except for the perception. “It’s like the cachaca of Panama,” explains head chef Andres Morataya of Manolo Caracol, a hot-to-trot restaurant utilizing Panamanian ingredients almost exclusively.
Jose Carles, chef and co-owner of the trendy farm-to-table restaurant Donde Jose, takes a stab at explaining seco: “Like grappa is to wine, seco is to rum—a high-proof version.” There are a few seco producers in the country, but ask any Panamanian—from the President to the postman— what brand of seco they drink and inevitably, Seco Herrerano will be the resounding answer.
Seco Herrerano is made in central Panama in the town of Pesé, near where the sugarcane is grown in Pese Valley, by Varela Hermanos—a family-run distillery that dates back to 1936. Visitors are welcome to tour the distillery, but advance reservations are recommended. They also produce the well-known Abuelo Rum, however, it’s bottled at their plant in Panama City.
Up until recently, seco suffered from a reputation of disrepute with Panamanians, much the way Mexicans viewed mezcal as a cheap, low class booze. And there is some truth to that—a 750 ml bottle in Panama will set you back roughly five dollars. Yet, chefs and bartenders in the country’s capital city are restoring a renewed dignity to the drink.
Traditionally, the only seco ‘cocktails’ ordered were Seco Con Vaca (seco with milk or coconut milk on ice) or Chichita Panama (seco with grapefruit and pineapple juice on ice). Riding the global trend of championing local products and ingredients, restaurants are renewing seco’s popularity with the younger generation by infusing it with herbs and fruits and utilizing it in craft cocktails.
“When people try our seco cocktails, they can’t believe it tastes so good because Seco’s reputation isn’t very sexy,” says Jose Carles whose Donde Jose restaurant offers more than 20 flavors of seco infusions.
Due to its high-proof potency, it stands up well in cocktails. But don’t take our word for it. Here are three seco cocktails to try at home from some of Panama City’s best chefs and bartenders:
A Taste of Miramar
Courtesy of Chef Raul Vaquerizo, Intercontinental Miramar Hotel
- 1 1/4 oz. Seco Herrerano
- 1/2 oz. Grapefruit Juice
- dash of Grenadine
- splash of Orange Juice
- Sugarcane Gelatin Spheres (Optional, Recipe Below)
Preparation: Shake all ingredients and strain into a martini glass. Stir in spheres and garnish with sprig of rosemary.
- 1/2 cup Vegetable Oil
- 1/3 cup Sugarcane Syrup
- 1/4 tsp. Agar Agar Powder
Preparation: Chill the vegetable oil in a tall glass. Mix syrup and agar agar in saucepan and bring to boil. Simmer for 2 minutes or until agar dissolves. Let mixture cool for 5 minutes. Fill a straw with the cooled mixture and let droplets of it fall from the straw, one at a time, into the cold oil. The spheres will form on contact with the oil. Strain the spheres out of the glass and rinse with water. Until you’re ready to use them, store them in water. When you’re ready use in the cocktail, simply take them out of the water and place them on a paper towel.
Courtesy of bartender Luis “Chino” Cheong, Donde Jose
- 1 1/2 oz. Seco, Infused with Cinnamon (Infused at Least 1-3 Days)
- 1 1/2 oz. Passion Fruit (Remove Seeds, Blend Smooth)
- 4 Basil Leaves
- 1 tsp. Brown Sugar
- Squeeze of Lemon Juice
- Splash of Soda
- 1/2 oz. Passion Fruit Oil Drops (Canola Oil Blended with Passion Fruit)
- 1 Sprig of Basil (Garnish)
Preparation: Mix seco with passion fruit pulp. Macerate basil leaves with brown sugar and squeeze of lemon for a few seconds into the seco-passion fruit base. Pour mixture over ice into a rocks glass. Top the drink soda, a few drops of passion fruit oil and a sprig of basil for garnish.
Courtesy of Chef Andres Morataya
- 3/4 oz. Seco
- 1 oz. Soda Water
- 1/4 oz. Grated Ginger
- 5-8 Purple Basil Leaves
- 3-4 Anise Flowers
Garnish: Sprig of Anise Flower
Preparation: Place the grated ginger, anise and basil in a rocks glass and muddle. Add the seco and club soda. Fill with ice. Stir mixture a few seconds. Garnish with anise flowers on top.