Patricia Noonan interviews a Canadian making craft rum in Panama…

The Rum Rats: Shamus Hewitt and Jason Gardner.

I had a chance to try a new rum on the drinks scene, from Panama. Here’s my chat with Shamus Hewitt, one of the partners of Rum Rats: the rum that’s starts in Panama and finishes in Canada.

This interview has been edited for clarity and style.

Good Food Revolution: What’s your background in business that led you to rum?

Shamus Hewitt: I moved to Nicaragua in the early 2000’s and built and managed a hotel for 18 years (Apoyo Lodge). After the sale of the lodge, I moved to a secluded coast in the north of Nicaragua where I met my business partner Jason Gardner. We started a surf and fishing charter, realizing we had more to offer when we connected with one of the world’s best rum producers.

GFR: Rum is made in many places where sugarcane is grown, so what made you choose this rum from Panama?

SH: Our Panama producer is one of the rum worlds legends. Don Pancho has a lifetime of rum in his blood. He is now 83 years old. He is originally from Cuba and grew up around the sugar cane fields, later becoming the minister of rum for Cuba. As the story goes, he fell in love with a Panamanian woman and moved to Panama and started his own operation – Pilsa Rum. We are so happy to be able to work with such an amazingly talented and knowledgeable rum producer!

GFR: How did you connect the The Pilsa Distillery?

SH: This was pure luck, Carlos, Don Pancho’s partner and I just started chatting. We have been friends for the last two years and he has taught me so much about rum. He is really a cool dude and we are all looking forward to continuing our partnership once COVID is over.

GFR: How many types of sugar cane are used in production and what do they contribute to the rum style?

SH: Our sugarcane is grown in the Arco Seco area of Panama, and is also the name of our first release. The Arco Seco, or so it’s said, is where the warm Caribbean breeze meets the cool Pacific air. It is perfect for sugar cane production. The terroir of our rum reflects this area. We also do non chill filtering, and this keeps the soul of the rum because when you chill filter, you remove out the essential oils that create more flavour.

GFR: Who does the cask selection?

SH: Pilsa selects the cask and uses American oak barrels from Heaven Hills. We plan on experimenting with rye whiskey barrels in the future.

GFR: The ageing of rum in warm climates is quite different from ageing other spirits in cooler climates…how does this affect your rum?

SH: Anything aged in tropical climates speeds up the aging process, so when you have a 5 year cask product in a warm climate, it really has the character of something aged double to that in a cool climate. The wood of the barrel really opens up and gives a deeper more dynamic flavour. I compared it to sweating, the second you step off the plane in Latin America, your pores start to open up. Your lungs expand and this is the same effect the warm climate has on the rum in the barrels.

GFR: Non-chill filtering is often used with Scotch to retain more flavour. When did you decide this was better for your product? Has it been done all along?

SH: We wanted a product that could compete with the complexities of a good Scotch so the decision to non-chill was a pretty obvious one for us. I don’t think it is that commonplace in the larger consumer brands. I would like to see more of this type of rum available in Canada and more specifically the LCBO, where we have applied to have Arco Seco on the shelves.

GFR: Where is that process at?

SH: We should know if we’ve been accepted in a couple of weeks. If we’re not, we’ll do a private order.

GFR: How many products will find their way into the Canadian or Ontario market?

SH: This is only the beginning for Rum Rats; we hope to be bringing new products annually.

GFR: So, why import rum, when there’s already so much to choose from, Shamus?

SH: In our eyes there isn’t that much pure rum available. What you see on the shelf is a small percent of rum mixed with corn or beet liquor (to bring cost down) and food colour and caramel flavour added. We were unhappy with the lack of transparency in the rum world and see a need for change. Consumers are getting smarter and they want to know about what they’re purchasing.

GFR: Anything you would add from all your tastings?

SH: Thank you for the opportunity to talk rum! Please check out our website,, for custom cocktails like The Aristocrat, The Don, and Ratiki, or enjoy it straight up, ‘Don’ style.

Rum Rats Arco Seco tasting notes by Patricia Noonan

Appearance: pale gold
Nose: mild vanilla, notes of citrus,
Palate: mouth filling, citrus, lime and baking spice flavours
Finish: gingery but very smooth and long lasting, elegant finish.