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.
Then the cut sugar cane is trucked to the distillery not far away.
At the distillery, the cane is crushed with giant roller mills to extract the juice.
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.
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.
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.
At the aging facility, it was much cooler than at the sugar cane fields.
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.