Friday, August 24, 2012

Ron Zacapa 23 - From Cane to Solera to Bottle

We've been fans of the Ron Zacapa 23 Rum for quite some time. And why not. It's nutty aroma, sweet honey flavors, creamy texture, and smooth, long finish - never a burn - should satisfy anyone. We've known that they utilize the first press of sugar cane (virgin sugar cane honey) and that the rum is aged in "The House Above the Clouds"  7,500ft above sea level in eastern Guatemala. Yet, we never really understood their unique Sistema Solera process - modeled after sherry production - and it's contribution to this excellent rum. That is, until now, when the Zacapa distillery sent us a tasting kit, with vials containing rum samples from each stage of the Solera process, plus the final Ron Zacapa 23 blend. What a tasting opportunity.

Before tasting, let's start with their distilling process. As previously mentioned, the rum starts from sugar cane and not molasses. Zacapa's sugar cane is harvested from their plantation "located on the volcanic plains of Retalhuleu, 1,148ft above sea level in south-western Guatemala". The sugar cane is then pressed, and the first press is then fermented using their own strain of yeast extracted from pineapples. The fermented juice is then distilled using a single column copper still. 

Tasting vials from stages in the Solera process
After distillation, the freshly distilled spirit is transported to "The House Above the Clouds" and the Sistema Solera process begins. This process involves several stages or "criadera" - Spanish for nursery. In the first stage or criadera, freshly distilled juice is aged and then blended with juice that has previously aged within the same level as well as a stock from the general reserve. This intermediate blend then moves to the next stage, aged in different barrels and then blended with older lots, and then sent to the next criadera. The process repeats until the final blend is realized and this becomes the Solera - in our case - the Ron Zacapa 23.

The Zacapa Solera process uses four criadera and the tasting kit includes samples from three of these, as well as the finished solera.  (See the image below for more detail.)  The attached video also describes the contents of the tasting kit, and whereas my tasting was less formal, I gained a greater appreciation how each step in the Solera process contributes to the overall complexity of Ron Zacapa 23. In Stage 1, the distilled sugar cane is aged in used American white oak Bourbon barrels for one to three years. The rum is then moved to the  4,500 gallon American Oak intermediate vat where it is blended with older lots. This mixture is then aged in charred Bourbon barrels, resulting in more oak flavors imparted into the spirit. This rum sample is reminiscent of a solid, slightly aged rum, with sugar cane aromas, sweet honey flavors and a slight burn at the tail. I could drink this version, at any time, with no second thoughts.

The Zacapa Solera Process
In Stage 2, the intermediate blend vat is again augmented with rum from the reserve and then aged in used Sherry barrels. Surprisingly, the rum from this sample was toxic to my palette. The aroma from this sample was powerful - full of nuts and honey - but the burn was just as strong - overwhelming the new flavors imparted from the sherry casks.

The sherry infused rum is added back to the vat,  augmented by the reserve, and then sent to the fourth criadera or Stage 3 and aged in used Pedro Ximenez (PX) wine barrels. PX is a white Spanish grape used in sherry and sweet dessert wines.  This sample was much more palatable than the last, exuding a similar nutty aroma but with a fig and banana-ish flavor and milder, albeit, still strong finish. Close, but not quite the same as the finished solera. It was also very 2-dimensional, running straight from the mouth to the tail, without much of the creamy mid-palette I associate with Zacapa 23.   

This blend is then added back to the gigantic intermediate vat and then blended into the older lots in the reserve. Some of the rum is used to augment future processes whereas some are filtered and bottled into the distinctive Ron Zacapa 23 bottles. This last sample - Stage 4 - was the final product that I've come to love about this rum - the honey and nutty aromas mingle with the sweet honey, fig, and raisin flavors; followed by a satiating and creamy mid-palette; and ending with a long fresh finish - with zero - I mean zero -  burn. Love it.  The distillers at Ron Zacapa have patented this process into a science or art, because I was unable to capture this profile using my own blends of the three vials.So there you have it -  Ron Zacapa 23 - From Cane to Solera to Bottle. Cheers


ZacapaFan said...

Very Interesting Article

Zacapa-Fan said...

Very good article!