Celebrity booze—it’s always a roll of the dice, is it not? In all honesty, though, the fact that a spirit brand is celebrity owned or endorsed is ultimately almost entirely irrelevant to evaluating it—just a thing you have to note in the preamble. So here’s your notation: The SelvaRey rum brand was founded by music superstar Bruno Mars, who was also involved in the conception of its new super premium brand SelvaRey Owner’s Reserve. And that’s about the extent of the Bruno Mars talk we’ll have in this tasting. Now, onto the rum facts, which is the hot content I can only assume you visit Paste for.
To begin with, SelvaRey is a Panamanian rum brand, which means a few things:
A. We’re likely talking about molasses-based, column distilled rums rather than pot-distilled, higher ester rums associated with rum regions such as Jamaica or Barbados.
B. Francisco “Don Pancho” J Fernandez is likely to be involved.
“Don Pancho” is something of an under the radar legendary figure in rum geek circles, having spent his entire career distilling and blending rum. He was born in Cuba in 1938, and worked in the Cuban rum industry for more than 30 years before moving to Pesé, Panama. There, he was involved in the rejuvenation of the Las Cabras distillery, and ultimately became the master distiller at that location. In the years since, he’s been involved in the development, distillation and aging of countless brands—some that are contract distilled on location in Panama such as Denver, CO’s Yolo Rum, and house brands like Cana Brava. In fact, at some point in the history of these brands, “Don Pancho” has made some contribution to seemingly all the most visible rum brands coming from Panama, such as Ron Abuelo.
SelvaRey is likewise distilled at the Las Cabras distillery, under the eye of Don Pancho. They produce three core rums: An aged and then filtered “white rum,” a flavored chocolate rum, and a new, much more heavily aged blend called Owner’s Reserve. We had a chance to taste all three, so let’s get right to it.
From the packaging alone, one gets the sense that SelvaRey isn’t targeting “rum geeks” with this brand, but rather more casual drinkers—there’s no description of the product on the bottles, and no hint even that this is actually an aged rum. Rather, it simply reads “made on the jungle” on the back of the sloped bottles, which look a bit like the melted Coke or Pepsi bottles one might buy at a roadside tourist trap.
Regardless, this is indeed an aged white rum, blending 3 to 5-year-old Panamanian rums produced in the distillery’s 1922 copper column stills, and then aged in American bourbon casks before being filtered to remove color. Only a faint sheen of yellow is left afterward. It weighs in at the expected 40% ABV (80 proof).
I hadn’t realized this was an aged white rum when going in for my initial taste, but the profile makes it clear pretty quickly. The nose is very clean, without a ton of fruity esters, but the time in the oak is very clearly evident by the unexpected charge of vanilla that it’s managed to pull from the wood. This smells lightly sweet, with a slightly toasty marshmallow/piloncillo sugar character and only the faintest grassy freshness. It could almost pass for a vanilla-infused vodka, in fact.
On the palate, SelvaRey White Rum is pleasantly sweet but a bit on the neutral side other than its judicious notes of vanilla and toasted sugar. Piloncillo sugar really feels like the perfect comparison here, as those who have sampled “panela” in the past will likely find it very reminiscent. There’s hints of cocoa, and vanilla frosting, making for an easy drinking but not extremely “rummy” profile—cleaner column distillation lets the character imparted by the barrel shine most clearly. This is likely a rum that would trick some drinkers if they were blindfolded, as the vanilla profile would likely have them assuming it would boast a darker coloration. It’s a good indicator that color isn’t a good indicator of how rum will taste.
The flavored staple of the SelvaRey lineup, this chocolate rum is just what it sounds like—aged rum (5 years old) that has been “infused with natural chocolate.” Although “carpet bombed with chocolate” might be a more accurate indication of the chocolate intensity here.
Suffice to say, this is one of those products you’ll probably know if you’ll like before you’ve ever sampled it, based on your capacity for appreciating flavored rums and residual sugar. Its flavors are bombastic and not at all subtle, although it comes in a shade lighter at 35% ABV (70 proof).
On the nose, this hits like you poured a glass full of chocolate syrup. In fact, after I popped the cork, my wife in a different part of the room immediately remarked that she could smell the chocolate. It has less the profile of “rum with chocolate,” than it does “rum-based chocolate liqueur.” On the palate, likewise, my initial note was “like a liquified Tootsie Roll.” The chocolate is intense and all encompassing. I imagine that there are other flavors here as well, but I simply find the chocolate to batter any others into submission—it is delivered with the delicacy of a sledgehammer.
I fully acknowledge that when it comes to chocolate-infused flavored rums, this is exactly what many consumers will want. In fact, the first user review I found says the following, with a perfect 10/10 score: “This was AMAZING! Somehow reminiscent of tootsie roll candy in the best way. Must have it again!!!”
Two reviewers, both comparing a product to Tootsie Rolls. For one of us, that’s an indication that something has gone wrong. For the other, an indicator of perfection. Your assessment will likely depend on which of those camps sounds more familiar to you.
Owner’s Reserve is the newly launched super premium offering from SelvaRey, and it’s clearly digging deep into the stocks of well-aged Panamanian rum at Las Cabras. This is a blend of rums 15 to 25 years old, “hand selected from the finest vintages” by Don Pancho. It’s primarily being sold via Reserve Bar online, where there’s a waiting list for its next release. Like the core white rum, this is being bottled at an approachable 40% ABV (80 proof). A higher proof would have been appreciated, but that likely would have pushed the MSRP even higher, so it seems a fair trade-off. I’ve never tasted any extra-aged Panamanian rum of this sort, so this should be interesting.
On the nose, SelvaRey Owner’s Reserve is on the delicate side, certainly much more nuanced than either the relative simplicity of the White or the over-the-top nature of the Chocolate. I get very light banana, piloncillo sugar, hints of cocoa and an increasing note of caramelized plantains. Sweet, toasty brown spice follows, along with a slight sherry-like nuttiness.
On the palate, initial impressions are of molasses and toffee cookies, along with toasted brown spice. The sweetness here is more on the gentle side, and it’s certainly the most elegant of these three expressions, as the creator would no doubt have intended. There’s some more of that slightly winey/nutty sherry character, although I don’t believe this actually spent any time in sherry barrels, and a bit of brighter citrus for balance. All in all, Owner’s Reserve drinks quite easily—like other Spanish-style “rons,” it simply doesn’t have the heft and intensity of heavier English-style rums from elsewhere in the Caribbean. Rather, the focus is on clean, light presentation that highlights the barrel character and allows for gentle sipping and contemplation. In that market, SelvaRey Owner’s Reserve is likely to thrive, although the price tag will no doubt make it a bottle that fewer will have a chance to sample. If you’re curious about well-aged Panamanian rum, though, it’s a rare opportunity to taste the fruits of Don Pancho’s labor.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.