Recently we sat down with Tekla Israelson, NY Ambassador for Ron Zacapa to discuss the brand and the company behind it. A native of Juneau, Alaska, Tekla has been working in hospitality since she was sixteen and continued working as a banquet supervisor and bartender throughout college at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.
After graduating with a focus in Beverage Management, Tekla moved to New York to work with the premier beverage distributor, Empire Merchants. There she specialized in training and cocktail creation for some of the world's most recognized spirit brands. After almost 3 years with Empire, she left to join the Diageo Rum Ambassador team to focus on Zacapa Rum, Oronoco and Pampero. Tekla has been working with Zacapa Rum for over one year and has been to the distillery in Guatemala twice to learn about the unique way in which Zacapa Rum is made.
Here is an excerpt of our conversation with Tekla:
Ron Zacapa has come a long way. Tell us about the history of the company.
Zacapa Rum is one of the finest and most celebrated rums in the world. Zacapa is the actual city that gave its name to the rum as a celebration for the 100th anniversary of its founding in 1876. In addition to many awards and high ratings from influential media, Zacapa Rum has the honor of being the first brand to be inducted into the International Rum Festival's Hall of Fame. Zacapa Rum is manufactured by Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala (ILG) who signed a global distribution and joint marketing agreement with Diageo.
Many minute details go behind a great brand. Where do you source your sugar cane from? Do you use any special strain of yeast?
Zacapa Rum is a unique product that is crafted with supreme attention to detail from start to finish. The sugar cane that we use in the production of Zacapa Rum comes from our own plantations surrounding the Zacapa Rum distillery in Southwestern Guatemala.
The sugar cane is transported directly from these fields to our mill. The juice that we collect after the first pressing of the sugar cane is then converted to virgin sugar cane honey. This concentrated virgin sugar cane honey is much sweeter than molasses, which is the base material for over 90% of rums produced worldwide, and has a profound effect on the depth and flavor of Zacapa Rum.
We also use a very specific strain of yeast, cultivated from pineapple. While this yeast does not make the rum taste like pineapple, it is integral to the consistent flavor of the rum. We ferment the rum slowly – approximately 120 hours, or 5 days – to give this special yeast the time it needs to work and influence the final product.
Ron Zacapa is one of the few rum producers to embrace the Solera system. Tell us more about that process.
We use a unique Sistema Solera for aging Zacapa Rum, which is based off of the traditional Solera system, developed over 500 years ago to age sherries in Spain. Our Sistema Solera involves blending younger rums with older rums as the liquid moves through four different types of seasoned oak barrels. We start with barrels that previously held American whiskies, and after a minimum of 3 years, we move the rum to freshly charred American whiskey barrels. Next we move the rum into barrels that previously held Oloroso Sherry before finishing the aging process in Pedro Ximenez barrels. Each of these barrels imparts different flavors and aromas to the rum, building the complexity and character of the rum as the aging process continues for up to 23 years.
How does the high altitude effect the maturation of the final product?
Our aging facility, the "House Above the Clouds" is located 2300 meters (7,500 feet) above sea level near the town of Quetzaltenango in Western Guatemala. The high altitude has two great advantages for aging our rums. The first is the temperature, which averages approximately 65°F (18°C) year-round. This cool temperature enables us to age the rum for a longer period of time with less evaporation than we would be able to at the average sea level temperature.
The second advantage is that there is less oxygen at a higher elevation. Due to the thinner air, the liquid expands further into the barrels and is able to pick up significantly more flavor from the wood it is aged in.
How is the XO different from the Centenario?
Zacapa Rum XO is aged in a Sistema Solera, similar to Zacapa Rum 23, but it goes through an extra step in the barrel aging process. The XO finishes its aging in barrels that previously held Cognac. This final step imparts a substantial cognac character to the rum. Stylistically, Zacapa Rum XO is less sweet than Zacapa Rum 23; it emits aromas and flavors of dried fruit, sweet spice, vanilla and chocolate, with a hint of ginger at the finish.
How would you serve Ron Zacapa to enhance the experience?
Zacapa Rum 23 is a very versatile rum, it is great for sipping but also mixes very well in cocktails. I believe the ideal way to enjoy it is either neat or served over one large ice cube. I've also been known to pour it over some vanilla ice cream! When I drink the Zacapa Rum XO, I enjoy it neat with some dark chocolate on the side.
We are living in the revival era of classic cocktails. What would be an ideal cocktail for Centenario?
I love to use Zacapa Rum in cocktails that really showcase and enhance the flavors of the rum. I take classic bourbon or brandy cocktail recipes and substitute the base spirit with Zacapa Rum 23. My favorites are the Manhattan, old fashioned and sidecar. Zacapa Rum also works well in classic rum drinks like the classic Daiquiri, Hemingway Daiquiri and Dark and Stormy.
With so many good brands in the market, how do you plan to position Ron Zacapa? What is your target demographic?
Rum, particularly aged rum, is becoming much more popular in the US right now. As more and more great brands come into the market, we are all growing together as consumers become more aware of how great an aged rum can be. With Zacapa Rum, I focus on the quality, history and integrity of the brand. The goal is to get as many people as possible to sample the rum. We look for discerning customers who appreciate a fine, complex spirit. Currently the majority of our customers are male, although we always welcome female consumers. Lorena Vásquez, our master blender, is one of only three female master blenders in the spirits world and I don't think anyone could possibly love the brand more than she does.
What is next for Ron Zacapa? Are there any new brands coming out any time soon? Do you plan to venture into a new market?
We do not currently have plans to introduce a new brand to the market. Zacapa Rum does have a 15-year-old rum that is not available in the US market, but you can find Zacapa Rum 15 in some duty free stores.
If you were to drink a rum other than Ron Zacapa, which brand would it be?
What I love about rum is that there are so many great rum brands out there, and so many different styles. If I were to choose another brand it would be Oronoco Rum, which is a great Brazilian rum. It is a white rum that I love to drink on the rocks with just a squeeze of lime.
Stop by our store on Saturday, June 25th between 5:30 PM and 7:30 PM to try Ron Zacapa Centenario Solera Grand Reserve for yourself! We're located in Brooklyn, NY at 468 4th Avenue, which is easily accessible by the R, F & G trains.
Cheers from DrinkUpNY!