The quiet Americans
Central and South American rums
Rum is not just about the Caribbean, says rum ambassador Ian Burrell – Central and South America have quality and heritage that easily rival the famous rum producing countries to the north
What do these popular rums have in common and which rum is the odd one out? Ron Zacapa; Flor De Caña; Santa Teresa; Pampero; Abuelo; Diplomatico; El Dorado?
Well, the answer to the first question is that they are all from Central or South America, and not the Caribbean islands more commonly associated with rum production.
Over the last 12 years, we’ve seen an influx of premium rums hitting UK shelves in style bars and specialist liquor stores. These have been predominantly from one of the geopolitically recognised Caribbean countries like Jamaica, Cuba or Puerto Rico.
But with the growth of the premium sector within the gold rum market, it was inevitable that rums from other regions would slowly but surely make their way onto our palates to tease us with their tropical delights. Rum such as Ron Zacapa from Guatemala, Flor De Caña from Nicaragua and Diplomatico from Venezuela have recently become favorites with bartenders across the UK.
STYLES AND SUBSTANCE
But are there stylistic differences between them and their Caribbean counterparts?
Historians tell us that the rum and cane-spirit industries in South and Central America are just as intriguing as those in the West Indian islands. During the 17th and 18th centuries, there were in excess of 200 small rum distilleries operating in Guyana alone, each attached to the existing sugar plantations, from which a special blend of rum was produced.
In Nicaragua, Flor de Caña has been distilling rum since 1890, while Pampero, created in 1938, was the first rum to be accredited aged or ‘añejo’, by the Venezuelan government. Even Panamanian rums like Ron Abuelo and Ron Cortez have three generations of family distillers behind them, dating back to 1936.
All these rums, and others from the same region, can not only boast a rich heritage, but they also claim to have their own individual piece of magic that creates a rum style that’s unique to their country.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, there were
more than 200 distilleries in Guyana alone
Take the rums from Los Valientes, in Mexico, for example. This unique rum is a blend of double-distilled sugarcane juice from pot stills and molasses rum from column stills. The rums, which are 70% agricole and 30% traditional, are then aged in American white antique barrels, in the humid tropical Caribbean climate of the eastern Mexican coast.
Bordering the south of Mexico is Guatemala, where rum is generally distilled from sugar cane syrup as opposed to molasses or fresh cane juice. Rums like Ron Zacapa and Ron Botran are said to be ‘aged in the clouds’, for they are left to mature in warehouses over 7,500ft above sea level. The combination of rum from sugar syrup or ‘cane honey’ coupled with a cooler aging climate, results in a light, but sweet style of rum that is much liked by an ever-growing local and export market.
Guatemalan rums are normally also ‘solera’ aged. This is a process used for aging liquids such as wine, vinegar, brandy and rums by fractional blending in such a way that the finished product is a mixture of ages, with the average age gradually increasing as the process continues over many years.
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
Next door in Nicaragua, rums such as Flor de Caña also take advantage of their high-altitude ‘slow ageing’, producing a light range of rums which have claimed over 100 awards worldwide since 2000.
In contrast to the light bodied, dryer finish of the Nicaraguan style, are Guyanan rums such as El Dorado – and here we get the answer to the second part of my original question. For although Guyana lies within the boundaries of South America, it is regarded politically and culturally as part of the Caribbean, as is Suriname which it borders. Coincidentally, it is the only rum region within Central and South America that can boast its own style of rum, Demerara.
Demerara rum has long been considered one of the four general styles of rum from the New World – the others being Jamaican, Spanish and French. The difference is determined by a combination of the way the rums are produced and their place of birth.
To see the only working wooden pot still being
fired up sent goose pimples down my back
On visiting Guyana recently, I paid a visit to the last and only surviving distillery in what was once known as British Guyana: The Diamond Distillery. The old plantation looked like a picture painted by Father Time himself, as historical machinery and distillation methods had been carefully preserved to continue the tried and tested method of producing Demerara rum.
To see the only working wooden pot still in the world being fired up and oozing an alcoholic mist from its aged walls sent goose pimples down my back. It was as if the rum gods were helping themselves to a drink as steam from the 200-year-old still floated gently up towards the heavens.
Fortunately, only a small percentage of alcohol is lost through leakage. Most rises through the main part of the kettle, making contact with the wooden sides as it then ascends towards the copper swan neck to be distilled a second time in another wooden pot.
Carl Kanto, master distiller of El Dorado Rum, told me that the wooden pot still ‘imparts a unique smoky flavour, which can only be achieved by this traditional method. It is unique to rums from Demerara’. I quickly told him that I didn’t believe him and that I had to try half a dozen samples to confirm his opinion. After the eighth sampling of the raw rum, I was finally convinced.
LABOUR OF LOVE
The rums produced from the wooden pot still are not the only ones that were on show.
With eight other stills in operation, including a wooden column still, Guyanese rum can range from very light, with subtle citrus fruity notes, to very heavy and robust with notes of cocoa, dark fruits and vanilla. This means that almost any style of rum can be created for bottling or blending if need be.
Listening to the South American master distiller talk passionately about his rum made me think about how much in common the old Diamond Distillery had with most of the other distilleries around the Caribbean. The rums being produced are made with similar ethics, passion, methods and, of course, prejudices (El Dorado Rum is the best in the world – according to the Guyanese).
The Caribbean and its South and Central American neighbours are producing high-quality spirits that at best rival their whisky and cognac counterparts, thus promoting countries such as Guatemala, Venezuela and Nicaragua, among others, as internationally respectable rum-producing countries.
NEW WORLD RUMS
Even Mexico, known for its tequila and mezcal, is producing high quality rums that would grace any after-dinner drinks menu at a top restaurant or hotel. Both regions have more than just its
cane spirit in common, with similarities in food, music, dancing, religion and an outlook on life that can really only be described as ‘laid back’!
Even Mexico, known for its tequila and mezcal, is
producing rums that would grace any after-dinner table
So the ‘epicentre of the rum world’, a title that has always been reserved for the Caribbean, might have to be stretched in the future to incorporate its Latin neighbours. Or maybe we could just call them all ‘New World rums’.
By the way… If any of you eagle-eyed rum lovers answered the first question with ‘Ron Zacapa!’ you would also had been right, as it was the only rum mentioned that is made from sugar cane syrup, as opposed to molasses…but that’s another story.
Round the Regions
These tend to big, aromatic and full of robust flavours. Generally distilled in alembic pots, they evolved to become lighter as the art of blending with column-distilled rums became more commercially viable.
Spanish rums evolved as the European motherland challenged their Caribbean distillers to produce lighter and less harsh rums than those that were currently available in countries such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Don Facundo Bacardi’s filtering of rum through charcoal to remove impurities proved revolutionary. By applying the methods of winemaking, such as ageing in oak barrels and blending, he came up with a light rum that was unlike any distilled spirit the world had previously tasted.
Championed by the French governed islands, rhum agricole, distilled from fresh cane juice, was the spirit of choice for those countries that didn’t find it economically viable to extract sugar from their cane juice to sell, especially as France was producing cheaper sugar from beet. This meant that most of the sugarcane juice would be fermented and distilled into this typically floral and herbaceous style of rhum.
Traditionally distilled in pots, the rums from the banks of the great Demerara river are heavy, rich and great for blending with lighter rums from other regions. Many of the dark navy rums were blended with the Guyanese spirit especially distilled from their famed wooden pot stills, which are still being used today.
So how do they taste?
Here in the UK there are several liquor stores and online shops offering a wonderful array of South and Central American rums. Offerings like Ron Zacapa, El Dorado 15, Flor De Caña 12, Santa Teresa 1796 and Pampero Aniversario are now becoming synonymous with quality rum. But try to challenge yourself with these treasures....
Ron Abuelo 7YO (Panama)
Coconut oil, buttery toasted pecans and walnuts, chocolate and delicate brown spice aromas. A fruity-yet-dry body of lush toffee, fig, banana custard, and subtle sweet tobacco.
Ron Zacapa 23 (Guatemala)
Deep mahogany colour. Aromas of peppery spice and dried fruit. A round, supple entry leads to slightly sweet medium-full body. Finishes with a sweet, buttery fade.
Santa Teresa 1796 (Venezuela)
Opens with toffee, brown sugar and vanilla aromas; dark chocolate and maple syrupy on the palate, with a dense richness; finishes with great length and a touch of pepper.
Centenario Fundacion 20 Años (Costa Rica)
Delicately sweet up front with slightly oaken caramel, vanilla, baked banana and butterscotch.
A hint of black liquorice at the end reveals a truly complex rum.
XM 12YO Millenium (Guyana)
A subtle blend of burnt orange peel and brown sugar with oak, vanilla, candied orange peel, chocolate liqueur, mocha and raisins. A very long finish with a hint of sherry.
Cartavio 1929 (Peru)
Walnut, pecan, and mild spices in the kind of balance that make for a fine rum. The finish is short and sweet, but with enough dryness to entice another sip.
Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva (Venezuela) This rum warms your palate with notes of toffee, honey, orange and hints of wood. The finish is long and sweet with a banoffee-pie fade.
Pampero Aniversario (Venezuela)
Toffee, baked apple, walnut and tobacco aromas. Rich entry leads to treacle, spice and dried fruit flavours. Finishes with charred oak and spice.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine - July / August 2009