Friday, April 17, 2020

Rum Review: Ron Zacapa 23 Solera Gran Reserva

COVID-19 has forced so many of us into a sequestered existence.  For me, it's a challenge because I'm like a dog: I run in packs.  Usually a couple mutts come over on Friday nights, and we have a few laughs watching bad hair minstrels like Mötley Crüe, Dio and Ratt on YouTube, accompanied by old college era hounds: Teacher's and Chivas.  As the bottle levels recede, tiffs and even arguments erupt over who is the better axeman: Eddie Van Halen or Randy Rhoads?  That's Friday night.

Saturday night, I and my Significant Other might entertain her friends.  I do my best to make a witty observation regarding the latest Trump inspired cover art of the New Yorker, and on cue, lament the passing of Maria Callas in a hushed voice, quivering with sadness, over some Russian River Valley chardonnay.  "Damn that Onassis!  If only he had married her and not Jackie," my guest opines as she reaches for another Carr's cracker adorned with a dash of cream cheese, smoked salmon and a caper, while her billowing tiger-print blouse sleeve stealthily avoids grazing the adjacent hummus bowl.

Well, COVID-19 has dispersed my various dog packs, and now I am alone with my thoughts, fears, introspection and bouts of melancholia, as I watch Whitesnake's David Coverdale wail in my basement, and simultaneously even miss those Saturday night cultural jousts with my neighbourhood Bengal tiger.

This semi-monastic lifestyle of mine has caused me to search my soul for meaning.  And after much thought, I have concluded I am intolerant and somewhat bigoted in my views on whisky.  Deep down, I am just convinced that Scotland produces the finest.  If we leave the whisky category entirely and venture into say rum, well, I am really challenged in my views.  So, in an effort to be more inclusive and tolerant, I am going to expand my pack by doing a number of rum reviews.

Ron Zacapa Centenario Sistema 23 Solera Gran Reserva
I have readers on here and viewers on my YouTube channel that occasionally suggest I review Ron Zacapa rums.  In particular, this 'Sistema 23 Solera Gran Reserva.'  I don't know much about rum other than those made from sugar cane tend to be a helluva lot better than their counterparts whose origins are molasses.  This particular Ron Zacapa rum has some promise before I open the bottle because it starts as a first pressing of sugar cane from southern Guatemala.  This sugar cane juice is then fermented using a proprietary strain of pineapple yeast, and distilled in copper-lined column stills.  After distillation, the rum is aged using a 'Solera' process.  Here is where my confusion begins.

Guatemala was a Spanish colony at one time and though it is now independent, the motherland left its imprint in the culture and life of the country that continues to this day.  This Ron Zacapa was launched in 1976 and by the 1990's the label started to use the word 'Solera' on it.  This term refers to a process of aging and blending rum.  Originally, it was a process used by Spaniards with respect to aging and blending of sherry.

Solera System Explained
Imagine rows of barrels or casks, stacked five or so levels high, and rum drained from the ground level casks is the oldest, and the empty space in the cask is replaced with rum from the cask of the row above.  Meanwhile, as the oldest rums are bottled by draining the floor level barrels, more young rum, fresh out of the still is poured into top row barrels.  This is the purported Solera system, but from what I have read, the term is used very loosely meaning the actual aging and blending of rum may not be adhering to Spanish tradition.  I read one rum expert said he had never seen a Solera system employed at any distillery as described above.  So, who knows what the truth is.  Anyhow, you and I now have some understanding of what Ron Zacapa wants you to believe.  I suspect the use of the Solera term is more marketing than fact.

Wood Management
Ex-bourbon, ex-sherry and ex- Pedro Ximenez casks to varying degrees are used.

Age Statement
None.  But, a visit to the website and a careful read of the label indicates that the rums making up this product range in age from 6-23 years.  A casual consumer might think this is a 23 year old rum.  That would be a mistake.  The use of the number 23 is a little deceptive I think (I am sure this statement will continue to prevent me from ever getting a brand ambassador job!).



Not bad.  More expensive than standard rums for sure, but not outrageous.

Nose (undiluted)
Vanilla, cocoa, dark wood, varnish, dried orange peel.

Palate (undiluted)
Rounded, sweet entry of cocoa, old burnished wood, butterscotch, melted caramel, bruised tangerines, and Christmas cake.

Finish (undiluted)
Slight zing of brown sugar, warm sugared California raisins, deep white oak and cinnamon lingers.

General Impressions
This rum has complexity.  A lot of flavours are competing for dominance, ranging from vanilla, cocoa to some French roast black coffee.  It's a good rum for sure and I think, in general, people will like it.  For example, I am thinking newbies to sipping rum.  Why?  Because its sweet.  Sweetness is present all the way through the drinking experience with little variation.  While the sweetness is what will make this rum very popular with undoubtedly the younger drinker, I do think this attribute does detract also from another wise fine rum.

I would like this rum to have been a bit dryer.  Dry and spicy it is not.  It is sweet, rounded with notes of caramel, molasses and fruit cake.  A well made rum for sure, but not one that I could have more than two drams at a sitting as its a bit too sweet for me.  I am sure my wife's friends would enjoy this as a nice, fireside digestif following dinner to accompany and enhance discussion of that scoundrel, alpha dog, Aristotle Onassis.

Ruff! Ruff!

Jason Debly

P.S.  Now that you suffered through that long review, here is the snappy 8 minute video review.  Just doing my part to encourage literacy in a world with the attention span of a bumble bee:  


  1. G'day Jas,
    Still working so I get to escape the house for 8 to 9 hours a day.Count myself as being very lucky. Funny you should talk about 'Solera'... Last night at 9pm I Started my first Solera bottle... Using a Nikka 500ml bottle. Started with Aberlour 10, Balvenie 14 Carrib cask, Glendronach 12 and a drop of Laph 10. Just ok so far heh heh.... Got a Makers Cask strth... don't know whether to put some in or not...
    Back to the Rum... Smooth really isn't in my vocab....As we both know I like the bolder styles. To date I've only had a couple of rums... Bundaberg (Aussie Rum from Queensland) A 12 yr and a distillers version (Port barrels) Both Lovely. I intend to branch out a bit further... There are styles like Port/sherry combo... Cognac styles... They do have a Solera Version... At $180 ? ...I'll pass thank-you.
    Glad You're doing some different ones mate. Looking forward to the next....
    AL (from OZ)

    1. Great to hear that you are still working!

      My next review is going to be Goslings Family Reserve. Haven't had it in years, but when I did last, I really liked it. Sure is nice to branch out a bit. Stay safe and good to hear from you!

  2. What a great review, Jason. You mentioned that you have a bias in favor of Scottishwhiskeys. As your wife, I am not entirely objective either; I have a bias in favor of your witty and insightdul reviews. Your way with words is lyrical, almost poetic :)

    1. Thank you my love for putting up with all my eccentricities, like this blog, my YouTube channel . . .