Arquimedes Ortega grew up drinking seco, Panama’s crystal-clear rum distilled from sugarcane, especially during the holidays.
“Seco Herrerano has roots in Panama’s customs and traditions and the drink goes back more than a century,” says Ortega of the family-owned brand with widespread domestic distribution. Now the executive chef at The Buenaventura Golf and Beach Resort on Panama’s Pacific Coast, Ortega has close ties to the drink.
“Being a Panamanian from the interior region of the country, we grew up celebrating every occasion with a Seco Herrerano drink. Seco was always part of family celebrations including birthdays, weddings, Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations. It’s considered the national alcoholic beverage of Panama.”
“Panama is a destination full of culture and gastronomy, where people and flavors come together from all over the world.” —Arquimedes Ortega
The spirit has always been popular among rural Panamanians, Ortega adds, but, until recently, it was overlooked in many high-end bars and restaurants.
Seco is distinctive because of the way it’s made. The rum uses sugar cane from the fertile Herrera Province located in Panama’s interior. Once harvested, the sugar cane juice is filtered three times, giving the liquor its clear color and high alcohol content. The result is a dry, 80-proof rum that’s a smooth base for mixed drinks.
Ivan Hoyos, a guide who specializes in nature tourism with Ancon Expeditions of Panama, also grew up drinking seco. Born and raised in Panama, Hoyos says that while Panama produces rums that are more refined than Seco, the drink has a special place in the country’s culture.
“Seco is not the finest of our rums, and it’s not a sipping rum,” he says. “It was considered a drink of the countryside, and it’s synonymous with festivals, celebrations and parties. Seco has enjoyed a revival in the last 20 years or so, and it’s made its way to more sophisticated venues, especially in the form of specialty drinks like mojitos and caipirinhas.”
After watching their parents and grandparents celebrate with seco, a younger generation of Panamanians are embracing the local liquor. Chefs and bartenders are eager to highlight local ingredients, and seco’s increasing popularity at high-end establishments helps to showcase the country’s history while introducing the rum to a new audience.
“The way my grandparents consumed seco was very different from today,” says Ortega. “One of the most popular ways back then was serving seco with milk or coconut milk and ice, or with lemon and freshly cut orange. Today, seco is part of the modern cocktail and mixology [movements]. You can mix it with just about any type of fruit juice you prefer or even combine it with other liquors.”
Ortega uses seco in marinades for meat and seafood dishes, too, noting its versatility as an ingredient and deep connection to Panamanian identity.
“Panama is a destination full of culture and gastronomy, where people and flavors come together from all over the world,” he says. “You see the afro culture and cuisine in the coconut rice, the Asian influence in our BBQ ribs and Peking duck, and the Spanish influence in our chicken and rice. You can taste the Caribbean flavors in our fried curry fish with plantains and the flavors of Italy in our beef tongue ravioli.”
To Ortega, seco’s revival is indicative of modern Panamanians’ embrace of homegrown ingredients and authentic traditions, and links to the country’s longstanding culture of hospitality.
“You are always welcome at any Panamanian dinner table,” he says.
Chef Ortega’s Tropical Mojito
Those eager to raise a glass to Panamanian culinary culture might consider Ortega’s take on a mojito made with seco, passionfruit juice and fresh mint.
“This tropical mojito is inspired by the classic Cuban mojito and uses ingredients from the nearby Coclé region in Panama,” says Ortega. “The fruit and spices are cultivated at a local farm in Santa Mónica, and the flavors in the tropical mojito like pineapple, passion fruit, coconut, and cinnamon are common elements consumed in homes in Coclé.”
Place mint and lemon juice in highball glass and gently muddle. Add simple syrup and passion fruit juice and stir. Fill the glass with ice and add seco. Top with club soda. Garnish with dry pineapple slices, shaved coconut or cinnamon stick.