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Best Rum in the World
By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor

New York, NY - It has been said that Rum's origin may be derived from rum bullion meaning "a great tumult or uproar," and Lord Byron once was noted that "There?s nought no doubt so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion."

Rum distinguishes itself from other spirits by the plant from which it is made, sugar cane, a member of the grass family, which is grown in tropical climates around the world. Some distilleries use the sweet fresh juice while most others use the by-product of the sugar refining process known as molasses as the raw material for the fermentation process. Molasses is the sweet residue that remains after the sugar cane juice is boiled and the crystallized sugar is extracted. The addition of yeast to the sugar cane juice or molasses converts the available sucrose to alcohol in a process called fermentation and this takes about a day for light rums to several weeks for full bodied varieties. To concentrate the alcohol in the sugar cane wine, the wine is boiled while the vapor is collected and condensed. Are you following all this?

All rums come out of the still as clear, colorless spirits. Barrel aging and the use of added caramel determines their final color. Most light rums are similar to vodka, with minimal flavor and aromas, and are used as mixers, blending well with fruit flavors. Fuller bodied rums are often compared to cognac and scotch and are normally sipped. Do we detect of bit James Bond repartee here when you ask for yours or tell your partner how to drink and enjoy fully?

An age statement on a rum means that is the average age of the rum in the blend. Today, most consumers prefer the more elegant taste of an aged spirit, one that has been languishing, as it were, in used oak barrels that once held whiskey or bourbon. Aging can last from one to thirty years or more, making rum one of the most varied of the distilled spirits. During the aging process the rum acquires a golden color that changes to a dark brown with time. Most rum is aged and then blended before it is bottled, mostly at 80 proof, meaning that a designated driver is probably part and parcel of the evening's menu. Once the spirit is bottled it no longer ages so 23 year old rum that you keep for 23 more years is still 23 year old rum. Nice to know but the reality is who is going to do that? Right, we agree.

Truth in journalism - I am a wine person; conducting tastings and teaching and have been writing about things vinous for over 45 years. I am adding a spirits class this fall and my vodka and tequila stories were ranked in the top five by Google. My wine club had a very successful scotch tasting recently and we are planning to add a bourbon event in the next few months. So why the inferiority complex about those 80 proof offerings? I decided I needed to visit and taste more alcoholic beverages and so began my Guatemalan adventure. There is always room to learn more.

A year and a half ago I was invited to sample Ron Botran and Ron Zacapa in New York City with the owners of Dana Importers, Gardner Blandon and Lazaro Carbajal. We talked about my visiting their distillery and, earlier this year, I boarded my Continental flight for the 4 ? hour non-stop flight to Guatemala City. In two days I visited the distillery, sugar mill, aging facilities, bottling plant and tasting room. I have visited rum facilities in Puerto Rico and Jamaica, where most of the aforementioned were housed together or close to one another. Not here, for reasons that shall be explained shortly. Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala is the name given to the unification of several companies that were begun in 1914 by five Botran brothers from Spain. Today Robert Garcia Botran, a grandson, is President of the private company that not only produces all the products (besides rum there is vodka, whiskey, aguardente and liqueurs) but does marketing, distribution and sales. Italy, by the way, is the number one market for their products, with the US number two. That might explain all those good looking people one is likely to see in Rome, Venice, Florence and Sicily.

Rones (Rums) de Guatemala uses only virgin honey as raw material rather than molasses which is used to produce rums in most other countries. Virgin honey is 85% solid and 74% sugar whereas Molasses is 85% solid but only 33% sugar. The Guatemalan volcanic soil (there were three active volcanoes I could see from my hotel room) has an impact on the high productivity of the soil in which the sugar cane is grown. The sugar cane is watered with vinasse (stillage), a derivate obtained in distillation that has several nutrients that return to the soils. I was told there were also 150,000 rubber trees on the company's 1,000 acres. Next year, as just a point of information, the distillery will be moving to the Sugar Mill to make a more integrated facility.

April through November is the "maintenance season" with 144 inches of rain while December through March is the harvest season with almost no rain. For fermentation of this virgin honey a vine made of yeast extracted from pineapple is used and this slow fermentation takes five days rather than the two days used elsewhere. Once the virgin honey is fermented and the distillation in continuous column stills has taken place, this product known as "raw rum" is taken from sea level to the aging facility located in the mountains at an altitude of 7,650 feet. Nothing is wasted as the methane gas from the wash is used to produce steam and enough electricity to run the plant as well as irrigate and fertilize the soil. The Carbon Dioxide (CO2) produced is captured and sold for use in beer and carbonated drinks throughout Central America.

By Guatemalan law the grain neutral alcohol must be aged one year in white American oak casks formerly used for bourbon. Three and a half hours from Guatemala City the aging facilities have an average temperature of 60 degrees which, with the high altitude, favors a slow maturation process. The one year old rum from the distillery is brought to the aging facility and evaluated by the master blender before being placed in the bourbon casks. There are over 100,000 barrels in the aging facility, the rum spends 3 to 5 years there, are blended and then put back in bourbon casks for another 3 to 5 years. Then it is put into barrels of American white oak where sherry and Pedro Jimenez wine have been matured for two more years (for Zacapa only). Finally they go into 20,000 liter American white oak casks for one year and then are bottled. This maturation system, known as "solera," is repeated until the rum is between 23 and 25 years old. That means that it all started before many who will be deriving pleasure from it were even born.

There is one more characteristic that makes the rum unique. The rum is bottled only after it has been blended (known as the marriage of the blends or assembly), which results in balance and the integration of aromas and flavors because more than a year passes from the time the mixtures of the rums are created until the rum is bottled.

The bottling plant, warehouse, export center and offices of the Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala are located on the outskirts of Guatemala City. There are four different lines in operation with one used for popular priced items for the domestic market; one for premium products; one for export and one for specially shaped bottles. They have the capacity to store one million liters in the warehouse and they can produce at least 100,000 cases, excluding the domestic market. Luis Fernando Oliva, the general manager of the bottling plant told me; "We make the best rum in the world because the aged alcohol comes from the highlands where the altitude gives it wonderful attributes." Roberto Garcia Botran the President, added, "We produce the best rum because we produce it with our heart. It is the people that make a company." Ana Lorena Vasquez Ampie has been the master blender for 21 years and she said; "We are constantly trying out new products and innovations without sacrificing our high standards."

The Botran line consists of: White, Gold, Anejo (8 year old), Anejo (12 year old) and Solera (average age is 18). The 12 year old has a dark amber hue with a sweet apricot and spicy nose. This off-dry, medium-bodied rum has dried fruit, cedar and molasses flavors and finishes with a smoky, wood note. The Ron Botran Solera is pale cooper with a cedar, anise and berry jam nose. Medium to full-bodied citrus and caramelized fruit flavors.

For more trip information:

  • Useful Websites:
    www.ministryofrum.com
    www.ronesdeguatemala.com
    www.ronzacapacentenario.com
    www.danaimporters.com
    www.infiniumspirits.com
    www.montecristorum.com
  • "If God had created a rum it would be Zacapa Centenario 23 year old." That is a quote attributable to yours truly. The Beverage Testing Institute of Chicago tasted super premium rums from around the world and gave this 23-year old 98 points out of a possible 100. The International Rum Festival gave it four consecutive Gold medals and, in 2002, it was awarded the newly designated Platinum Medal. The age statement represents the average age of the rums in the blend. Dark brown-amber color with well rounded oak aromas and flavors of nutmeg, toasted hazelnut and a hint of caramel. Hand wrapped in royal palm leaves. There is also a Special Edition Straight from the Cask that is 90 proof (the other rums are all 80 proof). We should definitely not forget the junior edition- Ron Zacapa Centenario 15 year old.

    There are two other rums imported into the US from the distillery that are not Botran or Zacapa. There is Montecristo white and 12-year imported by Sidebar Imports and Zaya 12-year imported by Infinium Spirits (division of Wilson Daniels). Thanks to Ed Hamilton the Ministry of Rum for much of the following technical information.


    Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to www.tastersguildny.com or email him at Ron@tastersguildny.com.