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.