Alive in Panama: a spirited art form

  • 25/04/2009 02:00
  • 25/04/2009 02:00
I had an extremely interesting experience not too long ago which turned into an honored friendship. I’m speaking of a man whose reputati...

I had an extremely interesting experience not too long ago which turned into an honored friendship. I’m speaking of a man whose reputation precedes him, a true legend in the spirit business. His name is Francisco J Fernandez Perez and he is a master blender of alcoholic beverages.

I first met Francisco at his formulation laboratory, distillery and bottling operation in El Dorado. I was so excited about the opportunity of meeting him that I had the date circled in ‘red’ on my calendar. After all, it’s not often that one meets a true artist of his trade.

My level of enthusiasm was so high because I have been involved in beverage business for many years as a marketer – first achieving acclaim for a soft drink launched in the early 80’s and called Jolt Cola. The product became a big success almost overnight scarring the giants of the industry, Coke and Pepsi, along the way.

It was great fun that later got me into the wine business working for a New York State winery that eventually grew into Constellation Brands; the largest wine company in the world along with a significant premium liquor business.

So having the opportunity of meeting Francisco was a big deal for me, but one that I must say had its surprises. For starters, I’m not sure how many ‘legends’ one meets throughout life? I’ve been lucky to have become acquainted with quite a few; the majority of whom have egos as large as their reputations.

However, that was not the case with Francisco. In fact, everything about the man and his operation was wonderfully unpretentious.

I learned early in life that the more humble one is the greater the likelihood of finding an imposing story within. That was certainly the case with Francisco. Here was a man who learned his craft from true masters, beginning with his father, Don Antonio Fernandez Castro, who formulated many liquor products throughout his career.

He then moved to Cuba in the early 1970’s and had the good fortune in having the tutelage of the ‘master of masters’ Don Ramon Fernandez Corrales. By the way, they share last names but are not related through blood.

It was during that time when Francisco learned the ways of Carta Blanca, which is the first step in the development of aged rums. As he would say, it’s where the characteristics of true rum begin in showcasing their quality, flavor and bouquet.

Most Panamanians know of Francisco’s reputation as the former Master Blender for Varela y Hermanos, producers of the famous Ron Abuelo and Ron Cortez brand rums, where he worked for many years. Today, Francisco enjoys having the ability to use his tremendous skills in the formulation of many products within the broad category of alcoholic spirits.

As he gave me a personal tour of his facility, it was easy to see that he had not lost his love for his art form, nor his desire to teach as he was once taught.

He patiently walked me through the process of rum making that begins with the fermentation of molasses with yeast cultures that are unique for the production of aguardientes or young rum.

The fermented product is then distilled in what he calls a column still made of cooper plates, which is mandatory when making the highest quality rum. The distilled product is then stored in both new American white oak barrels and used bourbon barrels.

A wide smile appeared as he explained that years pass before one can extract rum to produce Carta Plata and other Anejos. This is when his art as a master blender comes into play, where he applies his technical skill and experience in creating a true masterpiece.

He went on to state that this time-honored process has not changed for generations upon generations. And if there ever came a time when the process was altered the result would no longer be called rum.

A final smile came when he said that the greatest challenge is learning to be patient.

I returned his smile with one of my own, stating “Like anything good in life.”

Lo Nuevo
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