sugar cane honey
continuous column stills without extraction
2-23 years in whiskey white oak, Oloroso Sherry and Pedro Ximénez wine casks
Alcohol by volume:
glycerol 02. g/l, vanillin 2.45 mg/l, caramel
The Zacapa 23's fifty-year market debut anniversary is approaching fast (1976). Well, that's a long time. While we'd need detailed sales figures to determine the right stage of a Zacapa's life cycle, I'm of the opinion that the brand's maturity is coming to an end.
A short flashback. In the second half of the 90s, the brand's management decided to expand into foreign markets putting initially on local distributors. CEO - Roberto Garcia Botrán - recalls: ’'People understand that rum is from the Caribbean, but Guatemala is part of the larger ‘Caribbean’. We realized that for us to sell Zacapa here was going to be by having people try it because once they did, they were going to love it. That’s still how we sell.”
Over the years however the brand success attracted the big money. Diageo offered marketing support and in 2008 took over the international distribution. Three years later Diageo acquired half of the shares in Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala (which is Zacapa's owner). That's when the notation "años" was abandoned and replaced by the designation "sistema solera" with annotation indicating extensive ageing range from 6 to 23 years.
The effort put into Ron de Guatemala's geographical indication approval by the European Union (2014) coincided with the rise of accusations concerning Zacapa's inglorious practices. French manufacturers even tried to suspend the registration process in respect to: “the prohibition to use flavourings, colorants and sweeteners for the production of rum, the rules on the raw materials to be used, on the quality of the water to be added and on the indication of the ageing in the description, presentation or labelling of the product”. Nevertheless, the internet is full of candy reviews.
Let's face the critical voices for balance. The accusations cover misleading advertising and marketing claims, namely the "23" indicated on the label. In this matter the class action lawsuit was filed in California federal court. Case is pending. Obviously it's solera issue: how precise can you determine the ageing period or compare different solera products among themselves? The objections regarding the method and the labeling seem justified.
The next item is sugar content, documented many times, although changing over time. The manufacturer firmly denies. Even more serious and alarming are allegations of infamous additives. I mean, how to reconcile the need (or compulsion) to correct the organoleptic characteristics of a premium product with some glycerol or vanillin?
With the above in mind, Zacapa's popularity may be puzzling. Recall the supporters deaf to mentioned arguments or wiping them from consciousness. And here I fall into a cognitive error, most likely a projection, because I assume that using reason is at the heart of the buying decision process. Meanwhile, closer to the truth is maybe the conclusion that the average consumer takes everything for granted and lacks critical thinking. It's much more common and surely easier to unreflectively follow fashion and in doing so consolidating it. 🐑
Does it not contradict my initial prognosis for Zacapa? Well, the damaged image is an irreparable loss, especially when there are no attempts for clarification. There are way more gateway rums nowadays than a few decades ago. Finally, the introduction of limited editions, a heavenly cask collection, aims to activate still loyal customers.
The bottle of Zacapa is decorated with a woven band of palm leaf, called petate. According to the manufacturer's narrative, it's a tribute to the local communities, providing them with an additional source of income. I'm not in a position to assess this noble (and also image-promoting) gesture in the broader context of the region's conditions.
Putting the controversy aside, we know quite a lot about the production chain. Sugar cane comes from the Retalhuleu department fertile clay soils (350 m.a.s.l.); a region with an average annual temperature of 26°C, rainfall of 2600-3600 mm and a relative humidity of 78%. After one year of vegetation it's harvested by hand, beginning in November till May. Sugar cane juice is pressed within 36 hours and then cooked at 150°C to form sugarcane honey with 72% sugar content. That semi-finished product is suitable for year-round storage and ensures continuity of the production process. Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala uses syrup from the Tululá sugar mill.
Fermentation is initiated by Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast obtained from pineapple. The procedure lasts five days at a temperature of 28-32°C. The distillation process takes place in continuous column stills without extraction (88 - 92% abv). Zacapa shares a distillery with the Botran brand; both are operated in Ingenio Tululá. The alcohol strength is lowered to 60% abv before being placed in casks.
Ageing takes place near Quetzaltenango, at altitudes above 2,400 m.a.s.l., where the average annual temperature is 14.79°C. Lower air density slows down the ageing process. Refer the explanation of the solera and the difference to the traditional sherry ageing technique. Zacapa 23 went through whiskey white oak, Oloroso Sherry and Pedro Ximénez wine casks. I’m not going to verify the ageing intervals. Sugar content: 17 g/l (ALKO, February 2022), glycerol 0.2 g/l and vanillin 2.45 mg/l (Refined Vices).