Prior to the move, a PR rep for Zacapa rum contacted me, asking whether I’d like to receive a new tasting kit they were offering. I agreed, but the kit went out to my old address the very day we left. It bounced around Rhode Island and Massachusetts (appropriate for rum, perhaps), before finally reaching me here in Brooklyn.
The tasting kit was pretty simple: four mini-bottles of Zacapa, in various stages of aging. (I’d take pictures, but our cameras wound up in storage, somehow).
The first mini contains rum aged in American whiskey barrels. The second is from sherry barrels, and the third from barrels previously used for Pedro Ximenez wine. The fourth mini contains Zacapa 23.
But let me digress for a moment to discuss Zacapa’s aging process. Zacapa uses a solera system, in which new rum is blended with rum from older barrels. This process helps to ensure consistency from batch to batch. But the system is a bit more complicated than taking raw distillate and mixing it with old stuff.
Even so, the description I’m about to give is simplified; it’s not the full process that Zacapa employs. I’m extrapolating from a chart they sent, so any mistakes are mine, not theirs. If I can pick a nit here, I wish the materials that came with this kit were a little more thorough in describing the solera process.
The process starts with new-make rum, which ages for a certain amount of time in American whiskey barrels. The rum sample from these barrels tasted a little rough, woody, and raisiny, and it smelled a little smoky. The whiskey-barrel rum is then mixed, after aging, with a certain amount of older rum.
(When I say “certain amount,” take that as a cue that I have no idea what that amount is, and it’s one of the points at which I’m simplifying the process.)
That mixture of rum goes into charred barrels, which I presume (again: simplification) are new barrels and haven’t previously aged other spirits. It ages for however long it ages, and then gets mixed again with older rum.
That mixture goes into vats that previously held Oloroso sherry. The sherry-aged rum tastes a little smoother than the whiskey-aged. It should; it’s older. Even the newer stuff is older, and it’s been blended twice with older rum at this point, so everything in the sherry-barrel bottle is older than the whiskey-barrel bottle. The sherry-barrel bottle tastes of dried fruit and almonds.
Then, of course, it’s mixed again with older rum before aging in barrels previously used for Pedro Ximenez wine, from Spain. Here, it picks up notes of fig and coffee. Of the three, this bottle was by far the smoothest and roundest.
From here, the rum is blended once again with older rum, but then the solera process is largely over, at least for the 23. (Zacapa XO is altered once more, this time aged in cognac barrels.) After this step, the rum goes into the warehouse as is, for another certain amount of time before being diluted to 40% alcohol by volume and then bottled.
I might, as a novelty, sometimes drink the proto-Zacapa aged in whiskey barrels, perhaps if I wanted a rum old fashioned that reminded me somewhat of bourbon. But I wouldn’t sip it on its own. I would seldom ever turn to the sherry-aged proto-Z; drinking it is an interesting intellectual exercise, but not wholly pleasant on its own merits. The Jimenez is nicer because it tastes more like a well-aged rum; I could see myself enjoying this as a standalone bottling, although not in place of the Zacapa 23.
All this leads me to wonder whether the rum category has enough consumer interest to merit special bottlings of the sort that the Scotch market has grown so fond of. These days, you can buy Scotches aged in barrels made from wood scavenged from the remains of Noah’s ark. I could imagine Zacapa possibly releasing some of these, in limited-edition bottlings.
Disclaimer: As noted in the very first paragraph, this kit was sent to me for promotional purposes. I will add, though, that I enjoy Zacapa very much, have previously bought bottles of it with my own goddamn money, and am very likely to spend my own wages, such as they are, on it again.