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Ron Zacapa Centenario 23

I present to you an infamous rum that was foundational to my rum education.

For a bit of a background: this is a molasses-based rum from a town in Guatemala of the same name. The brand claims to use “virgin sugar cane honey” as their base ingredient. But, according to reputable and honest rum producers, this is just a fluffed-up term for molasses. Zacapa is said to mean “on the river of grass” in Aztec. Years ago, I recall them marketing this with emphasis on being “aged above the clouds.” They also claim to use the solera aging system that’s used by sherry, but solera outside of sherry has no regulations. So, who knows what they’re really doing.

If you rummage through online rum forums such as reddit’s r/rum and various Facebook rum groups, you’ll most likely notice that there’s quite a bit of Ron Zacapa Solera 23 posts saying how tasty and good of a deal it is. But, in the comments of these posts are various folks mentioning the original poster to be wary of the rum’s additives and fake age statements.

Like the original posters on these forums, I too thought Ron Zacapa was a great deal. My thoughts eight years ago were along the lines of: “A 23 year old rum that cost less than USD 60 and was rich with sherry flavor? This is an amazing deal.” In a way, this was my first exposure to a “premium” or “sipping” rum, as opposed to the popular brands mostly used as mixers.

After doing more (half-assed) research on this brand, I learned (wrong) “facts” such as: rum should be cheap, the age statement indicates the oldest stock in the bottle, and rum has no rules. I’ll admit that mistakes were made… and one should learn from one’s mistakes.

It’s also a good thing the misconceptions surrounding rum and the malarkey the brands crap out were addressed by people with integrity such as Luca Gargano, Richard Seale and Maggie Campbell. Because, without figures like them, most of us would still be thinking dishonest brands such as Plantation, Diplomatico, Don Papa (which Diageo now also owns) and this as great deals.

So, it’s thanks to them that I became aware of rums that use fake age statements and additives to doctor the product. Despite the brand saying the youngest component in the blend is six years old, they still put a very visible “23” on the label to deceive the casual consumer into thinking it’s a 23 year old rum.

If memory serves me right, the greater awareness led to consumers constantly calling out Diageo for using fake age statements. I’m not sure if it worked. But at some point, the company decided to change the label from saying 23 años (or years old) into 23 Solera. The fake age statement ruse even caused someone to create a class action lawsuit against them in 2021, which is way later than the label change. I have no updates on this case.

By additives, I mean methods such as adding sugar and/or “wet casks.” Just how many additives are added? According to Drecon.dk it’s estimated to be 38g of sugar per liter.  But tests can never determine if only sugar was added or there’s something else. “Wet casks” refers to the practice of introducing distillate to a cask while still having the original contents. In the case of this brand, they use different ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, but they put more emphasis on Pedro Ximénez (PX).

The website says that the brand was created in 1976 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the city of Zacapa. According to a Reuters report in 2011, Diageo bought half of the company for more than USD 100 million and became its distributor. I guess, financially, the acquisition was a good move for Diageo. A lot of consumers ended up loving – and still love – the product. But, they must have their heads up in the clouds if they think they could keep getting away with deception…

The first bottle of Ron Zacapa 23 I’m reviewing is a pre-Diageo bottling. I brought home a sample from Rum and Whisky Kyoto. According to the owner, Manabu Sadamoto, this is a bottling from 2004. I’ve always been eager to try a pre-Diageo bottling, because I keep hearing it’s either not as sweet or even not sweetened when compared to the current bottlings. Though it’s also unclear whether these bottlings really had 23 year old rum as the youngest rum in the bottle, or if they were being dishonest about the age statements, too. Aside from these reasons, there’s the stereotype that a brand’s quality goes down after a buy out. So I’m always curious to compare a brand’s pre-buy out bottling vs the contemporary ones.

Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 Years Old – Review

Pre-Diageo bottling. 40% ABV.

Color: Maroon.

On the nose: I get short, semi-dry and slightly peppery aromas of blood orange, chocolate-coated orange peels, red cherries, raisins, goji berries, and dates.

In the mouth: Like on the nose, I get semi-dry and slightly peppery textures. But the flavors last slightly longer this time. I taste blood orange, dates, caramelized orange peels, goji berries, sultanas, red cherries, and chocolate.

Conclusions:

As expected of a column-distilled rum from a Spanish-speaking country, the flavor mostly comes from the cask influence. As advertised, more flavors are contributed by the sherry influence.

Judging by the length and depth of flavor, I’m going with this not being a real 23-year-old rum… which isn’t surprising, as a lot of rum brands from Latin America tend to not use real age statements. Logistically, it’s also not sustainable for a brand to regularly put out a 23 year old rum at that price. If they did, the quantity would not be a lot due to the high amounts of duppy’s share (Caribbean equivalent of angel’s share) in the tropics.

Score: 5/10

Ron Zacapa Centenario Solera 23 – Review

Diageo bottling. 40% ABV. £56.95 from The Whisky Exchange. USD 44.99 from Total Wine.

Color: Barn red.

On the nose: This is evidently sweeter. The sweetness overshadows most of the other aromas. I still get tinges of orange, raisins, prunes, vanilla, cinnamon, cherries, and dates. At the end is a slight bitter, soapy note.

In the mouth: The moment this touched my tongue, I immediately got a solid smack of Pedro Ximénez cask influence. This is really different from the pre-Diageo bottling. I then get imbalanced and very light tastes of raisins, dates, prunes, sultanas, and red cherries.

Conclusions:

I get a fair amount of unnaturally sweet flavor. On both the nose and in the mouth, there’s this noticeable solid smack of sweet PX flavors. The smack is solid enough for me to find it hard to taste anything else.

Score: 3/10

Final Conclusions:

There’s a clear difference between this and the pre-Diageo bottling. The older bottling’s flavors are more cohesive. I could sense each flavor better, while this contemporary bottling is just out of balance. The solid smack of PX flavor kind of reminds me of how most spiced rums and Don Papa present themselves. The drinker would get one dominating but appealing (sweet) flavor. No complexity and no burn. A surefire recipe to get the casual consumer to instantly like the product. With that said, I agree with those who say the pre-Diageo bottling doesn’t taste as sweet. I won’t go so far as to say that this rum isn’t sweetened. To be certain of that would require a lab analysis.

Now that I’ve compared and learned more about both products, I think it’s fair to say that Diageo is not entirely to be blamed for the fake age statements, largely because even before the brand was bought, they were already saying it’s 23 years old. The progression of rum awareness remedied the fake age statement issue by changing “23 years” to “Solera 23,” but not completely, as the huge “23” is still on the label.

Lead photo courtesy of Diageo. Bottle photos author’s own.

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John

John is a cocktail and spirits enthusiast born and raised in Manila. His interest started with single malts in 2012, before he moved into rum and mezcal in search of malterntaitves – and a passion for travel then helped build his drinks collection.

  1. Ravi says:

    Was introduced to this Ron Zacapa near 10 yrs ago, as a rum to be enjoyed on the rocks. Not knowing much else, the 23 and the sweetness did the trick for me and I thought it was the real mc coy.
    Subsequently, I also requested my sister to get me a Ron Matusalem 23 next time she passed duty free. That bottle is lying unopened for the past few years. Perhaps, I will open it at a party where the aim is to enjoy getting buzzed without worrying about provenance of the drink.

    1. John says:

      Hi Ravi, I was the same with you. I thought the sweetness made Zacapa the bomb. But that image shattered when I learned about the issues of rum.

      If you still like sweetened rum, you will most likely like Matusalem. It’s a similar style to Zacapa. Although I heard that the brand uses prune juice to sweeten it.

  2. Welsh Toro says:

    We all bought one of these didn’t we? I only had a few of this kind of thing before I got sick of the sugary sweetness. After that I discovered the truth. Thing is this stuff is all you get in most of the rum drinking world. Any bar in Spain sells this and no drop of Jamaican funk. That transition was due to independent Whisky bottlers that dabbled in rum such as Duncan Taylor and Berry Bros. Luca Gargano came later but he is a star. Whisky nerds got interested in rum and hence the purity. That’s a small minority in the rum world though. It’s unheard of in Spain where Zapaca 23 stuff reigns supreme and makes a lot of money. WT

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