Christmas came early this year. During the 2 nd week of December, I was honored to have been invited to tour the Ron Zacapa rum distillery, ageing facility, sugar cane plantation & processing plant in Guatemala.
At the annual Polished Palate International Rum Festival Competition held in Tampa at the end of March each year, judges score each spirit based upon 5 criteria—with a numerical system allotted per category for Color, Nose (Aroma), Taste, Mouth Feel & Finish—with an extra area devoted for reviewer comments.
We can talk about rum until clouds form at sea level but it’s in the comments section where the heart, soul and ‘spirit’ lies. Zacapa brings so much more than its Hall of Fame rum to the table than there are visions of dancing sugar cane. It starts at < ½ mile above sea level with the sugar plantation and distilling facilities; it all ends > 8,000 up-above the clouds. But to truly understand the comments, one must first turn to the culture.
Bordered by Mexico & Belize to the north and El Salvador & Honduras to the South, 13 million people live in this most populous of Central American countries, an area about the size of the state of Tennessee. A biodiversity hot spot with 14 ecoregions, Guatemala houses a very high share of endemic species of birds, reptiles, plant life, amphibian species and mammals, some of which were evident during our tour of Tikal -one of the major cultural and population centers of the Maya civilization .
Of the 37 volcanoes, four of them are active, including Fuego, as seen ‘still smoking’ from my hotel room at the Casa Santo Domingo in Antigua. Spanish is the official language but it is not universally spoken among the indigenous population, nor is it often spoken as a second language. Twenty-one distinct Mayan languages, as well as several non-Mayan Amerindian languages, such as Arawakan, are spoken. Twenty-three languages are recognized as National Languages. Second only to coffee (rated among the best in the world), sugar is the #2 export.
The first evidence of human settlers in Guatemala dates back to at least 12,000 BC. By 900 AD, it is generally believed that a series of droughts induced famine causing the collapse of the Mayan civilization.
When sipping Zacapa 23 or XO, one is constantly reminded that this rum encompasses the holistic culture of Guatemala. Does the volcanic-rich soil contribute to the lush sugar cane plants? Is it in the high-altitude of the ageing facility that induces that extra special something to the final product? Perhaps it’s the first pressing of the sugar cane known as ‘virgin honey’ used to create Zacapa. It’s all of the above—and more. What ties each strategic element to the creation of Zacapa rums is the heritage that is Guatemala.
When you sip Zacapa, you are tasting arguably one of the world’s most celebrated & revered rums. What’s not apparent are the +350 Mayan artisans who weave the wonder of all that represents Guatemala, the petate (dried palm leaves) band that embraces each bottle.
Zacapa, in the Southern part of Guatemala, is the actual city that gave its name to the rum as a celebration for the 100 th anniversary of its founding in 1876. Zacapa employs communities throughout Guatemala to bring the rum to market. The Artisan community of Jocotan weaves these ‘ties of friendship’.
The method of making the petate band can be traced to ancient art that dates to 1400 BC during the pre-classic Mayan Period. First made as floor-mats for Mayan kings, the weavers believed that sitting on a petate changes your whole view of the world, forces you to look at life with humility and to see things for what they are. In 2003, Zacapa employed the women of the Chorti community in the southeastern township of Jocotan for the production of these petate bands, which are vital to the community’s economic survival. There are currently 350 artisans who collectively average producing 20,000 bands per month (1 every 15 minutes).
Zacapa Ageing facility
Oh to be an angel atop Zacapa’s ‘House Above the Clouds’ Christmas tree, as angels surely must get more than their share of this heaveny nectar. Located, literally and figuratively, within the clouds, the ageing facility is about 8,000 feet up (4 ½ times the height of the Sears Tower) and 35 times higher than the highest Mayan Temple at Tikal (the Mayan Gods must be crazy jealous!)
Our tour started within these clouds. Lorena Vasquez, Master Blender/Distiller, one of only four women in the world with this distinction, accompanied our group through each step of the process, offering precise details on preparing & charring the barrels to sampling through to the finished product.
The purpose of barrel aging is two-fold, first to extract tannins, vanilla, oak and other phenolics from the wood. The second objective is oxidation, in which tannins, acids and other elements interact to slow and gradual exposure to oxygen through the grain of the wood. All enhance the unique final drop.
Zacapa 23 is aged in several different casks, including robust bourbon, delicate sherry and Pedro Ximenez wine casks. The rum also rests in once re-charred white oak barrels to impart additional flavor from the wood before it’s bottled. Zacapa XO moves on to one more step, in French Oak barrels, which carries the richness of Zacapa 23, resulting in more complexity.
The Solera System, first developed +500 years ago in Spain, is a traditional ageing process employed by Zacapa. Spirits of different ages and personalities are blended and then subsequently stored to continue the maturing process. Slow ageing also contributes to the uniqueness of Zacapa. With an average temperature of 62 degrees Fahrenheit, the ageing is never subjected to wide variations in temperature and the barrels never dry out. The cold temperature and altitude also lend pressure that helps intensify the ageing. At sea level, the air is warmer, pressure lower—resulting in accelerated ageing.
We descended from the clouds to Tulula, barely ½ mile above sea level, where Zacapa’s sugar cane plantation and distillery are located and assisted in cutting some sugar cane (the only time we were required to actually work!) and then returned to Antigua for our continuing journey through the epicurean fantasies created by Guatemala’s most celebrated chefs.
On the last night, Chef/Owner Jake Denburg of Jean Francoisein Guatemala City prepared a menu which infused Zacapa in every course…from scallops with Orange Zacapa Sauce to Steak Zacapa (I had the Salmon with Zacapa, Coconut & Pineapple Sauce) and the luscious Belgium Chocolate Bread Pudding with Dulce de Leche and Zacapa Reduction.
From the kitchens of Sitz, Nicolas and Panza Verde Restaurants came selections of Strawberry Crepes marinated with Zacapa 23 with mint and vanilla sauce, Duck filet in a tangy sweet orange Zacapa sauce, and local produce including Chipilin leaves & loroco flowers.
Down from the Clouds
We are gearing up for the 4 th Annual Polished Palate International Rum Festival & Competition, taking place in Tampa at the end of March. The strategic purpose of competitions is to assess the craftsmanship of each distilled spirit & ensure that the spirit remains consistent as new batches are bottled and brought to market each year.
In the 2008 competition , our judges tasted 150 rums, the most number of rums in any US competition. Zacapa 23 consistently stands out in the cloud (I mean crowd). For 2 consecutive years, Zacapa 23-a blend of rums aged 6 & 23 years old- won ‘Best of Category for Rum aged +15 years’—the category considered by aficionados as the connoisseurs list.
The suggested retail price of each style of Zacapa are: 15 YO ($35), 23 YO ($45) and XO ($90).
Zacapa redefines first class; I’m still among the clouds and when it’s my turn, I know where I’ll want to rest. (But surely, Heaven can wait!) Dori Bryant
Tasting Notes, 2008 Competition
Zacapa 15 Dusky amber color, with aromas of maple sugar, honey, pecans, and chocolate; subtle, complex, multilayered; subtle flavors of chocolate, caramel, vanilla and spice; tea cake, honey, and lemon; great length and excellent finish; long and lovely.
Zacapa 23 Beautiful amber color; smells of orange oil, crushed nuts & sweet spices like nutmeg & cinnamon; there’s a subtle citrus, vanilla bean, and roasted almond flavor, well balanced and full bodied, with a creamy richness; excellent, lingering finish.