When most people think of rum, they think of the islands of the Caribbean. The images of Jamaica, Barbados, Cuba, and Puerto Rico all swirl about in the mind’s eye. The average imbiber probably immediately thinks of names like “Bacardi”, “Captain Morgan’s”, and “Meyer’s”…possibly even “Mt. Gay”. If you asked the run-of-the-mill drinker what the best rum on the market was, they’d probably say something like “Bacardi!” simply because they know the name, and no rum distiller has done a greater job at mass-marketing than has the company with the bat for a logo.
I started out as such a person – although Bacardi was never a rum I rated very highly. Personally, I was always something of a Captain Morgan’s fan, myself…and while I always fancied myself a “top-shelf only” drinker because I insisted on drinking Tanqueray Ten or Grey Goose, I consistently would order “Captain and Coke” when I felt myself in the rummy mood.
In the past 2 years, mine eyes have seen the glory of the aging of the rum, and the “Captain and Coke” man has died and been replaced with someone my brother likes to call, “The Rum Snob”.
Bacardi may be the most famous maker of rum in the world, but it isn’t the highest rated. The islands in the Caribbean may be the first thing that pop to mind when you think of rum, but one of the most decorated and appreciated rums in the world isn’t from an island at all…it’s from Guatemala: Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 Anos.
Unlike most rums one will find on store shelves these days, Ron Zacapa is not made in the Caribbean. Instead it is made near the Pacific coast of Guatemala. Zacapa is actually NOT a molasses-based rum, and is instead made from the “pure sugar cane honey,” which is the juices of freshly pressed sugar cane that are then boiled and allowed to thicken. This “honey” is distilled into a fantastic rum which is aged in a variety of wood casks high in the Guatemalan mountains in the region of Quetzaltenango (say that 3 times fast). During the rum’s 23 year tenure in the cellars, every facet of their environment is monitored, including the temperature, humidity, light, and even sound levels (according to the Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala website).
The rum is aged using the solera method. This is the same method used to create sherry, and involves replacing any of the rum that is lost to evaporation over the course of a single year in one cask with rum that was casked the year following that (e.g. rum that was casked in 2000 will be replenished with rum that was casked in 2001 and so on).
The unique combination of this process, combined with the also rather unique locale high up in the mountains, further combined with trade secrets that competitors have been desperately attempting to divine for years, gives Ron Zacapa a profile that is truly incomparable.
The Ron Zacapa is a darker rum. Rather than a typical amber color, this rum is a deep, rich brown (rich is a word that will continually be used in describing aspects of this rum). A quick swirl in the glass creates a very thin ring of much stronger legs than one would expect based on the slightness of the ring. As you watch, the ring grows thicker and the legs of the spirit make their way down to the body very slowly, belying the texture of the drink for one with the patience to let the glass breath for a moment or two.
The nose of the Ron Zacapa is not aggressive. It’s much slighter than one would expect from such a highly rated drink, but as you get closer to the spirit, the richness of the rum start to slowly stir the senses. There’s the expected scent of molasses, followed by notes of cocoa and a hint of orange. It seems as though ever time I sit down with a glass of Zacapa I find something new in it, and this most recent tasting has been no exception. There’s actually something of a cherry finish to the nose that I’ve noticed tonight, although I may be guilty of having let the glass breathe too long while I took down my notes.
Character & Palate
The Zacapa is sweet. There’s no way to argue otherwise. Your tongue is instantly enveloped in flavors of molasses, cocoa, and honey, with a slight woodiness to the finish. There is very little burn, and this is easily one of the smoothest rums I have ever sampled, possibly only outdone in its smoothness by Ron Matusalem Gran Reserva and Temptryst Cherrywood.
This is a complex rum with a lot of flavors at play at the same time. As I mentioned in the section on the nose, tonight was the first time that I had noticed cherry in the nose, and the taste is revealing the same notes that I had somehow missed. As the rum moves towards the back of your throat, other flavors continue to appear almost as pictures. You find yourself thinking of leather saddles and tobacco plantations instead of pictures of pirates or island shirted tourists drinking in a deck chair on the beach (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
One of the things that is most interesting about this rum is its texture. The rum has a unique viscosity to it that makes it seem almost like a rum liqueur rather than a pure rum. The texture adds to the experience of drinking the rum, as your senses of smell, taste, and even touch are all awakened by it.
The Long & The Short Of It
There is a reason that this rum has been essentially ruled out of tasting competitions: it’s just too good. Each glass of Ron Zacapa Centenario is what modern American marketeers would probably call a “complete spirit experience”, with every aspect of your senses being consumed by the rum. While it may prove too sweet or too viscous for some, for those who find it as appealing as I did, you’ll never run out of occasions for drinking it. It is an excellent evening cocktail, and it’s almost-liqueur qualities make it a perfect after-dinner drink. If you’re looking for a fantastic rum that you can buy today, this is a must-have for your tasting shelf.
★: Terrible, only drink for a dare.
★★: Meh, not undrinkable but best left alone.
★★★: Reasonable, middle of the road.
★★★★: Tasty stuff, well worth seeking out.
★★★★★: Incredible, booze doesn’t get better than this. You need a bottle in your life.