Ron Zacapa is one of my favourite brands in the rum category. Not only because of its great flavour and unique mix-ability characteristics, but also because of its fascinating heritage and lengthy production process. But first, let us take a step back and look at the actual “Rum” category and then finish with the Zacapa legend.
After the invention of the distillation process in the 8th century, the rum category was initially harvested and produced in India until the Arabs took the process to Spain. It was then during Spanish colonization that the process of making rum arrived in America. The original process of making rum was crude and very inconsistent, which often lead to the category only being consumed by the lower class. The sugar cane needed to make rum grows extremely well in tropical climates, which was another reason for the category doing extremely well in the Caribbean.
History of Ron Zacapa Centenario
The Ingenio Tululá sugar processing plant was founded in 1904 at Retalhuleu on the Pacific coastal plain of Guatemala. Since this time it has produced raw, direct white sugar and ultimately molasses.
At the beginning of the 20th century the Botran and Requejo families were living in the Burgos province. The children of the two families married and produced five sons, and moved to Quetzaltenango where they subsequently founded Industria Licorera Quezalteca in 1950.
Also in the early 20th century, several other Guatemalan families founded their own companies and independent distilleries in different regions of the country: Industria Licorera Guatemalteca (1937), Industria Licorera Euzkadi (1930), Licorera Zacapaneca “Zacapa Distillery” (1940).
Licorera Zacapaneca was based in the province of Zacapa and was founded by three Guatemalan families named Girón, Estrada and Gordillo. Upon opening their Licorera they hired as the Master Blender a Spanish rum expert, Dr. Alejandro Burgaleta, who developed a very special rum to be made with virgin sugar cane honey, Ron Zacapa.
In 1960 Distribuidora de Licores La Nacional was created to unify the marketing, distribution, and sales of ILG, as a result of which there were dramatic improvements in both plant technology and a huge step up in the quality of the rums being produced.
The most important technological changes included the introduction of more productive cane varieties that matured earlier; new methods of cultivation, fertilization, and pest control; a new type of machete; technical organization of labor; mechanization of loading; the introduction of new centrifuges; and other procedures to improve productivity in extracting sucrose in the factory.
In some mills, cane-cutting machines were introduced, but in general mechanization has not taken over given its high cost, the special conditions necessary for the equipment to function, and the abundance of cheap labour.
At the same time, administrative modernization was also introduced, based on management methods inspired by a vision of quality control, computerized information, and annual evaluations of the harvest in the company and industry. Guatemala is now the 5th largest exporter of sugar in the world and the 2nd most efficient producer.
As the world price of sugar rose in the 1960’s, Guatemala’s sugar factories were upgraded and new state of the art factories and distilleries were built by the company. The current maturation facility at Quetzaltenango opened its doors in 1968 and was built on land 1.5 miles (2330m) above sea level, the highest such facility in the world.
Zacapa Centenario rum is painstakingly crafted through a sublime harmony of place and time. It is the specific combination of soil, climate, and altitude that make up the terroir of Guatemala, together with the unusual degree of control, that enables the devotion and passion of Lorena Vásquez, the Master Blender, to create what is widely acknowledged to be the world’s best tasting rum.
The production process is a wholly owned, vertically integrated process with exemplary quality control at all levels. The story begins with sugar cane grown in the company’s own plantations. The soil here is a fertile clay-rich volcanic type only found in Guatemala, which gives a specific flavour to the rum. The cane juice is pressed, filtered, and heated to removes water and impurities, but retain the sugar, leaving a virgin cane honey with a delectable sweet taste and the same balance of sugars as the original cane.
For fermentation a specific single strain of yeast is used which has been chosen for its compatibility with the virgin honey. It allows for a long slow fermentation of around 120 hours during which the wealth of flavouring components which characterize the rum are created. The fermented mash is distilled in a copper-lined one-column still to an alcoholic strength of between 88 and 92% ABV. The use of the column still gives the Master Blender exemplary control over the distillation process and enables the retention of the flavouring congeners.
After distillation, Zacapa goes on an amazing journey from the Guatemalan lowlands to the highest ageing facility in the world at 2300m above sea level. The rarefied atmosphere at the ‘House Above the Clouds’ provides the perfect cool climate for the slow aging of rum. Using a dynamic Solera System, barrels of rum of the same type but different age are stacked on top of each other, the oldest on the bottom and the youngest on the top, which creates a system for combining blending and ageing. Different types of barrel that once held robust bourbons, delicate Sherries, and lush pedro Ximenez wines are used at different points in the solera. Each one imparts a specific character to the rum.
The blending of the rums is an art that is only possible to master after many years of experience. The purpose of blending is to allow for the strengths of the rums to stand out while making their character consistent and harmonious over time. Lorena Vásquez, the Master Blender, believes very firmly that each barrel is a living, breathing entity and should not simply be forgotten to gather dust in the warehouse. This is why she devotes her heart and soul to nurturing them, almost as if they were children.
Guatemala was the cradle of the great Mayan civilization that dominated Central America for centuries and Mayan traditions still run deep. Zacapa is proud to represent one of them on its bottle: the band of petate. Petate is an artisanal matting hand-woven from the dried leaves of the palm. In the Mayan worldview it symbolizes the unity of everything. Just as the leaves of the palm are interwoven so are the earth and the sky, the sun and moon, and the physical and spiritual realms. This is why a woven petate band is placed around every bottle of Zacapa Centenario rum. It is a manifestation of the creativity and heritage behind the spirit, a liquid that is intimately bound up with the place and time from which it comes.
Zacapa 15 is a blend of rums aged between 5 and 15 years in the Solera System. It is soft and generous with notes of creamy vanilla, light orange, and elegant dried tropical fruits.
Zacapa 23 is a blend of rums aged between 6 and 23 years in the Solera System. It is wonderfully intricate with honeyed butterscotch, spiced oak and raisin fruit, showcasing the complexity of the solera ageing process.
Zacapa XO is a blend of rums aged between 6 and 25 years in the Solera System. It is perfectly balanced combination of sweetness, spice, fruit and spirit, a connoisseur’s delight and the ultimate expression of the Master blender’s art.
The Skinny Portorican
Firstly let’s take a step back and have a chat about an absolute tasty classic; the Cuba Libre. This simple combination consisting of a quality rum, the juice of fresh limes topped up with the local cola. Served tall with lots of ice. I find myself a big fan of this cocktail, especially when it’s mixed up with a decent dark rum. I have found that this drinks popularity is in relation to the location it is made. Like when I was working in the Caribbean this drink used to fly over the bar, but now in South Africa it not as common. But one thing I have learnt is that the fresh lime juice is essential in the final flavour of this world known recipe. If you don’t have good quality fresh limes, don’t waste your time!
So this now brings me to the “Skinny Portorican”, a name we came up with whilst working abroad with the amount of people that order a Cuba Libre but with Sugar free cola! The whole concept of “watching your wait” or being healthy has changed many classic recipes into commercial propositions! This being said, why not change with the movement! So we named the recipe of Rum, fresh limes and sugar-free or light cola to the “Skinny Portorican”! And for me as a diabetic mixologist this is right up my alley! I could honestly say that if you have some really great Brazilian limes, the flavour is almost identical.
So when I’m out and about and not in the mood for my usual scotch, I will suck back on a couple Skinny Portoricans just to get that incredible flavour that was discovered so many years ago. Recently I tried a skinny Portorican at Bramble Bar in Edinburgh, where I had it with El Dorado 15yr. Very rich rum but incredible flavours. I also had it in a short glass just so I got the best from the 15yrs!
So, the next time you watching your weight or trying to be healthier or even just a diabetic, order yourself the Skinny Portorican, you’ll never look back!