Rum is sexy again. Once thought of as the reserve of alco-pops, or with blurry memories of unfashionable navy-style that felt like someone had punched you in the face, rum and its image has come a long way in recent years.
So what’s changed? Well, the explosion of cocktail culture for one thing. As drinkers rediscover the delights of a daiquiri, the grown-up fun of a mai tai, or the depth of an old fashioned, they’ve embraced rum again. Darker spirits may put a lot of people off, but as it’s made from sugar, rum is sweeter than many spirits and therefore more approachable. This doesn’t, however, mean that it’s not complex.
Guatemala may be best known for coffee, but its rich, volcanic soil along with the varied landscape and climate are perfect conditions for growing sugar cane, and creating and aging Ron Zacapa – considered by many as the best rum in the world. Escape the bustling concrete maze of Guatemala city, and you’re confronted with extraordinary scenery; from the lowlands populated with lush jungle, to the fields of multi-coloured corn stretching out for miles on higher ground, and towering volcanoes that loom over it all.
Headed up by the hands-on master blender Lorena Vásquez, the team at Zacapa harness the diversity of Guatemala to make a rum that’s truly unique. ‘The difference starts from the sugar cane’ says Lorena. The easiest way to reach the sugar mill and distillery is by helicopter, and as you fly towards the verdant volcanic plains of Retalhulue in the southwest of the country, you get a striking insight into the variety of Guatemala’s landscape. The hot, humid climate here, combined with the volcanic soils, provides perfect conditions for growing the very best sugar cane. As with wine production, many companies have mechanised the harvesting process, but at Zacapa they’ve decided against such modernisation.
The acres of sugar cane are still harvested by hand, using a special hybrid machete to increase efficiency, which not only helps the business, but also means that the workers (paid by weight of sugar cane harvested) will earn more. Once harvested, the sugar cane is taken back to the on-site mill to be processed. Most rums use molasses – a dark, thick by-product of sugar production – as their base, but Zacapa uses virgin sugar cane honey – a concentrated syrup from the first pressing of the sugar cane. This makes the rum sweeter and smoother, and it is at this point that the distinctive characteristics and flavour profile begin to develop.
The next stage of the process is fermentation in the lab at the distillery, for which the team use a unique strain of yeast – saccharomyces cerevisiae – extracted from pineapples, which ferments the virgin honey slowly, releasing aromatics along the way. It is once fermentation has taken place that the liquid can be distilled in the high-tech facilities next to the sugar mill, where the team have control over the whole process, down to the smallest details, to ensure the highest quality.
The freshly-distilled rum is transported on a long journey along the rough, winding roads up to the House Above the Clouds, Zacapa’s aging facility 2,300 meters above sea level. At these high-altitudes, temperatures are cooler and more consistent year-round, meaning that the rum will age more slowly. That’s not the only thing that make’s Zacapa’s aging process special; they also use a sistema solera process, typically associated with sherry production. The rum spends time in new American oak, charred oak, sherry and pedro ximénez sherry barrels that are never totally drained, meaning that an incredibly wide range of ages is present within each barrel. As the rum passes through each, it picks up new layers of flavour, which, when blended together by Lorena and her team (an incredibly highly-skilled task), results in a complex rum with a rich mahogany colour, and notes of vanilla, toffee, tobacco, dried fruits, hazelnut and coffee.
The attention to detail doesn’t stop at the blending though. Those iconic petate rings that sit around every bottle of Zacapa? They’re all hand-woven from dried palm leaves. Lorena describes them as ‘One of the most important contributions [to Zacapa]. Weaved by 850 indigenous women from different communities, this ring is 100% hand-crafted. This has generated a great social and economic impact on those communities.’ As one of only a handful of female master blenders in a heavily male-dominated industry, this ability to provide jobs and security to local women is very important to her, and to see them being made by the women, working incredibly quickly with such skill and dexterity, is quite a sight.
Lorena has been working with Zacapa for 30 years and, although she is now regarded as among the best master blenders in the world, had to overcome some prejudices when she first started out. She’s a strong advocate of giving women more opportunities in the industry as ‘women are more sensitive to the smell, aromas and flavours and are more focused on detail’. Her protégé, set to take over from her, is also a woman – the future of Zacapa is in safe hands.
Along with the 23-year old, Zacapa produces an XO (extra old) expression (that spends extra time in French oak barrels that previously held cognac), and at the end of last year, also released a Limitada Reserva 2014, for which the rum was aged in Spanish and American oak in a herb garden for three years, taking on flavours of fennel, coriander and tarragon.
It’s best savoured on its own or over ice, but it also works well in cocktails, such as this one from Bounce in Holborn, or head to Oblix at The Shard to try the Rooster – a bright and complex blend of Ron Zacapa XO, banana, coconut and spiced orchid vermouth that takes its inspiration from the vibrant streets of Guatemala and the strutting rooster’s crow at the start of each day.
How does Lorena enjoy it? ‘My favourite way to drink Zacapa is neat with good company! For Zacapa 23, I enjoy it straight and in a good cocktail like a rum old fashioned, and for XO, I like it straight at room temperature.’