I’m always awestruck on the rare occasion when I straggle to the top of a mountain or a very tall building. The world appears immensely huge, teeming with possibilities, and anything that happens at these heights seems more rare and special. Above the clouds I sense a sort of stage for the spectacular.
I found myself before such a stage when I was invited to a recent Ron Zacapa Rum Tasting held at the aptly named Club 50 on the 50th floor of the Viceroy Hotel in Downtown Miami. In this amazing setting, I had the privilege to taste with the Master Blender for Zacapa, Lorena Vasquez.
One of the greatest of all the aged rums, Ron Zacapa owes its unique combination of power and finesse to its home in the mountains of Guatemala. It has the big, bold flavors expected from aged rum, but it’s balanced by a light, lively quality that’s the result of crisp, cool mountain air. Elevation is the motif that defines Ron Zacapa.
The Viceroy Hotel obliged this theme to the fullest. I appreciate their restraint in design, especially at Club 50, because the view is the feature, as it should be. Florida is a flat as a map of the Ancient World, so when I have the chance to see a good view, I like to enjoy it.
Ron Zacapa rums are noteworthy for being aged at a high elevation, 2,300 ft above sea level. What exactly do these 2,300 ft do? The answer requires a little physics and chemistry.
Consider the difference between Bourbon and Scotch. After 10 years in an oak barrel, Bourbon is old. Scotch, on the other hand, is just getting started. This is due to climactic differences. Most Bourbon is produced and matured in Kentucky. As the Bourbon ages, it is subjected to the high temperatures typical of the American south. This causes the spirit to expand and contract within its oak barrel, resulting in more evaporation and more contact with the wood.
By contrast, the cool climate of Scotland creates less evaporative exchange within the barrel, and the spirit interacts with the wood at a much slower pace. Cooler climates allow a spirit to mature for an extended period of time without taking on excessive character from the oak. It’s like cooking on low simmer rather than a roiling boil.
Most rum ages quickly, as it is produced and stored in the places where sugar cane grows-the hot and humid tropics. Ron Zacapa takes advantage of Guatemala’s mountainous terrain, aging their rums in a climate that is both tropical and cool. The rum can spend many years in barrels before becoming woody and unbalanced.
Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 is a blend of rums ranging between 6 and 23 years old, and the XO can be even older. There are thousands of barrels to choose from; each one different, yet the blend must remain the same. It’s a task of staggering complexity, so the Master Blender responsible for this feat has to be one of the best in the business.
Lorena Vasquez is just such person. Trained as chemist in Nicaragua, in her words she “moved to Guatemala for marriage and fell in love with rum.” She is now the Master Blender for Ron Zacapa. As we tasted through her rums, I felt like I was taking voice lessons from Morgan Freeman. She is poetic and expressive, articulating her art with vitality and precision.
It couldn’t have been easy for her to rise through the ranks. Master Blenders are as rare as NFL quarterbacks and as skilled as neurosurgeons. Either you have the nose or you don’t. You must also have an unparalleled work ethic, because the strength of the brand depends entirely on your decisions. There are no easy days.
If that’s not enough, consider that there is only one other woman who works as a Master Blender of Rum, Joy Spence of Appleton in Jamaica. Ms. Vasquez also mused that there were perhaps no more than four or five female Master Blenders in the entire world of spirits, out of nearly 500 available positions. Until recently, this was a job reserved exclusively for men.
But she has the job because she has the nose, and further, she knows her oak. We tasted through various samples of rum from different barrels and got a sense of the tools she has to work with.
Unaged Spirit: This white rum was surprisingly delicate. Flowers, melon, vegetal note reminiscent of tequila.
Ex-Bourbon: The Bourbon influence was huge. Banana and spices.
New Char: These ex-Bourbon barrels are scraped and recharred. More nuanced than the previous sample with lots of vanilla.
Oloroso Sherry: Big smoke, dried figs, apricots, nuts.
Pedro Ximénez Sherry: Raisins, dark honey, viscous.
French Oak: Dates, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, Christmas fruitcake, floral.
Each type of barrel was distinct in its aroma, flavor, color, body and finish. From these puzzle pieces, Vasquez assembles the Ron Zacapa rums, and she has to be perfect at every step of the process.
Another key to Zacapa’s unique flavor is the use of sugar cane honey as their base. Most rum is made from molasses, the byproduct of sugar crystal production. These rums are powerful and heavy, reflecting their original form. Rums made on the Francophone islands, like Martinique and Haiti, are produced from fermented sugar cane juice and represent a distinct style called Rhum Agricole. These rums are lighter, floral and more vegetal. The Guatemalan rums fall in between these two types.
Sugar cane honey is similar to the cane syrup produced in our own state of Florida. The cane is pressed and the juice is cooked until partially caramelized, but not black like molasses. When sugar cane honey is fermented and distilled, it yields a spirit that has both the dark, richer notes found in molasses, and the floral, vegetal notes of the sugar cane juice.
Unctuous is my favorite adjective for Ron Zacapa Centenario 23. It’s fruity, floral and sweet, with dashes of smoke, toasty oak and spice offered as accents rather than principle players. This is the brand that converts people to rum more than any other. I’ve seen many doubter swayed by Zacapa, including a few of my partners at the tasting.
In addition, the rums were mixed into cocktails and paired with food. David Ortiz was the mixologist, and I give him a special nod for the Knickerbocker. This cocktail consisted of Zacapa 23, Grand Marnier, lime juice and muddled raspberries. I’ve made drinks with muddled raspberries, and it’s a pain. They refuse to come out of the strainer, so I’m not sure how he nailed the texture so well. He also deserves extra credit for making his own cigar bitters for the Zacapa Old Fashioned.
For the food, my vote goes to the Smoked Octopus served with pineapple, sopressata and skordalia. It paired perfectly with the intense citrus flavors in the View from the Top cocktail.
The dinner was finished with a Brioche Bread Pudding and Zacapa XO served neat. The XO has the same sophistication of the Centenario, but it’s even more decadent, more appropriate with dessert or alone as a digestif.
Finally, because I’m mildly obsessed with glassware, I have to say that I love both rum glasses designed for Ron Zacapa. One is stemware made by Riedel, similar to their XO Cognac glass from the Sommeliers Series, and the other designed specifically by Zacapa. It has a flat, substantial base with a tapered mouth, most like the Glen Cairn glass intended for Scotch Whisky. Both capture the nose of the spirit perfectly.
There’s definitely a rising interest in aged rums, as people finally realize they offer a similar level of quality to whisky and cognac, but at a much better price. I have a decent rum collection, nothing major league, but I know my way around. For those of you looking to start a collection, here’s my two cents:
Top 5 Aged Rums
1) Ron Zacapa Centenario 23-Guatemala, $40. Rum collectors start here, this is the rum that impresses and converts more people than any other.
2) Barbancourt 15 Year Old-Haiti, $40. A close second, another must have. The use of straight sugar cane press and French Limousin casks builds elegance and finesse.
3) El Dorado 15 Year Old-Guyana, $30. A dark, brooding rum. Some of the blend is made from the world’s last three wooden pot stills. Smoky, spicy, dangerously good.
4) Clement VSOP-Martinique, $40. One of the best in the Rhum Agricole style. Essential for understanding the vegetal, tequila-like style elements of the sugar cane.
5) Appleton Estate 12 Year Old-Jamaica, $30. Potent Jamaican style, with a clear influence from the molasses, slow pot still distillation and extended oak aging in a warm climate.