Monday 10 June 2013

Zacapa XO - an indulgent masterpiece

Before getting to the liquid itself it's important, I think, to understand the solera system that is sometimes used in rum production.

The solera system is something created by our Latin cousins in Spain and Portugal to create a consistent product when making sherry.
You take a series of barrels in age order and each year move some to the next barrel and at the end of it bottle some from the oldest barrel, the proportion being at the blenders discretion.
In this way you get a consistent flavour profile and each barrel contains a little bit of the oldest, that proportion will decrease over time until you're left with a booze version of homeopathy (but more delicious).

The wiki article explains this a lot better than me so have a look.

Zacapa tweak this by using a variety of barrels and adding in a mixing step between barrels. The liquid is decanted into a mixing barrel and the blenders add in a secret amount of super secret reserve rum to balance the flavours.
In order the barrels used are:
  • First fill bourbon
  • The same bourbon barrels but heavily charred
  • Sherry butts
  • Pedro Ximenez sherry
  • Cognac
Once it's done in the cognac barrels it's time for bottling while some is held back for the mixing. This slightly ropey diagram I've knocked up might help.

The time in first fill is between one and three years and the cognac is for two years so at the end of it you have a bottle that contains a blend of rums from six to twenty-three years old.

Zacapa make their rums from what they call sugar cane honey, unlike most other rums which use molasses (excluding agricole rums and cachaca which start from fermenting the sugar cane juice).

Once you have your sugar cane you extract the juices from it crushing/cutting it up, this is then boiled repeatedly to drive off the water and extract the sugar crystals.

This is usually done 3 times, with each boil leaving a thicker and darker residue behind, the 1st boil gives us what Spaniards call miel de caƱa or what we'd call golden syrup in the UK, the second boil gives second molasses and the third gives blackstrap molasses.

This rum is aged at altitude (7,558 feet above sea-level) in the Guatemalan highlands which allows a slower maturation thanks to the constant temperature.
High temperatures and humidity speed up the aging process with most Carribean rums maturing 3-4 times faster than a Scotch whisky.

OK, science bit over with and on to the liquid itself
  • Atmosphere - awed silence
  • This is beautifully presented in a cognac style bottle, in a nod to the finishing in French oak
  • Around £100 a bottle
  • 40% ABV
  • No adding of caramel or chill-filtering
  • Very long, full legs in the glass
  • Nose - rich, smooth and sweet initially with a very light toffee note (or tablet for UK drinkers), oak and lightly caramelised orange slices
  • Flavour - Sweet but not cloyingly so, vanilla, chocolate orange, raisins and some spice with an overarching oakiness in the background. Slips down incredibly smoothly. A full, creamy mouthfeel.
  • Finish - A lingering sweetness with hints of spice on the palate and a little bit of dryness from the time in French oak
This really is an exceptionally good rum, well-balanced, rich and full but with more character and depth than most rums manage, it's undeniably a sweet rum but you never get that cloying sweetness that some others have.

Now, having said all that I'm left with two questions:
  • would I pay the thick end of £100 for a bottle of this?
  • Is it twice as good as the 23?
To be honest I don't know the answer to those questions, and that's the problem with the super-premium end of the market for me. For the price of this you could pick up a bottle of the 23 and an El Dorado 15, which are both superb rums.

What I would say though is that if you see this in a bar, and you're feeling a bit flush, maybe your horse came in at the races or you got a promotion, hell you just feel like treating yourself then order a good-sized measure, sit back, relax and the world will seem a better place.

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