The lady has a beautiful nose

What an absolute treat to get to spend a few hours with Lorena Vasquez on her recent visit to Australia. The lady whose palate, nose and passion are behind the Ron Zacapa 23 Solera and the XO.

This was Lorena’s first visit to Australia, having tried and failed to get approval to visit during the last bar awards. It was definitely worth the wait. Lorena has the type of deep familiarity with the processes of production and answered each of the question the team threw in her direction. I’ve written before about Ron Zacapa and their extremely complex Solera aging and blending processes and thankfully I had managed to get the basics right just on research.

I did pick up a couple of other tidbits as she spoke extremely in depth about her rum.

Guatemalan law requires barrels to remian sealed for at least a full year when they are aged. Each barrel is sighted, signed and sealed by a government representative. There is an age statement written on the barrel as well. The official gets changed every few days so there is no chance that the full year aging can be avoided or interfered with.

Partial year aging is possible, but only if you are not “aging” the rum. The upcoming Zacapa Black release, which is finished for a partial year in a heavily charred barrel is a perfect example. The finishing stage is not to age the rum, merely to flavour it, so this practice sits outside of the legal framework set up to govern rum production in Guatemala.

Sugar cane honey is a slightly caramelised form of sugar cane juice. Lacking a sugar refining industry, Guatemala does not have a ready supply of molasses. The refinery is some distance form the fields, so the producers cook the juice to remove water and facilitate transportation.

Some of the barrels are extremely important. Lorena said the bourbon barrels weren’t important, and while she wouldn’t name producers of sherry in Spain, or the cognac producers in France, but she would say that they prefer to deal with the smaller houses as the big ones are just too hard to deal with.

There are more great things coming. Lorena and her team are constantly experimenting with new styles, so expect more new products to come out of the House in the clouds soon.

The final part of my time with Lorena was a blind blending test. She married a selection into an interesting savoury blend. Ever the perfectionist she worried it wasn’t up to scratch, but seemed happier when she was allowed a measure of the Solera 23 to even out some of the more glaring aspects in the much less smooth rums she had been tasked with playing with.

Cocktail, Competitions, Sydney

Drinking with Gentlemen

Diageo’s World Class program seems to be going from strength to strength this year, and I’m not just saying that because I keep getting asked to judge the NSW rounds‡. The contest asks bartenders from across the country, or at least the Eastern seaboard, to create a excellent cocktail featuring a spirit from Diageo’s Reserve range. Points are attributed for recipe and efforts in marketing the drink, both in venue and on the slightly more new fangled social medias. 10 are then chosen to take part in state finals, where bartenders are judged by the other nine to decide a top three who will face the esteemed panel of judges.

It should also be noted that points in World Class are not only awarded for the quality of the drink, the innovation of the recipe and skill of its production. The Reserve range are all tasty products alone in a glass, as such the contest rewards those who feature and improve the natural state of the spirits. A great way to think about making any drink, in my opinion, at least.

The final round of this years comp was the gentleman’s round, where contestants were asked to feature either the Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve, the Ron Zacapa Solera 23 or the slightly shorter named Talisker 10. The event itself was held at Tokonoma, to coincide with the launch of their own Diageo Reserve cocktail list, of which I stole a copy and will expound on in greater detail in another post.

The three who made it through to the final round were all gentlemen; Tim Philips from the bar no one can go to, Luke Reddington for the bar that always wins and Luke Ashton from a bar upstairs from another bar. It should not however be construed that only a Gentleman could win, as evidenced by the success of Krystal Hart from Canvas in the QLD round (more on that from Simon McGoram, over here)

The drinks they made were epic. Luke Ashton channeled a snake oil salesman with gentrified, clarified, with not all ingredients specified elixir, served up in custom printed vials too boot. Luke Reddington used the most exquisite collection of equipment to make his drink, and gave me my first ever quail’s egg flip. Tim Philips also bought quail’s egg to the party and promptly covered his shirt and much of the Tokonoma Bar with his emulsion in perhaps the most incredibly epic fail I have ever witnessed behind a bar, contest situation or no. To his enduring credit, he rallied. Cracking three more quail eggs, and whipping out his Autumnal flip again with a suitably epic poem, producing the winning drink and earning a place in the national final next month. 

Pictures and recipes below. 
Royal Autumnal Flip from Tim Phil(l)ips from Level 6 at the Ivy

Ingredients & Quantities: .5 Fresh Fig (or Tbsp Homemade Fig conserve if unavailable,) 10ml Lemon Juice, 40ml Talisker 10, 30ml Zacapa Honey Liq. (Homemade,) 1 Whole fresh quails egg

Method, Glassware & Garnish: Add all ingredients, dry shake, then shake. Serve up and garnish with atomizer sprays of ‘Zacapa Cinna-man Eau de parfum’

The Foppish flip from Luke Reddington at Eau de Vie

Ingredients & Quantities: 40ml Johnnie walker gold, 20ml Lairds bonded apple jack, Half a barspoon of branca menta, 15ml of maple & champagne reduction1 whole quail’s egg

Method, Glassware & Garnish: Add all ingredients with ice and shake. Strain into a refined gentlemans glass and garnish with a dusting of nutmeg & a spot of fanfare
Ashtons Elixir No. 23 from Luke Ashton at The Duke

Ingredients & Quantities : 45ml Ron Zacapa 23, 10ml Amaro Ramazotti, 4 dashes homemade ‘Muddy Moonshine Stomach Bitters’

Method, Glassware & Garnish: Combine all ingredients in chilled mixing glass and chill and dilute with large ice cube. Orange twist into the glass (dropping orange twist into glass) Strain drink into frozen miniature labeled bottles, No garnish

‡Just kidding, i love the fact I get to judge cocktail contests. Can’t wait for nationals….

Cocktail, In Memoriam

I hope you’re drinking these somewhere up there

More than a few glasses will be raised to Pierre Fajloun tonight, across Sydney and around the world. A motorbike accident last night ended Pierre’s life and sent a shockwave through the industry. I wrote a few words when I found out earlier in the day, but on getting home, and making a drink to share in the collective grief of today I remembered a drink Pierre made me at his great spot on level 6 at the Ivy and thought it a far more apt tribute than simple words.

A Ron Zacapa Old Fashioned might be considered decadent by most, excessive by some, a waste by still others. I thought it was a great way to remember a generous host and a lovely guy.

Lost in the Clouds.

Rinse the ice in an Old Fashioned glass filled with large cubes with 10mls of Amaro Montenegro, Coat the cubes and discard the excess. In a second glass add 60mls of Ron Zacapa Solera 23 and a small lick (5-10mls) of Cinnamon Syrup. Ice, stir briefly and strain over your Amaro coated cubes. Garnish with an orange peel, lemon peel and a stick of cinnamon.

If there’s a bar where you are Pierre, I hope someone’s making you one right now.

This one's for you, Pierre.


Ron Zacapa XO

Now, when global spirits giant, Diageo, took over the world’s best rum brand, things were always going to change, despite what the fine men at Reserve Brands might say.

Thankfully, for those that were lucky enough to stumble into the path of a bottle before Diageo turned rarity to luxury, it appears the product so wonderfully selected by Master Blender, Lorena Vasquez is not amongst the things that will change.

The partnership of families who grew the canes and made the rich, flavoursome rum may slowly be drifting towards a more corporate structure since exposure and the brands flagship, the XO, will lose its Centenario designation, in front of, somewhat predictably, opposition from the company who ‘owns the term’ as the Americans say it, Jose Cuervo.

Now, I’ve written about the 23 year old before, but thanks to last weeks Rum Club, I now know a lot more about this fantastic spirit. To say that it is different from most rums is an understatement in the extreme. Most rum is produced from blackstrap, a type of molasses that is a by product of sugar refining. Blackstrap is a little bit bitter and tastes and smells very cooked. Rhum Agricole, the French version of this most naval of spirits, is produced from the first pressings of the sugar cane juice, in much the same way as the Cachaca spirits form further South in Brazil. Zacapa is made from neither of these. Sugar cane juice is pressed and cooked, purely for the purpose of making the spirit. The cooking process drives off the water, and after smelling the sugar cane ‘honey’  it also provides a measure of carmelisation, although not to the same burnt levels as blackstrap. It is quite literally, somewhere in the middle.

The next difference in Ron Zacapa is the aging of the distillate. It is taken to “The House in the Clouds,” a facility 2300 metres above sea level. Here the distillate is subjected to a Sistema Solera, an aging sytem invented by the Spanish to produce Sherry and brought to the America’s by the invaders. Simply put, a Solera ages the distillate through different levels or ‘criadera.’ The barrels on the first level are filled with fresh distillate, when it is ready it is moved down a layer and mixed with spirit that has already aged. This fractional blending ensures a smooth end product and is used to create a level of consistency between batches, years and decades. That might sound a touch complex, and it is. Zacapa, hopwever, take things one massive step further.

The distillate is taken from the still and poured into American Whiskey barrels. These barrels are first fill Bourbon barrels (FFBB) This means that they have only had Bourbon in them before and no other spirit. The rum stays in these barrels until Lorena or one of her master blenders decide it is ready. This can take between 1-3 years, give or take. The blender has the final say.

Once the rum is ready, it goes to a 17,000 litre American Oak mixing barrel for intermediate mixing (IM). The rum is blended with an amount of Old Reserve (OR) from the Zacapa warehouse. the amount of rum is a closely guarded secret, but the Master Blender is looking for a paticular set of characteristics before it can go back into the barrels.

The rum is then put back into Bourbon barrels, this time though they are highly charred(HCBB), giving an ‘alligator skin’ effect that imparts a lot of flavour. Once again, the rum rests until the blenders nose says it is ready, before once again heading to the intermediate mixing to be blended with the Old Reserve (OR)

The third stage sees the rum aged in Sherry Butts, (SB) I haven’t yet worked out why Sherry barrels are called butts, maybe one of you can enlighten me. The Sherry barrels impart a fruity depth to the rum. Again, only the Blender decides when it’s had enough time, and can go back to intermediate mixing for a third time.

The fourth aging stage is in Pedro Ximenez Sherry Butts (PXSB) This Sherry is very sweet and the barrels impart deeper fruity flavours, sultanas and muscatels. At the completion of the fourth stage the rum is once again mixed with the Old Reserve. At this point, the rum can be bottled as Ron Zacapa 23. Some of the IM barrel at this stage is also sent back to the warehouse to replenish the Old Reserve.

The final stage in aging that sets the XO apart is aging in French Oak Cognac barrels (FOC) This gives the rum a dryness and quality of finish that is hard to find anywhere else in the family of sugar based spirits. French Oak ex-Cognac barrels are some of the most expensive of all barrels that are traded around the world.

The rum is blended one last time with the Old Reserve, again some is held back to fuel the future processes. It then leaves the Solera, is filtetred through Cellulose, bottled and distributed around the world.

The Ron Zacapa XO bottle points to its Cognac finish, and somewhat predictably to its price tag. It’s not the most expensive Rum on earth, but at 200 bucks a bottle here in Australia, it is in pretty special territory. I first tried it in Japan, over a hand carved ice diamond. It cost around 50 bucks a shot, but the memory of it has stayed with me a long time, so I’d have to say it’s absolutely worth it. Anyone who is a rum nerd should try it out at least once…

There are bottles behind the bar at Low 302, Rockpool and the Bayz. With Diageo bringing it in, rarity it might not still be, but luxury it certainly is.

Spirit, Sydney

Ron Zacapa Centanario Rum

Ron Zacapa 23yr Old RumRum, for me, is very special. Often overpowered by post mix coke in bars across the country, the Tiki revival has seen the number, quality and popularity of Rum explode.

On the top of the ever growing heap sits Ron Zacapa. This Rum is from the mountain regions of Guatemala. What this means is that the sugar cane is grown at altitudes in excess of 23oo meters above sea level. The result is an exceptionally smooth Rum, beautifully packaged. Ron Zacapa comes in 15, 23 and 25 yr old versions and is now being imported and distributed in Australia by Diageo.

I cannot stress enough just how gorgeous this sweet nectar of the gods tastes. It is best served on its own, like a fine single malt. Add a little ice if you must.

Many would say that to use this, the finest of spirits in a cocktail is a waste. In general, I would agree with this line of reasoning. However, I have come across one recipe that does the flaxen bottle justice. The Imperial Mojito. 

Add a generous measure of Ron Zacapa to a highball glass. Twist off six or seven leaves of mint and rip them roughly in half and add them to your glass, you can add a little sugar or mint syrup but the Rum packs a good measure of sweetness as it is. Top it up with ice and give it a generous stir to release and mingle the minty oils. Top the highball off with Champagne, Bollinger for my preference but I heartily encourage experimentation. Garnish with fresh mint, a straw and a warm, hammock filled afternoon.

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