Recently I received a delightful little kit put together by the folks who make one of the best rums on the market, Zacapa 23. The idea: To taste what this complicated spirit is like at each step of its long production.
Zacapa is made using a solera process, a complex system where a spirit is bottled from the last barrels in a long line of casks, then topped up with rum from younger barrels. Those barrels are in turn filled from even younger barrels, and so on down the line, the effect being a neverending cascade of rum flowing from one barrel to the next. In Zacapa’s case, it’s even more complicated than that, as four different types of barrels are used, and those are all topped up with older rums, at each stage of the process. It ain’t easy to understand: The chart below may help to make some sense of it.
The tasting kit sent by Zacapa includes the rum at four stages — and years pass between each stage (23 years in all) — all at 7500 feet above sea level, in the mountains of Guatemala. I’ll outline them as we go, along with tasting notes.
Stage 1 – Here the rum (made not from molasses but rather first-press sugar cane juice) has gone through two initial stages, actually, spending time in ex-American whiskey barrels and then a second ex-whiskey barrel which has been re-charred. As you might expect, at this point the rum takes on a whiskey-like character, with a nose so filled with wood you would think, nosing it blind, it was actually Bourbon. The body reveals the sweetness of sugarcane, though, and while it’s tempered with wood, there’s a pleasant sugary character at the core.
Stage 2 – But the rum is clearly not ready for release, so, after blending with older rum stocks, it goes into ex-Oloroso sherry barrels for further aging. The rum takes on a much bigger citrus tone here. In fact, the sherry is almost overpowering with the citrus notes it imbues into the rum at this point. The nose is spot-on, but at this stage it’s just too sweet to go down easy.
Stage 3 – Again, old stock is added after this stage. Then, Pedro Ximenez (another sherry, intended for dessert and made in its own solera style) barrels are last on the list. Here, the rum has taken a turn for the dark, exhibiting deep chocolate character, plus raisins, dried figs, and some coffee notes. Spicy cinnamon and cloves play on the nose here, giving this stage of the rum a nearly-complete, and awfully complex, character.
Stage 4 – After a final addition of old stock, the rum is complete. This is actually the finished Zacapa 23 product, and here the sweetness has been dialed back up. The color, a gorgeous mahogany, secrets away all the flavors that have come before. Sherry is still big, with raisins, chocolate, figs, coffee, and cinnamon coming on after. Complex but delightful, there’s so much going on here that you’d think you’d be lost. But like a good dessert, it all comes together in perfect balance, a beautiful rum that shows what 23 years can do to sugar cane juice straight off the press.