Thursday, 28 January 2016

Review 74 - Zacapa Centenario Sistema Solera 23

Photo copyright © H.Kristoffersen
Not that bad, not that great. But a common beginning of many rum journeys.

When you first enter the rum world, you quickly discover that there is a couple of products that you just can’t escape.

Rums that you can’t avoid trying out at some point. Rums that everybody knows. Rums which can be bought everywhere – even at the smallest discount grocery store in the smallest outskirt of any town.

Rums that we have all looked at and thought: ”This is it. The paramount of sipping. I have now ascended to the very top of the rum world”.
The first time I bought a rum which I thought to be among the most premium of all, it was the Zacapa 23.

I was trawling the endless shelves at a giant super market near the border between German and Denmark, looking for rums to try out. 

At that point my collection consisted of just an El Dorado 15 (which I bought because I had tried the 12 year old and found it great) and an Opthimus 15 Solera (which I bought on recommendation from a store clerk).

That was it. I was ready to expand, to set sails on the sea of rum.

So I looked at the sipping rums and picked 3 bottles, which were also the 3 most expensive bottles of rum in the store.

The Pyrat XO, the Plantation Barbados XO 20th Aniversary, and The Best Rum in The World, the Ron Zacapa 23 Solera.

It apparently won awards for being The Best Rum in The World for 4 consecutive years, and then they had to ban it to prevent it from keep winning. How insane is that?! That practically translates into the Usain Bolt of the rum world (except he hasn't been banned yet). How could I leave the store without it?

Unfortunately, I managede to finish that bottle before deciding to start this little online log of mine.

Since this is probably the most popular sipping rum in the world, and one of the only rums that almost every single rum drinker has tried, I kind of realised that I needed a review of it on my site.
And then a re-purchase materialised almost out of nowhere.

So, we have established that this was once the best rum in the world. But what are we actually dealing with?

Born at the Industrias Licoreras Distillery, it is a 6 to 23 year old solera blend, made from virgin sugar cane honey and not the usual molasses or sugar cane juice. The honey is fermented with a strain of yeast extracted from pineapples.

Picking special strains of yeast isn't that special. Many spirits companies does that. I read somewhere that it has a huge impact on the flavour of the end product, but so far my fermentation skills are practically non excisting, so I would be able to tell you why the pineapple strain would be a wise choise.

The "honey" isn't really honey. It is just cane juice which has been heated to remove water through reduction. So no hocus-pocus or magic secret ingredients here. Normal cane juice will spoil pretty fast, but by reducing it to a syrup it can be used for up to a year, which make the continuous rum production less dependant on seasons.

The wash is then distilled on a single copper column, before being matured in a solera system composed of ex-bourbon, ex-sherry and ex-Pedro Ximenez barrels in a warehouse 2300 meters above sea level. Besides creating a colder environment for storing, I have no idea what the altitude could do for the maturation process.

Note #1: There has been several physical representations of this rum over the years. From the trade mark petate holster, to the more recent version which only sported a petate loin cloth. The latest version, which I have on my desk today, is a slightly face lifted version of the previous one.

Note #2: No. It is not and has never been a 23 year old rum. Never.

Note #3: It’s streak of being untouchable happened between 1998 and 2001. That is 15-18 years ago. Why is that still a selling point?

Note #4: Like your rums pure? Ditch this one. lists this at 20 grams of sugar (wikipedia claims that it is mainly residual fructose and glucose), 0,2 grams of glycerol and 2,45 milligrams of vanillin pr. litre. Somebody has certainly been creative.
The current version comes in a sturdy, black card board tube. It has a picture of a petate band  around the waist. And above that, the name is written in sparkling gold along with the ”Sistema Solera 23” and the country of origin.

On the back of the tube is the longest marketing essay I have ever seen. It is practically a word the word copy of every single part of the sales pitch from their webpage.

Inside we find the bottle. A tall thing with wide shoulders, and the trade mark petate band around the ankles. During the recent facelift I guess the band has dropped from the waist to the ankles.

On the front the details from the front of the tube is repeated and on the back we have a lot more of the marketing departments inventions.

The liquid is dark mahogany of colour with a dark red hue.

When poured and twirled, it leaves a thick layer on the inside of the glass, which creates huge, fat legs.

Huge sweet notes right out of the glass, made up by treacle covered with caramel and syrup.

Underneath there is quite a lot more going on. Unfortunately it is heavily muted by the massive sweetness.

But if you concentrate enough, you can make out some soft oaks and vanilla, accompanied by a bit of leather and smoke.

On the very last mandate there is also a little fruit jams – perhaps pineapple and raspberries.

Not really that exciting and actually quite bland.

Not very surprisingly, it is mostly just sweet – but not only that.

It starts out with a lot of syrupy sweetness.

But there is also a very massive drying effect present, which cleans my mouth so fast, that I was double checking to see if I was having red wine all the sudden.

After a couple of sips I managed to counter much of the drying by just taking larger sips. Gulps even.

Then other flavours started to show up.

Initially I got some very nice juice raspberry and black currant jams.

After that some weirdly soft oaks laced with a thick carpet of vanilla.

A little bit of suede and smoke made up the back end.

Very short and anonymous.

Nothing new, nothing exciting, not much fun.

A quick spike of warmth, and the just a quick fade before it is gone. The only thing left is a pleasantly clean mouth and a slight tingling on the back of the tongue.

I find it very hard to not call it easy going. It is almost too drinkable and too mellow.

Mere seconds after the exit, I almost forgot I was having fun rum.

Rating and final thoughts
Every rum journey has its beginning.

Often that beginning is the RZ23, and if not, the journey often goes to the RZ23 very shortly after a very similar beginning.

I recognise that an unfathomably large group of people worship the RZ23, but it is really not that exciting when comparing it to many of the other rums available out there.

The rum market was most certainly a lot different 18 years ago, but it still surprises me how the RZ23 was able to win the worlds best anything. And if this was indeed the best available rum in the world back in 98, I sure as hell am happy that the rum world has evolved since then.

I have previously expressed my lack of awe by these contests, and perhaps the RZ23 is the absolute pinnacle of my claim: Awards are worthless in the grand scheme of things (especially 15-18 years down the line). So be smart about your purchasing and don’t make decisions on awards alone.

I believe this product harvest huge sales and acknowledgement on shear availability and the fact that everybody has tried it. And not so much on the actual quality of the product.

I have asked many rum vendors about it, and they all say the same thing: Basically, I only have it on my shelf because people ask for it, and I can sell a lot of bottles of it.

And I understand why. Being a Hollywood super star in the rum world, and priced at around €45, it is prone to end up in the bag of many consumers.

It even seems a very safe bet if you want to try out sipping rum. And it really is a safe bet. If you have no experience with spirits in general and want to try out rum, by all means, start with this one.  Very easy to drink and it doesn’t do any kind of harm. The ”easy skill level” in the computer game of rum.

Oh well, back to the drink.

Boring on the nose. Quite decent on the palate. And although it is very clean, it is also quite invisible on the exit.
Personally I feel that the Rum Nation Peruano 8 is a much better ambassador for these types of rums. 
But I guess it is all about personal preference.

In the huge box filled with very sweet rums, the RZ23 might be as good as any of its direct competitors.

Let me be frank and say that the RZ23 isn’t bad. I have had way worse rums and it might even rank among one of the better sweetened ones in my book. I do feel that it could have benefitted from a little more oomph.

Luckily there is also a black label version of the RZ23, which supplies just that. I guess that will be the next Zacapa on my list.

But the standard living room strength version is on its way back to the shelf.

And it leaves my table with a…

Rating: 64/100


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