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Panama's National Drink Coming to America

It tastes like premium vodka – elegant and smooth with a silky mouth feel and just a hint of light rum.

Its name is Seco Herrerano, or just plain “Seco,” and chances are you’ve never heard of it unless you’re a native of Panama or else have lingered there long enough to have spent an evening on the town.

Seco has for decades been the national drink of Panama – served in bars high and low, neat, mixed or on the rocks, to working class stiffs and to guys who don’t buy their hats in Panama.

Seco was first distilled in the early 1930s by Varela Hermanos, producer of the Ron Abuelo brand of Panamanian rums and which is still the only significant distiller in that country.  Typically, Seco is mixed with “fruit juices, tonic and lime and is used in cocktails, such as martinis,” says Ricardo Henriquez, director of research for Varela.Seco is one part of Varela’s two-pronged plan of expansion in the United States, the other prong being the broader introduction of their Ron Abuelo aged-rums, another category buster.  Varela is partnering in this market expansion with Norman Bonchick of Van Gogh Vodka, who knows a thing or two about introducing flavored spirits to the nation’s barkeeps.

“The first bottles of Seco went to San Francisco four months ago,” Bonchick said recently over a glass of Sec in a Panama City bar.  “Mixologists in San Francisco are open to experimenting with more unconventional products.  If you can get 10 San Francisco bartenders to use it, it will become a commercial success,” he said.  “We’ve also sent some Seco to the greater Los Angeles area.” 

Bonchick’s approach to market introduction is fairly hands off.  “We ask the mixologists if they would like to taste it,” he says.  Once they do, he asks, “Well, what would you do with it?”  So far, fruit juice seems to be a common inspiration for the San Franciscans, who are regarding Seco as a vodka alternative.  Three inventions that have slid across the bar so far have been:

Panama's Passion: Seco, fresh passion fruit juice, soda water and simple syrup.

Seco Punch: Seco, pineapple juice, OJ and coconut milk.

Frozen Canal: Seco, fresh-chopped mango, chopped pineapple and OJ, served as a blended drink.

“Seco Herrerano was created as the original spirit of Panama,” explains Henriquez.   “Before 1903, Panama was part of Colombia, where the sweet, anise-infused aguardiente is very popular. The Varela brothers decided to innovate and launched a different version of the aguardiente, this one being very clean, mixable, smooth and dry,” Henriquez continues.  “It is closer to sugar-cane vodka than to aguardiente or unaged rum.”

Seco even goes smoothly with milk.  Henriquez reports country folk in Panama drink Seco with cream from the cow – making Seco a true Latin form of white lightning.


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