Ron Zacapa Centenario Comparison: Sistema Solera 23 vs 23 Años

Zacapa 23 palmleaf

Zacapa 23 SS

The Issue
Much has been speculated by rum pundits, my colleagues among them, about the difference between Ron Zacapa in the original, full-petate palm leaf covered bottle called 23 Años (at left) versus the latest patate-banded version called Sistema Solera 23 (at right).  Are  they simply lusting after a spirit from years ago when there were fewer fantastic rums to sip, a time when Zacapa stood head and shoulders above the crowd of tasteless white rums and harsh, poorly distilled dark and colored cane spirits?  Or has the once-supreme Zacapa 23‘s flavors suffered under the dramatic production and sales goals imposed by Diageo?  

More delicately prosed versions of those questions were asked of Lorena Vasquez, Master Blender for Zacapa, during a private tasting attended by several notable rum judges and myself at Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in 2009.  Ms. Vasquez did not take the challenge lightly. Instead, she gathered her thoughts, and summoning her best English, said:  “It is my responsibility” to ensure consistency and quality of Zacapa rum.  

Taste Test
I had been wondering if Zacapa 23 has changed over time and packaging iterations.  After all, aging barrels are living things, and many factors may contribute to insignificantly different 23 year old rums.  So I dug deep into the Rum Gallery’s locker and came out with both versions.  I commenced my own side-by-side tasting, comparing Zacapa 23 Años in the earlier 2003-vintage 
bottlng that was fully enveloped in petate palm leaf,  versus the newer 2011 version of Sistema Solera 23 in the petate-banded bottle. 

Z 23 Tasting

Two sets of identical glasses were used. One pair was Zacapa’s own official tasting glass, which enables truly fine detection and was given to me by the company’s marketing people a few years ago.  The other pair was my favorite sherry-style sipping glass, donated last year by the friendly folks at Plantation, producer of fine aged rums from all over the world.  Both vessels are truly connoisseur quality sipping glasses, and definitely present a rum at it’s best.  Here’s what my feeble senses detected:

Zacapa’s Sistema Solera 23 exhibits a slightly darker shade of brown compared with the red/orange-mahogany color of 23 Anos.

While the two are very similar to my nose, the 23 Años' aromas are slightly softer, whereas those of the Sistema Solera  23 are heavier and more direct, less subtle, and introduce a new cola aroma that I didn’t detect in the original version.  Perhaps the used American oak bourbon barrels or the Olorosso sherry casks contribute this flavor, or is there something added?  The Sistema Solera 23 also delivered a bit more alcohol bite to the nose, whereas the 23 Años is ever-so-slightly sweeter and earthy like sugar cane molasses.

Zacapa glass

Initial Taste 
Sistema Solera 23 was more bold, heavier bodied and sweeter; possibly the effects of the PX barrels.
23 Años showed a little more leather, was ever so slightly drier, less sweet, and had less raisin flavor.

Sistema Solera 23: slightly heavier and a bit more viscous feel.
23 Años: substantial foundation, but light on it’s feet.

Sistema Solera 23 finishes heavier and sweeter, lingering just slightly longer, whereas 23 Años is lighter, balanced and more delicate.  Both rums leave pleasant lasting impressions.

Aside from a bit of hue and more pronounced aromas, there’s ne’er so much as a few breath’s difference between the Zacapa of old that gained so many aficionados, and the current version.  Is one better than the other?  Perhaps.  Memory is a kind, if inaccurate referee. 

It's amazing that a hand crafted rum can sustain so many different types of barrels and aging stages, yet still smells and tastes consistent over nearly a decade.  Attribute much of that to Lorena Vasquez’ blending skill.  She is gifted with uncommonly fine senses.  While I treasure my original bottle of Zacapa 23 Años for sentimental and collectible reasons, it stops there.  If you like Ron Zacapa for it’s flavor and sweetness, continue to enjoy it.  

© Dave Russell 2017