Sofia Deleon with a bottle of her new Guatemalan rum, Tenango, outside her restaurant El Merkury in Center City, Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A new rum from Guatemala is coming to Philadelphia thanks to El Merkury owner Sofia Deleon. Set to debut this month, the rum is more than just a way for Deleon to connect people to her heritage — it’s part of her family’s legacy.

Deleon’s great-great-grandmother once ran a distillery, but it was taken away under the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico in the early 20th century. 

Now, she’s partnering with the family that’s been running it to create something new: Tenango rum, a venture that aims to bring the culture and flavors of Guatemala to Philadelphia. 

“I grew up hearing stories from my grandma about her grandma being a distiller and making this sugarcane concoction,” Deleon told Billy Penn. “I always was so inspired by that, and I knew that at some point, I wanted to go into spirits.”

Tenango, a dark rum made with Guatemalan sugarcane that’s aged for six years in American oak barrels. will be distributed throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey later this month.

It is meant to be enjoyed by itself, Deleon said, or on the rocks. It can also be used to elevate a rum cocktail (without that sugary hangover) with notes of chocolate, butterscotch, and almond.

Deleon is known to Philadelphians via her fast casual restaurant, El Merkury, which opened in 2018 in Rittenhouse Square, before expanding to a stand inside Reading Terminal Market. Its specialty is Guatemalan street foods, such as soft pupusas, crispy tostadas, and cinnamon and sugar coated churros.

“I just wanted to showcase Guatemala and Central America as a whole in a more positive light,” she said. 

Just as Deleon envisions El Merkury as a way to change people’s expectations about Central American cuisine, she has the same hopes for Tenango. When she first arrived in the United States to go to college, she noticed rum was “an under-appreciated spirit,” completely different from the perception she had growing up.

In the 1920’s Maritza Andrea Gramajo, Deleon’s great-great grandmother, opened what would become one of Guatemala’s largest and longest running rum distilleries. In the 1930’s, the country’s dictator Jorge Ubico took the distillery away, Deleon was told, and gave it to his political allies as spoils. Ubico fancied himself “another Napoleon” here and pushed the country into turmoil. He was finally ousted after nationwide protests forced him to resign on July 1, 1944, after which he fled to New Orleans.

Generations later, Deleon wanted to pick up the baton that was taken away from her great-great grandmother. In 2020 she approached the family running the distillery, Licores de Guatemala, in hopes of setting up a partnership – a bitter sweet moment for Deleon considering this was the same family that accepted the distillery from Ubico in the 1930’s. After three years, the spirit will be available in Philadelphia. 

Sofia Deleon with a bottle of her new Guatemalan rum, Tenango, outside her restaurant El Merkury in Center City, Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)d

“It went full circle,” Deleon said. “It’s [almost] 100 years later, but I still have a little piece of what my great-grandma started.”

Tenango’s launch will also serve to empower local communities in preserving their traditional artwork. Each bottle features a Mayan sheath covered with detailed patterns. They’re woven on a traditional foot loom by a Guatemalan co-op that specializes in this cultural practice. 

She hopes investing in the co-op by placing a large order of textiles will not only renew interest in this traditional craft — which she said younger generations are less eager to learn — but will  also allow trade workers to make a sustainable income. In addition to purchasing textiles, $2 from every bottle sold go to the co-op’s trade workers.

“It’s more labor intensive and you get paid probably the same or less than something that is made in factories,” she explained. 

Rum in Guatemala is often sipped on its own, much like a fine whiskey, whereas “most Americans saw it as a tiki drink,” Deleon said, describing how most of the rum she found was mixed into Coca-Colas, piña coladas, and daiquiris. 

“I want people to be more open to trying drinks with rum and substituting their brown spirits with rum,” said Deleon.

Guatemalan rum, Tenango, with food from Sophia Deleon’s restaurant El Merkury in Center City, Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Eager for a taste? You’ll be able to buy Tenango online on Tenango’s website, on the Fine Wine & Good Spirits website, and at restaurants throughout the city. The price is expected to be around $49.99 per bottle. Follow Deleon’s progress on Instagram at @TenangoRum.

Kae Lani is an Emmy Award-Winning television host, food and travel writer, recipe developer and home cook, seen on WHYY/PBS, FOX, and day time talk shows across the U.S. Her writing has been published...