While Bundy still owns the dark rum market in Australia, an iconic rum from the Central American nation of Guatemala, Zacapa, has done exceptionally well at the premium end of the market. Indeed, they have convinced many that rum is more than just a transfer system for alcohol, something lost without a hefty accompanying dose of cola; that it can be a quality spirit as worthy as any malt whisky or cognac. A sipping spirit. In fairness to Bundaberg Rum, they have also made some exceptional premium rums over the years.
Much of this can be attributed to the extraordinary efforts of their master blender, Lorena Vasquez. Lorena has been working with Zacapa for 35 years and considers herself to “have one of the greatest jobs in the world.” Originally from Nicaragua, she moved to Guatemala at the time of the Nicaraguan War.
Zacapa’s success has seen it named as one of the world’s ‘Top 100 Most Valuable Luxury Brands’. In 2018, it was ranked as the world’s leading ultra-premium rum and was the first rum to be named to the International Rum Festival’s Hall of Fame.
Zacapa does not have a history dating back into the long distant past, like so many European spirit producers. Rather, it was established in 1976 to celebrate the centenary of the town of Zacapa, located in eastern Guatemala. A partnership in 2008 with drinks giant Diageo has allowed them to expand around the world and Zacapa is now available in 120 countries.
Zacapa differs from many rum producers by using what they term, “sugar cane honey”, rather than the traditional molasses. This is basically filtered and evaporated sugar cane juice, which is thicker and stays fresh longer than pure juice, but doesn’t go through as much of a refining process as molasses. At this stage, the rum is literally taken to the clouds – 2,300 meters above sea level – to their maturing facility. The decision to establish the distillery at these heights was made by Lorena and it has been dubbed “the house above the clouds”, one of the highest spirit ageing facilities in the world. The average temperature is 58°F to 62°F. At this height, there is far less variation than at other elevations, to the benefit of the maturing rum. Lorena believes that ageing the rums at such lofty heights contributes to their “exceptionally deep aroma, full color and rich flavor.”
Zacapa also use what is known as the sistema solera for maturation, an adaptation of the traditional process of aging Spanish sherry. Their barrels have previously held American whiskey or Spanish sherries, not least the wonderfully decadent Pedro Ximenez.
Their most famous rum is undoubtedly the iconic Zacapa 23. There was a time when apparently it was based on rums of 23 years or more, but now the age range is 6 to 23 years. Personally, I can see that by using “23” on the label, many consumers might be confused and even misled. For me, this rum is good enough not to need any sleight of hand. I’ve said elsewhere that I’d be looking to rename it to remove any possible confusion. Of course, Zacapa is far from the only distillery in the world where labelling might confuse consumers. The brilliant XO is a blend of rums aged between 6 and 25 years – no confusion there.
The 23 has the immediately distinctive petate weaving around each bottle – a handwoven band from dried palm leaves – and Lorena has worked closely with the 700 female weavers who supply the bands, to support them. Petate weaving is a Mayan tradition that dates back to 1400 BC and was once reserved for royalty. This tradition, for Zacapa, began in 2000. The women weaving these bands buy the materials themselves, but the income they can earn is twice the local average.
Like all Zacapa rums, the 23 uses first pressings of the sugarcane only. A dark teak color. This is an intense rum with notes of raisins, caramel, dried fruits, dark coffee, butterscotch, vanilla, nuts and spices, notably cinnamon and nutmeg. Excellent length and a finely balanced rum. Some will note the sweetness, but others find this appealing. For me, balance is the key.
The XO is slightly paler and a more refined style of rum in every sense. Again, there are nuts and caramel with oak, vanilla, almonds, coffee, mild chocolate, stone fruit, ginger, spices, and hints of dried fruits. There are more citrus notes to be found here, orange blossoms, and a lovely honeycomb character. This is elegant and lingering, but it remains intense right throughout. Very finely balanced. For me, this is a go-to rum if ever there was one.
The new addition to the range is the piece de resistance: the Royal Solera Gran Reserva Especial ($400). Beautifully presented, this is a blend of rums aged from 8 to 30 years in a mix of American whiskey casks, charred and re-charred, as well as former sherry and cognac casks.
Zacapa also uses the very rare French oak casks sourced exclusively from Le Bois du Roy, which come from four forests previously owned by royalty. Harvesting these forests has been restricted since the thirteenth century. A rum that demands to be sipped solo or with just an ice cube, if that is your preference. Look for flavors of almonds, caramel, butterscotch, the finest Valrhona chocolate, stone fruits, honey, and more.
It is worth noting that the alcohol level here is slightly higher than is usual for Zacapa, at 45 per cent. This is a rum that is extremely limited so you may need to search widely for it. The search will be more than rewarding.