There may be some of you who saw the words "Ron Zacapa" and are now sitting at your computer with the posture of a coiled rattlesnake as you read to see which side of the Great Rum Wars I fall on.
For anyone who might seem bewildered by that statement, let's do a little catching up. There are two things about the Ron Zacapa that a great many people find... underhanded to some degree. The first is that the 23 on the side of the barrel is something of a lie. We're meant to use it as an age statement—kind of. The Solera system works by stacking barrels one on top of one another in a pyramid, filling the top with new rum, and removing aged rum from the bottom. Zacapa says that the rum we're talking about today is "up to" 23 years old.
Rene Van Hoven over at Refined Vices does a much more thorough job explaining the complexities of Zacapa's solera system, which requires a goddamn flow chart to keep track of. To me, this is the spirits equivalent of playing Three Card Monte when it comes to tracking how old this stuff is, exactly. The takeaway I get from Van Hoven—if I'm interpreting him right at all—is that Zacapa 23 is probably somewhere between six and eight years old. Which is a far cry from the implication of that number given prominence on the front of the bottle.
Secondly, Ron Zacapa is the veritable poster child for sugary sweet rums. In places where they track such things, this bottle ranks near the top with 25 grams per liter of added sugar. That sounds like a lot, but here's the math: in a 1.5oz pour of spirit, that's about 1.1 grams of sugar. To us Yankees, that's about a quarter teaspoon of sugar, which accounts for a whopping four calories per serving. So, yes, there's sugar, but what they've added isn't anywhere near the equivalent of having a shot of rum and then eating a handful of Oreo cookies.
With points #1 and #2 in mind, Ron Zacapa may be trying to sneak a few things past me, but I'm not ready to burn it to the ground. To be fair, I think it's pretty good rum at a fair asking price.
I tend to begin here: if it's sweet, is it a good sweet? Often times, rums—spiced rums being especially guilty of this—tend to use sugar as a broom to sweep a lot of undesirable flavors under the rug. Not quite so here. The nose is good, with a quite pleasant blend of tropical fruit and butterscotch.
Sipping the Zacapa 23, it leads with a flush of coca cola before a Batman-esque ZAP-BANG-POW of tobacco leaf and bitter chocolate. If you take your time here, there's a lot of influence from the sherry casks, including some very juicy red grapes, fresh plums, and dried figs. You can really roll this stuff around in your mouth for a long while. So, yes, it's sweet. However, I wouldn't say it's outright cloying or saccharine, and there's a lot of wonderful flavors here beyond that pesky pinch of sugar.
The Zacapa 23 ends by finishing long and strong. Unlike rich rums like the El Dorado line, the cocoa and tobacco aren't the stars here. Instead, a slightly tannic and very fruit-forward melange of flavors takes charge and lingers for quite a while. Here I was actually reminded of a good cognac rather than a rum.
At the end of the day, all of these things are what I'm looking for from a "good" rum. Maybe I'd feel better if Ron Zacapa didn't feel the need to lie to me about this or that, but at $40 for a damn good sipping rum I feel like I can overlook a few things.