While offering pleasant sojourning, the Guatemalan rum landscape does not exactly excite with its variety. Everything comes from a single company, Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala, though that company produces at least two labels – Zacapa and Botran.
Zacapa represents the glamorous international face of Guatemalan rum: attractive, commercialized, definitely expensive, and while it makes for exceedingly pleasant company, you can’t help suppressing the occasional yawn and wondering how thick that make up is. Botran in contrast is the slightly homely stay-at-home sister, working a nine-to-five job and hurrying home to cook instead of mixing with high society, and generally getting taken for granted by all and sundry. Zacapa smugly preens itself from little clusters of high priced bottles in duty free stores and on the top shelves of smarter bars, while Botran runs itself ragged covering the shelves of local supermarkets and bars, where it jostles for attention with the anise liqueur that is ubiquitous in Latin America.The question then is this: does Zacapa deserve to be Guatemala’s Ambassador of Rum?
Being a rebel, and a fan of rum with a glow to it, I’m going to support the underdog and say I rather like Botran.
Exhibits A through E follow.
A clear rum with a smooth sweet taste, and a staple in Guatemalan bars for mixing rum cocktails. The smooth sweetness is typical of Central American rums. An obvious comparison rum would be Flor de Caña, but Botran X/L is rougher, with a slight spiciness, and an almost chewy graininess. Not especially exciting but does the job.
Botran Anejo 12 Años
This aged rum near the top end of the Botran line is inexpensive and was my regular rum in Guatemala. It is fairly ubiquitous, though Botran also produce a cheaper Anejo 8 Años and Añejo Oro. Unfortunately I enjoyed the Añejo 12 Años so much that I never got around to writing notes on the two younger rums. Anyway, the Añejo 12 Años is a dark honey colored rum with a syrupy body, gentle alcoholic glow, pleasant dry spice notes and a hint of woody bitterness. I found it a rewarding but undemanding sipper, as well as a base for an exceptionally smooth and rich rum and coke – best with a touch of lime to temper all the sweetness.
Botran Solera 1893 Añejo
This tasty rum pours with a light copper-color and a viscous consistency, forming thick legs that slide slowly down the glass. The nose is sweet and rich, and carries a clear woody note reminiscent of incense – sandalwood maybe? A dash of cinnamon or canella also lurks in there. Tasting reveals sweetness with a soft glow (hotter than Zacapa), building into a mouthful of light woody spice. Though the body is sweet, the flavors are dry and austere, without the fruitiness of Zacapa. The taste does not evolve much, though an initial trace of wild honey slowly builds into something substantial. The aftertaste lingers long and pleasantly – the sign of a good rum.
I like this rum. It has a unique flavor, with all that spicy wood reminding me of a Catholic Church. That said, it is rather sweet, and while the flavors are interesting they are not especially deeply layered. I get the impression of sipping an intricately spiced cake syrup with an dry perfumed edge rather than a complex spirit.
My conclusion? This is a simple but interesting rum with unusual flavors I happen to like.
Ron Zacapa 15
I was keen to try this one. My first taste of Zacapa 23 impressed me, but it seemed that the more I tasted it the more I was left wanting something a little sharper. Perhaps Zacapa 15 was the answer? You don’t see the Zacapa 15 around very much, but I finally got my opportunity to try it in Flores airport, where the café was selling miniatures.
The Zacapa 15 pours a light gold rather than the very deep copper of the Zacapa 23, but has a similar viscous consistency. The nose initially reminded me of Botran, being light and spicy, but the fruitiness of Zacapa 23 was also there in a reduced dose. The taste was far more fiery and assertive than Zacapa 23, with a strong tingling bite on the front of the tongue, a peppery mouth feel, plus a lingering bitterness I didn’t recall from Zacapa 23. For a sweet and syrupy rum it came across as surprisingly sharp, though it didn’t have the dry edge of Botran. The flavors are intense but not particularly well integrated. There are strong fruity notes, but an odd underlying acidity makes it hard to place the fruit. Things improve as you get into it though, with pleasant vanilla emerging to smooth the rough edges. I end up thinking of vanilla ice-cream and stewed fruit – served in a bowl that accidentally got a drop or two of gasoline in it.
If the above sounds unfair, I should stress that a single taste of this rum was not enough. I would have to try it again sometime to give it a fair go. Still, if you are looking for Zacapa with a little more ‘edge’ the Zacapa 15 may not work, since it comes across as rather different to its older relative. Overall I was disappointed, and left thinking Zacapa 23 is still the better of the two.
Ron Zacapa 23
I already reviewed this rum here, so I’ll basically leave it at that. Nice but overrated. Though having said that, if you have never tried this rum it makes an interesting eye opener.
Zacapa and coke was a popular request among Americans staying in Antigua. Although I never partook I’m not sure I like the sound of it. Zacapa is already so smooth and sweet it hardly needs further sweetening and dilution.
There is some controversy about whether Zacapa have modified their formula over the years. Many say the old fully palm-wrapped bottles tasted better. A little palm-wrapped miniature Zacapa 23 stuffed in a display case behind the bar in my hotel in Guatemala City seemed to give me a chance to do a compare and contrast.
Tasting the dusty palm-wrapped miniature against a glass from a new bottle did reveal some differences. The older Zacapa had less fruitiness and acidity, more dark cane flavors, a warmer ‘rumminess’, and perhaps a little dash of the funkiness from Appleton Estate. Of course some of the differences in taste I noticed could have come from the length of time the miniature had been lying around, probably exposed to warm bar lights etc. There was something a vaguely ‘cooked’ about its flavor.
Zacapa gets all the attention but Botran is worth a closer look. Both are sweet rums, but Botran offers a drier style at a more attractive price. By giving Botran a go, Zacapa fans can broaden their horizons with an alternative Guatemalan rum, while Zacapa haters may finally find a Guatemalan rum they enjoy.