Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez (image: Origenes by Don Pancho)
The first thing Philip Guerin wants you to know about Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez is that he’s real. The second thing is that he blends Yolo rum.
Guerin is the owner of Yolo, a six-year-old brand based in Colorado. The rum comes from Panama, where Don Pancho, one of the leaders in Cuba’s rum industry under Fidel Castro, developed the blend using rums aged 10 years or longer.
It’s easy to see why Guerin is protective of Don Pancho’s Yolo association. The distiller’s reputation precedes him in certain rum circles. He was born in 1938 in Cuba, where his father, Don Antonio Fernandez Castro, worked in wine and spirits. Don Pancho made his way into the rum business by laboring in the sugar cane fields and learning from his father. Eventually, he earned a degree in microbiology and studied Cuban-style rum making under master blender Ramon Fernandez Corrales.
In the 1970s, Don Pancho became the head of research and development for rum at the Ministerio de la Industria Alimentaria (MINAL), which was the government-owned agency responsible for the Cuban beverage industry. That’s where he picked up the nickname Minister of Rum. He worked for brands like Matusalem and Havana Club (which led to the nickname Great Grandfather of Havana Club).
Don Pancho’s career in Cuba lasted 35 years. Pernod Ricard acquired the rights to distribute Havana Club in 1993, but Don Pancho didn’t come with the brand. He moved to Pesé, Panama, a region known for its sugar cane, where he worked for Ron Abuelo and helped rebuild Las Cabras distillery with a friend named Carlos Esquivel. Along with those brands, he blends Yolo rum.
Yolo’s flagship rum is blended with rum that’s distilled and aged at Consorcio Licorero Nacional in Panama City. It’s a deep amber-brown, with notes of vanilla. The taste is rich with flavors like cake batter and toffee. On the side of every bottle is the sentence “Blended by Don Pancho Fernandez.”
And yet, says Guerin, people still question whether Don Pancho, the legend, exists. “If you had Googled Don Pancho when we started Yolo rum, you’d have thought he was a fictional character,” he says. “There are conspiracy theories about him even existing, like, ‘Oh, he never existed before 1998.’ That’s because he was in Cuba.”
Guerin says that he had to educate people on who Don Pancho was. He’s modest and doesn’t seek accolades or publicity. Even Guerin’s tentative promise for a statement from Don Pancho for this story never came through.
“The people who question him—none of that bothers him,” says Guerin. “I say, ‘We have to do this to counter,’ because I want to help fight his battles for him, but he doesn’t care.”
A lot of the resistance, says Guerin, comes from larger brands that control the market. “There’s almost like a birther movement, and it’s really sad,” says Guerin. “There are people in the industry who are perpetuating that.”
But Don Pancho is very much a real person. Guerin found him in Panama through his wife Jessica Guerin’s connections in the area. Like many in the spirits world, Guerin had no idea who Don Pancho was when he first thought about creating Yolo. It all started when he was in Guatemala working for a nonprofit. There he fell in love with Jessica, who’s from El Salvador.
Jessica Guerin, Don Pancho and Philip Guerin, from left
He also fell in love with rum. Guerin was a whiskey drinker and felt like good rum was this secret that people in the U.S. had no idea about. So around seven years ago, he decided to create his own rum brand. Guerin reached out to Zacapa and other rum makers in the area, but as an industry outsider, he couldn’t find a partner. That’s when he asked his wife for help.
Jessica is a marketing executive who has worked with companies like Bayer and Pfizer. She has also worked with large Central American distilleries. When her husband asked her for help, she pointed him to Don Pancho in Panama, and the connection clicked. Guerin had his rum maker and, before long, his rum.
Don Pancho gave Guerin the blend that’s now Yolo on the first try. “He basically told my wife that he had it ready for us when we showed up,” says Guerin. “And he told her, ‘This is the standard that all rums should be held to.’ Once we tried it, it just blew my socks off.”
Yolo is currently available only in Colorado, but Guerin and his team are working on expanding it further. But it hasn’t been easy. Denver radio personality and Yolo investor Kathie J. says, “There’s red tape when you go to new states, and you may know you have a good product and all the awards, but getting the word out is very difficult.”
And that word is largely based on Don Pancho’s name recognition. His association goes a long way with rum nerds. Yolo has slowly and quietly been making a name for itself in rum circles. The 10-year-old has won 12 national spirit awards, and Don Pancho’s name is becoming increasingly familiar. He now has another brand directly tied to his name, Don Pancho Origenes.
Guerin started a rum brand because he wanted to share the Central American rum that made him fall in love with the spirit category. Through a series of fortunate events, he ended up working with the man who helped popularize Havana Club, one of the most storied names in rum. There were probably easier paths to getting a rum brand that didn’t involve Guerin trying to convince people of his master blender’s authenticity. But hey, you only live once.