What is Seco?
Ah Central America… A land of great geography diversity, from Mexican-Spanish influence all the way to the sweet Caribbean center that got a lot of its traditions from the West Indies. While most tourists flock to countries like Costa Rica or Belize around those parts, one country who’s played a gigantic role in World History, unites Central to South America and therefore holds a sacred link of multiple cultures- we’re talking about Panama. Their Imbibe way of life involves a liquor known as “Seco Herrano” or “Seco” for short, which is greatly inspired by their South American roots/neighbors but it differs with its versatile notes and uses.
Seco is the national liquor of Panama, but you won't find it served in many trendy or upscale bars.
The locals more traditionally consume it in rural areas. It is served in a variety of different ways, in original recipes and/or as a substitute for vodka or rum. Much like Colombia’s Aguardiente or Brazil’s Cachaça- Seco is Panama’s “firewater” if you will.
The first major difference is Seco is made from sugarcane that has reached complete ripeness. The juice is obtained from the sugarcane before specific yeasts get added for the fermentation stage. It gets distilled three times in a four-column process to obtain alcohol that is extra neutral and of the highest quality possible.
The result is a clear liquid packing alcohol by volume content near 35% or 70 proof, compared to rum quite often (40 proof) Seco is the bigger-badder cousin of rum. Traveling in Panama? An easy way to experience Seco without burning your face off is in a delicious tropical cocktail, of course!
One of the most popular ways of serving it is with milk or coconut milk and ice, which is referred to as Seco Con Vaca, which translates simply to Seco with Cow.
If it has pineapple juice and grapefruit juice on ice, one popular cocktail is known as Chichita Panama and very popular amongst tourists and locals alike. You can mix it with just about any type of fruit juice you prefer or even combine it with other liquors.
As for the makers of this national spirit, Varela Hermanos has had the monopoly of Seco sales in their hands since the early 1900’s in their distillery in Pese Valley, where the sugarcane grows that's used to make the drink. You can visit the distillery and take a tour if you want to see the process of how it's made. Currently, the company produces over a million cases of the drink annually.
Nowadays, Varela Hermanos ship Seco out to more than 65 different countries around the globe. Plus, according to International Wine & Spirit Research, the high-end rum market is expected to grow 5.5 million cases by the end of 2019. Who’s to say Seco won’t be amongst the rise of the sugarcane spirits?
A Brief History-
Panama’s climate makes it a perfect landscape for sugarcanes, this is true now but even more so back in 1908, when Seco was born.
It all begins with the settling of a Spanish immigrant named Don José Veral Blanco, and his family making their new lives in Pese, Panama. The Veral family is credited with having opened the first sugar mill in the entire Republic of Panama in 1936- Ingenio San Isidro. This is where they started distilling alcohol from fresh-pressed juices.
It wasn’t an overnight success… at the very beginning, Seco was considered a low-class option for booze, with a full 750 ml costing around five bucks! Similar to how Mexico looked down on mezcal all those years (the fools!) Their other product, however, definitely stole the spotlight- Ron Abuelo rum.
Some might say the Veral Hermanos got lucky- Panama has moderate rainfall, cool nights, and humid days, all factors that play important roles in the development and personality of both rum and Seco. But they argue that their secret weapon is the fact it is has been a family operation from day one.
On their own land the company controls 100% of the spirit making process: they grow and hand-harvest their own sugar cane, and distill it all on the same location. While standard transportation methods are used to ship out their product, some are still delivered to the local region by ox and cart!. The Beverage Tasting Institute awarded Seco Herrerano with a gold medal in 2012.
A great reason for the honor is that the Veral family is all about green-initiatives. As a result, they recycle their water, use alternative fuels, and assist the locals by recycling bottles used to package Seco. They have four primary types of dark-aged seco that lead in their production and manufacture of the beverage.
Some of the current flavors include a delicately spiced version and another one with caramel and coconut hints that many pair with cigars. Going beyond liquor, they also created their own line of cigars to go with the Seco that they make. Full-bodied and limited edition flavors are also available for mixing and matching.
One of the best restaurants in the world Donde Jose, infuses their Seco with 20 different flavors!
His tiny 16 seat restaurant is world renowned for shaking up the dining and cocktail scene in Panama!
Bartenders and restaurants in Panama and around the world are trying to make the drink something more attractive than the image it has as a cheap booze. New dignity is being brought to the drink as chefs continue to experiment with it in different recipes.
If you try it let us know how you drank it, if you liked it, and if the hype is real!
Thanks for reading, and as always...