Spirits: Virgin Territory

The nauseatingly sweet scent of crushed sugarcane lingers in the air on a sweltering morning at Industrias Licoreras’ Escuintla processing plant. Wheels, hoses, presses, and blades move, wash, mash, and chop the cane into what the beverage company’s master blender, Lorena Vásquez, passionately refers to as miel virgin, or virgin honey. The caramel-colored juice is the elemental ingredient of her Zacapa Centenario rum, and its extraction in this province on Guatemala’s Pacific slope marks the beginning of a 24-year journey that will span the nation.

Vásquez, 50, is a five-foot-tall firecracker of a woman who immigrated to Guatemala from her native Nicaragua more than two decades ago. Her confident air no doubt has contributed to her success in this country where machismo reigns, but her delicate touch and sensitive nose are the attributes her employer values most.

Industrias Licoreras, Guatemala’s largest alcoholic beverage company, produces rum, vodka, and the cane-based spirit known locally as aguardiente (and elsewhere as cachaça or guaro). Its premium product, and the focus of much of Vásquez’s attention, is Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 Años, a broodingly dark, exceptionally smooth spirit that, as the number in its name suggests, is ancient by rum standards.

Zacapa Centenario ages for 23 years at Industrias Licoreras’ storage facility in Quetzaltenango, a bustling city situated in the mountains some 80 miles northwest of—and 7,500 feet above—the Escuintla processing plant. The rum owes much of its flavor, and certainly its color, to these years in bourbon and sherry barrels, but Vásquez’s prized miel virgin also weighs heavily on the final taste. Molasses, the basis for most rums, is a by-product of cane juice after it has been boiled to extract sugar. Although sweet, molasses has considerably lower sugar levels than does the pure juice, a disparity that affects the finished product. “Rums made from molasses have different aromas and flavors than those made from miel virgin,” says Vásquez. “Most of their flavors come from the barrels they are aged in and the sugar and other ingredients added to them.”

Vásquez and her staff add nothing but water during the production of Zacapa Centenario. They ferment and distill the liquor at Industrias Licoreras’ factory in Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa, about 15 miles west of the processing plant, and the company then transports the sweet, floral-scented spirit to Quetzaltenango. There, in the cool mountain climate, the rum matures at a leisurely pace before heading east to Zacapa, the spirit’s namesake city near the Honduran border. Vásquez blends the rum in Zacapa and then lays it down for one final year of barrel aging before it reaches the bottle.
 
The traditional design of Zacapa Centenario’s bottles, which are enveloped in palm leaves woven by indigenous Chorti peoples, may help explain the rum’s relative obscurity in the United States. Although unique, the packaging is cumbersome, and it conceals the rum’s deep mahogany hue. To better expose its product’s virtues—and help grow its business abroad—Industrias Licoreras is introducing a new bottle design that features a more subdued palm-leaf wrapper around clear glass.
 
To anybody who has tasted Zacapa Centenario, its packaging is irrelevant. The rum releases an intense blend of oak, vanilla, and almond aromas, and it bursts on the palate with flavors of caramel, chocolate, nutmeg, and hazelnut. Zacapa is one of the few rums for which a comparison to a fine cognac is appropriate, but its maker prefers a more personal, and perhaps more passionate, parallel: “It is like an encounter with an old friend,” says Vásquez, “a very special individual.” For those who appreciate rum, it is good to have a friend in Guatemala.

Zacapa Centenario’s mahogany hue—the result of 23 years in bourbon and sherry barrels—is now more apparent thanks to a new bottle design.

Ron Zacapa Centenario, through Dana Wine & Spirits Importers 877.284.0303
www.danaimporters.com

Photo by James Lipman
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