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.

Interviews, Spirit

Interview: Stephen Myers from Ilegal Mezcal

Stephen Myers, like many liquor entrepreneurs, is wearing a branded tee when I run into him in Sydney. The shirt has a cluster of three rabbits screen printed on the left breast.

I’ve been brushing up on my religious history of the Postclassic era of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican chronology, and in particular of the Aztec cultures, so I ask if the rabbits are an obtuse reference to the the Goddess Mayahuel, the Aztec personification of the Maguey, or agave plant (Yes, this plant was important enough to have a goddess.) Legends have it that she was mother to many children, the Centzon Totochtin, essentially 400 rabbits that liked to get drunk and party.

I get a wry smile from Myers and a lightning fast answer. “Yeah, or it could just be three rabbits fucking.”

This type of humour is one of the real joys of spending time with Stephen, who started the Ilegal brand with John Rexer about 7 years ago.

Myers doesn’t really tell the story of the brands inception and growth in a linear fashion. It’s a fascinating foible, one that allows people like me to join stories together, uncover snippets that others may have found online, invent the odd hazed remembrance and cobble them all together into more personal, perhaps a more meaningful whole. It has resulted in me being in possession of a story, that while certainly began being his, feels as much like mine as I sit down to write it. If there are glaring untruths or pansy fictions, they are most certainly mine but to paraphrase Steve Coogan playing Tony Wilson quoting John Ford – “when you have to choose between truth and legend, choose the legend.” So it goes.

Like all great liquor stories, this one starts in a bar.

Myers and Rexer established themselves as proprietors of a small bar in Antigua, Guatemala. The idea in print seems born of a desire to remain clothed, watered and fed. The reality probably was closer to keeping liquor in a glass and banter to pass the time. The photos of the place look rustic, and the roof needs to be physically held up in a rainstorm. Big authenticity tick there, this is surely a brand not brainstormed in a boardroom.

Café No Sé attracts a motley crew of artists, expats and characters, people who have made a decision to get as far away from what seems like civilisation in order to discover some supreme truth about themselves and the world in which we live. I reckon Stephen probably fit into this category, once upon a time. Now though, with suitcases full of branded t-shirts and and stickers and an obvious passion for this, the latest turn this life has taken,  I’m willing to go out on a limb and say Stephen Myers has found his secret, and you can by it three varieties, in bottles of 700mls.

The Ilegal brand was born out of trips into Oaxaca State, across the border in Mexico. Rexer and Myers were unhappy with the tequila and Mezcal they had available in Guatemala, so undertook the clandestine importation; yes, smuggling, of the fine smoky liquor from their immediate North. So popular was the fruits of their labour, a decision was made to move up the chain from supply to manufacture, and they haven’t looked back.

It seems like exicting times ahead for the brand. Stephen is relocating to Europe as the push for world domination continues. Mezcal seems to be enjoying a wonderful golden age, as increased interest and consumption of tequila creates an educated pool of drinkers looking for something new and interesting. Helping too is the shift around the world to rid the bar of cigarette smoking, the peaty malts of the West Scots coast and the even more visceral mezcals of the Oaxacan state now offer then illusion of a soothing drag, where legalities, or health concerns do not.

Ilegal is made from only three ingredients; Agave Espadin, Oaxacan Sun and Time. It can take 12 years for the agave to ripen, before the spines are cut by a jimador and the hearts taken from the fields to the distillery. The hearts are then baked in an earth oven, acquiring the iconic smoky notes of mezcal and accentuating the earthiness shared by every spirit made from the agave. The cooked hearts are smashed under a stone wheel, fermented in an open oak vat and batch distilled in a small copper still. It is then either bottled for the Joven style, rested for the Reposado or aged for the Anejo. All three are worth indulging your senses in.

Contact Sapere Drinks for information on how to stock Ilegal in your bar, and if all you want is a taste, try Eau de Vie, Victoria Room or Cafe Pacifico.


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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