Ilegal Infusions: The Word Gets Out
Guatemala Miscellany

A Trip to Guatemala for Zacapa Rum

The other week I went to Guatemala to learn about Zacapa rum at the source. It was great.

The sugar cane for Zacapa is sourced from the western part of Guatemala, near the Pacific coast where it is hot and humid. Here they cleaned up the cane field for the demonstration of cutting. In reality they burn the fields first to get rid of all the low leaves and any critters that might be hiding. This is pretty common practice where sugar cane is cut by hand, as it is for Zacapa.

Zacapa sugar cane field harvest demos

Then the cut sugar cane is trucked to the distillery not far away.

Zacapa sugar cane field trucks 

At the distillery, the cane is crushed with giant roller mills to extract the juice.

Zacapa distillery sugar cane presss
Zacapa distillery colorful sugar cane press areas

For most rum production, this juice is then processed to make sugar. The sugar is sold separately and the leftovers from the production, molasses, are used to make rum. (There is still enough sugar left in molasses to ferment and be distilled.)

But at Zacapa, like on Martinique (rhum agricole) and in Brazil (cachaca) they don't bother making sugar out of it but turn all the juice into rum and aguardiente. For rhum agricole and cachaca they directly ferment and distill the sugar cane juice. Here at Zacapa, they instead condense the juice into a syrup by filtering and heating the juice to boil off the water. This condensed sugar syrup (they call it 'virgin sugar cane honey') can be stored for up to a year so that they can harvest the sugar cane during its season but distill year-round.

Zacapa distillery control room views

The 'honey' is fermented and distilled here at the distillery near the sugar cane fields. But the newly-distilled rum is barrel aged elsewhere.

All the premium rums made at the distillery (Zacapa and Botran) are trucked up a mountain where the weather is cooler and temperatures are more consistent year-round. This allows for slower aging of the rum. 

Rather than truck up the windy roads, we rode in helicopters over the mountainous terrain. I found this terrifying.

Copter view2s

It was so cloudy when we arrived we couldn't land at the tiny airport, and had to land in a soccer field a short distance away. This was a *big deal* in the village, and probably a hundred people came out to see us land and slowly get up close, take photos and touch the helicopters. People were super curious and we all felt like rock stars for the attention.

Quetzaltenango landing kids4s

At the aging facility, it was much cooler than at the sugar cane fields.

Zacapa aging facility barrel storages
Zacapa aging facility1s

There the rums are aged and blended according to Zacapa's unique process. I'll address this in tomorrow's post, because it's kinda complicated.