One of the best things about Instagram, assuming you follow the right folks, is see a ton of interesting things you wouldn’t see otherwise know about. Recently on my feed I came across Copacabana Rums. Intrigued, I dug a little and learned they have a single rum at the moment, Copacabana 1940, distributed by Barrio Spirits. While there are tons of me-too white rums out there with little or no barrel aging, the Copacabana 1940–with its seven-year age claim and origins in Panama–made my ears perk up.
Let’s address the obvious up front: Copacabana 1940 refers to the iconic New York City nightclub, opened in 1940, which hosted a number of musical legends over the years (Dean Martin, Marin Gaye, etc…), and which you almost assuredly first heard about from Barry Manilow in your formative years.
Barrio Spirits, the company behind the Copacabana brand, is a collaboration between Cuban-born celebrity chef Alex Garcia and New York restaurateur Spencer Rothschild. Formed in New York in 2014, the company is best described as a private-label importer of rum – their LinkedIn page suggests that more rums are forthcoming.
Private-label rums are essentially bulk rum created to a particular taste profile by producers, then imported and sold under a private label marque. The producers of private label rums are often well-known for what they sell under their own brands– the highly regarded Foursquare distillery in Barbados, for example, which sells rums under its own lines (Doorly’s, Foursquare, R.L. Seale) as well as selling to private labels such as Tommy Bahama Rum. Some private-label rums are less than forthcoming about their source distillery, while others such as Denizen (reviewed here) are very upfront about their producers. Private-labels rum can be hit or miss – they might be swill with a gussied-up label, or they might contain a gem of a bottling not ordinarily available by other means. The key is to do your research before buying.
In the case of Copacabana 1940, the company says: “Our rums are masterfully crafted by legendary distiller Francisco ‘Don Pancho’ Fernandez…” and, “Our 7-year aged, golden rum is made in Panama’s central province of Herrera.” A little digging on the interwebs turns up that this is very likely the Las Cabras distillery, owned by PILSA. At this point I’m going to veer off the Copacabana rum to expand on Panamanian rums and PILSA because it provides useful context for judging the Copacabana 1940.
Outside of the wonky rum world, Panama isn’t well known as a rum producer – the common perception is that rum comes from Caribbean islands. In reality, nearly all the countries that border the Caribbean Sea also have a long rum-making history. Panama, in Central America, has two major rum producers, Varela Hermanos and PILSA. Varela Hermanos makes the well-regarded Ron Abuelo Line; I’m particularly fond of the Abuelo 12-year rum, great for enjoying neat. PILSA is a bit newer, formed in the early 2000s, and creates rum for private labels via the Las Cabras distillery; the best known example of PILSA rum here in the U.S. is Cana Brava, an aged and filtered white rum bottled by the 86 Company. It’s a fantastic rum for use in drinks that call for Cuban-style rums, such as a daiquiri, and is well-loved by bartenders and mixologists. Other private-label brands that originate at PILSA include Panamonte, Panama Red, Origenes, and Selvarey. I can personally attest that the 108-proof Panama Red is a spectacular rum, full of flavor and worth seeking out.
The thing that unites Varela Hermanos and PILSA is Don Pancho Fernandez. Born and raised in Cuba, he learned his rum craft in Cuba for 35 years, eventually being named Director of the Cuban Beverage Industry, where he trained rum Master Blenders all over the world. In the early 1990s, Don Pancho moved to Panama, where he became the Master Blender for Varela Hermanos (Ron Abuelo). A few years later, he and Carlos Esquivel (also working at Varela Hermanos at the time), purchased the Las Cabras distillery and formed PILSA (Proveedora Internacional de LIcores, S.A) to make rums for use in private-label brands. Carlos Esquivel is PILSA’s executive director and handles the business side of things, while Don Pancho focuses on blending. PILSA’s rum are all exported from Panama and aren’t easily available within their own country. As luck would have it, my friend Ed Rudisell visited PILSA while I was writing this review and sent me a photo of Carlos Esquivel with some of PILSA’s aging stock:
Copacabana 1940 is a seven-year aged rum, bottled at (the all-too-common) 80 proof. C’est la vie.The bottle is an ovaled square, very sturdy yet elegant, made by Saver glass in France. The front label features an illustrated image of Carmen Miranda in one of her iconic fruit-laden hats, while the back has a minimalist silhouette of a palm tree. For a rum of this quality I might not have gone with cartoony labeling, but if you choose to name your rum after a nightclub (or a Top-40 hit from the 70s), at least the brand imagery is consistent.
In the bottle, the rum is a medium straw color, hinting at age but not too much. The nose is pleasant and inviting – wood and vanilla. The initial taste bears this out –a ton of wood, and no sugar to make it seem smoother (small fistpump for that). The similarities to actual Cuban rum race to mind: A brief hint of vanilla before turning to a peppery finish. A moderate amount of burn that lasts for a while (surprising for an 80 proof rum), but it’s never unpleasant. This is a spicy Cuban that begs to be enjoyed in cocktails, rather than a heavily sugared rum in the “sipping” category.
Given the nature of this rum, I wanted to craft a recipe that lets the particular woody, peppery character shine through, rather than masking it in a traditional tropical cocktail full of lime and sugar. I’ve long advocatedthat rum and sherry go together, and given the Spanish heritage of this rum, sherry was a no-brainer. I went with a moderately sweet sherry to offset some of the dryness.
- 2 oz Copacabana 1940 rum
- 0.75 oz Lustau East India Sherry (or substitute cream sherry)
- 4 dashes chocolate bitters
At around $33 US, the Copacabana 1940 is well-priced. It’s a sleeper of a rum – a very solid, dry Panama rum in the Cuban style. The name and branding may target a slightly bacchanalian audience (á la Sailor Jerry and Captain Morgan), but the juice in this bottle is solid. If you’re in the know enough to collect Panamanian rums, this is one you’ll want to seek out.
Barrio Spirits generously provided me with a bottle to review. Also, a big thanks here to Ed Rudisell for the photo, and to Nicholas Feris of The Rum Collective for helping sort some of my questions about Varela Hermanos and PILSA.