Ron Zacapa Centenario Sistema Solera 23 is a versatile sweetened rum that can be enjoyed neat or in cocktails. But if you care about the source of your spirits, there are better options: Zacapa’s packaging misleads consumers into believing it’s aged longer than it is, and it includes additives like sugar and artificial coloring.
Classification aged rum
Distillery Industrias Licoreras (Guatemala)
Cask American whiskey, various sherry (pedro ximénez among them)
Still Type single continuous column
Proof 80 (40% ABV)
Aged 6 to 23 years
Awards Style winner, Column Still Rum, 2021 World Rum Awards; Gold, 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition; 98 points, Beverage Tasting Institute
Zacapa is complex yet approachable, a good rum to prove to unbelievers that the spirit is more than a base for Mojitos or frozen Daiquiris.
A versatile rum that can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or in cocktails
It has up to 20 grams of added sugar, along with artificial coloring and possibly other additives.
The “23” on the bottle is misleading—only a small percentage of the rum is actually 23 years old, and in fact, most of it is closer to six years old.
Color: A beautiful deep amber, which is partially the result of time in the barrel and partially due to the use of caramel coloring to produce a more consistent and appealing hue
Nose: The sherry cask influence comes through right away with aromas of raisin, hazelnut, and chocolate. Oak and caramel also make their presence felt.
Palate: Dark fruits, caramel, molasses, and slightly bitter coffee accompanied by a light sherried tang, with lingering notes of oak and char. While it’s not overly sweet, the mouthfeel is heavy, almost syrupy, thanks in part to the sugar added after distillation.
Finish: Cacao and gentle oak linger on the back of the palate, while a fuzzy, need-a-toothbrush feeling lingers on the teeth.
During the first Obama administration, Zacapa was the toast of the rum world. Bartenders swore by it, rum bloggers raved about it, industry competitions gave it plenty of awards, and thanks to a distribution deal with spirits giant Diageo, it was one of the highest-profile brands in the premium rum category. But no spirits sector changed more dramatically in the 2010s than rum.
Distillers and bloggers started shining a light on how big-name distilleries made their rums, and it turned out that many of them, including Zacapa, added sugar, artificial coloring, and various other additives to the product after distillation. This practice isn’t illegal, and it’s widespread, especially among Latin American distilleries (Zacapa is made in Guatemala). But lots of longtime rum drinkers felt deceived, and started gravitating toward unadulterated rums like Foursquare and Appleton. Consumers also realized that the “23” on the bottle didn’t exactly refer to the age of the rum inside. Again, while not technically illegal, this consumer deception gave rum fans less reason to trust the brand. Sales haven’t suffered since, but Zacapa’s reputation certainly has.
So what to make of what’s in the bottle? Ron Zacapa’s Centenario Sistema Solera 23 has a distinctive flavor, owing to the unique way in which it’s made. Distilled from sugar cane juice rather than molasses (funnily enough, the finished product has distinct undertones of the latter) and made with a yeast strain isolated from pineapples, it gets aged at high altitudes in ex-bourbon and sherry barrels using the solera method, which creates a blend of younger and older rums. In this case, the rums range from six and 23 years, with the majority skewing younger.
Given all the added sugar (independent reports have shown up to 20 grams per liter), Zacapa isn’t cloyingly sweet, although the mouthfeel is a little syrupy. It’s fairly complex, it makes a good sipper, and it’s flavorful enough to hold up to ice even at 80 proof. Its dark, rich flavor profile lends itself to use in cocktails that are normally whiskey-based, like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned, although it makes a decent Daiquiri or Mojito as well (note that you’ll want to tone down the sugar).
If you’re a fan of sweetened rum like Diplomatico or Ron Abuelo, Zacapa is a good one and well worth trying. But we can’t recommend it for those who prefer their rum au naturel. What a shame that we’ll probably never get to find out what unadulterated Zacapa tastes like.
Zacapa is far from the only rum brand to put misleading numbers-that-aren’t-age statements on its labels, but it is probably the most high-profile company to do so. Many a rum drinker has seen the “Sistema 23 Solera” label on the bottle and concluded the spirit is 23 years old, when in fact it’s a blend of rums aged between six and 23 years. Are the customers at fault for not reading the fine print, or has Zacapa violated the letter of the law as well as the spirit? A class-action suit filed in September 2021 against Diageo, Zacapa’s parent company, seeks to find out one way or the other.