Sep 222016


The best of the Botrans, deservedly so. But it could have been better.



Botran’s top-of-the-line Special Edition is so soft it makes a feather pillow feel like it’s stuffed with discarded syringes. In comparison, the skin on a baby’s bum is rough as the glass shards on the wall around the house of a banana republic’s paranoid dictator. Yet it’s issued at a mere 40%, and that it has more qualities than defects is to its everlasting credit and our relief, for soleras do not often get much huzzah from hardcore rum fans, who prefer to have rums with rock-hard washingboard abs, massive glutes, melon shaped biceps, and both the syringes and the shards thrown in.

botran-75-004Over and above the notes on soleras and the Botran company which I covered in the 15 year, 18 year and Blanca reviews, here are the facts on this one.  9972 bottles of the rum were issued, and it it is a blend comprising rums five to thirty years old, with the average age of about ten – all aged in casks of bourbon, burned bourbon, sherry and porto, with the last six months of ageing spent in white wine casks.  The 75th Anniversary reflects its issue in 2014 (one wesbite says 2015*) to mark the birth of the company as a rum maker in 1939 when Botran was formed by los cinco hermanos.

That it is deserving of the “Special” moniker is something of an opinion.  For the makers, given their heritage and amount of time they spent making it, sure; for solera lovers of the sweet light rums, check.  As a reviewer who judges on taste, I’d have to say “yes” as well…but those who are thinking of shelling out  €160 might pause a little (that gets the buyer a presentation quality box containing a 50cl bottle, a pipette and two additional sample bottles filled with citrus and spicy variations of the rum so they can go off and make comparisons of their own, for whatever reason). For that price, we have to ask whether a 40% solera is worth it, and that comes down to more than just the tasting notes which follow.

What was evident on the nose of the rum was some of the real complexity the previous iterations aspired to but didn’t achieve: it was deep, reassuring, calm, and quiet, in no hurry to give up its secrets. Gradually, warm scents of caramel, dark chocolate and (quite a bit of) molasses sauntered out and stayed there. Over some minutes additional notes of apricots, peaches and red currants joined in, with a background of treacle, and syrup on the Little Caner’s Saturday morning pancakes.  There were enough breakfast spices in evidence to make me wonder why bother providing even more in the sample bottles, but they were muted and ancillary, not dominant, though some vanilla hints crept through at the end.

The taste was equally warm and full at the inception, complex enough to satisfy, but perhaps too mellow and sweet – that 40% strength did it no favours (what is it about so many rum producers that even for something so special, they obstinately refuse to go stronger?).  Prunes and black grapes, bitter black chocolate, licorice, more syrup.  Caramel, burnt sugar, charred wood, coffee and molasses, firm and decisive in their own way, to which eventually were added honey and nuts, maybe a flirt of citrus.  The flavours do make strong individual statements, like a proverbial snooty waiter slamming a meal down in front of you, and they are good — but they do not geometrically improve (in line with the price differential) what could have been a magnificent creation of the blender’s art, had they boosted the amperes a mite.  That sank the finish for me, which was very warm, very smooth and which can’t be faulted except to note it was too short and displayed nothing new, which blocks me from waxing ecstatic, rhapsodic and metaphoric about the thing.

botran-75-2For all the scorn often heaped on soleras, which unfairly damages the rep of many others of the same type, I think Botran makes pretty decent rums.  By officially eschewing additives (there’s some dispute about that) and utilizing barrel selection strategies that work with port, sherry or bourbon influences, they have produced what I think are some of the best solera rums around, not excluding the Cartavio XO**.  Sure they’re too soft and mild for me as a whole when ranked against more intense, masterful indie bottlings, but for a 40% rum to impress me at all these days does require a little bit more than just slick marketing.

So there’s is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the better soleras out there, and of the four Botrans I’ve tried, it is the best.  You could haggle over the 15 and the 1893, which were roughly comparable, but this one is a step or two ahead of them both – and whether it is worth the price,  when so many other good rums compete for your attention at less than half the cost of this package, will have to be a decision you must make on your own.


Other Notes

* The spiritsbusiness website said it was issued in September 2015, which conflicts with the 75th Anniversary dating of the company formation in 1939.

** Yes, I know I scored the Cartavio XO at 88 points.  That was four years ago.  Were I to try it again, it would likely come down to this one’s level. My malty friends patronizingly remark this is called the “evolution” and “development” of taste, and hasten to assure me that one I day I will join them in appreciating whisky.  Sure guys.  


Sep 222016


For the bucks, you get a soft bang.



There are two more Guatemalan Botrans I have notes for, and perhaps see if we can find points of commonality or differences among the set, so let’s get them out of the way, rather than go somewhere else this week.  I wrote that the blanca was an interesting if ultimately uninspiring white, while the solera 15 wasn’t bad for what it was, and had a few tastes that were worthy of note.  The 1893 Solera 18 is a step up the ladder of the brand – also 40% ABV, column still product, charcoal filtered, a blend of rums between five and eighteen years old, which were variously aged in bourbon, sherry port barrels.  It’s a solera through and through.

For those coming new to soleras in general and the Botrans in particular, a brief recap: soleras are a specialized form of blending hearkening back from Spain, where it is used to this day for ageing sherry; the system is one where a rum is progressively aged, and mixed with younger rums of the same kind at periodic intervals in a series. Every year (or other interval) one barrel is partly decanted into another barrel that was an earlier version of the same rum (but is now older), and the now (partly) decanted refilled with newer spirit. The average age of the rum which is finally bottled is therefore an exercise in mathematics, based on the percentage decanted, and the interval.  This is why any bottle marked “solera” should always be assessed cautiously when looking at the numerical “years” or “años” so prominent on the label, since this is whatever (miniscule) portion of the blend that is the oldest – and can be very small indeed.

botran-18-2One reason for the style’s longevity and popularity is that the resultant spirit is quite smooth and somewhat sweet (Botran states it adds nothing to their rums) – and they are rarely bottled above 40% – so that makes them extremely easy sipping rums, as the Zacapa 23 and Dictadors and Santa Teresas have proved. Does that make them bad rums?  Not at all, because the nose on this bronze coloured rum was a delectable mixture of caramel and burnt sugar, dry and clean, somewhat at odds with the meaty fullness of the Solera 15, though not precisely delicate.  There were some baking spices and nuttiness in evidence, with a coil of rather bitter oakiness lurking in the background but which – thankfully – never came forward to elbow all the other scents out of the way.  So it was good that way, for sure.

To taste, well, it was more or less what I expected from the line, not so much a revolution as a genteel, polite evolution – slightly deeper, richer, and lacking those mineral ashy notes.  Caramel, molasses and dark unsweetened chocolate led off, followed by prunes, pears, some butterscotch and toffee, plus breakfast spices, vanilla and smokiness.  But very little of the tart fruitiness that might have elevated it a bit, too little citrus or sharper stinginess to cut the heavier, muskier tastes…at most I was getting some fried bananas done over a smoky fire.  It finished with a medium long, dry, pleasant fade redolent of toffee and nougat and maybe some creme brulee.  Nice, tasty, soft, smooth…but not world beating. It lacked the originality for that.

For a rum that was marginally older than the 15 (in average terms), I felt the complexity wasn’t all that hot and indeed, fell behind the “younger” one in a few areas. Sometimes, when you taste a rum you get a mental sense of time and place (Clement XO was like that for me), but if Botran was trying to make you feel you were up in them thar montañas, I think they miscalculated, because I didn’t get clean, crisp scents at all — what I really felt was that I was in a disused, windowless kitchen where the spice jars had been left open too long. That’s not enough to make for a disqualification, but it does make it less value for money than the 15. Though it is, very slightly, better.


Other notes:

Botran kindly responded to my query about the name of the rum. The meaning of “1893” relates to the year that the first of the Botran brothers, Venancio Botran, was born. This edition is paying homage to him.

Sep 192016


As soleras go, this one is pretty good, and is less sweet than many, which is to its advantage



Sooner or later, everyone who drinks the good stuff passes through the solera style of rums.  Some brands have become behemoths, like the Zacapa 23 or Dictadors, and are adored and reviled in equal measure.  The key points for both sides are the taste and the age statement. Given the increasing polarization of the rum world between those who “like what they like” versus those who feel only “real rums” should be marketed as such (and drunk), and who advocate for greater disclosure, it’s important to understand that’s the main source of the discord.

In short, any solera-stated rum is a blend, and any age-related number included on the label refers to the oldest part of that blend (not the youngest), with nothing to help a discerning buyer establish how much rum of that age is actually in there – people who want to know what’s in their hooch hate this kind of marketing, where a number is posited – 15!! — without further embellishment. However, it must be said that Botran, with roots in Spain and its sherry tradition (which uses such an ageing regime), has always made soleras, and they hew to all the taste profiles this system is known for: smooth, soft, warm, sweet. And in this case, according to the brand rep in 2015 who ran me through the lineup, while the rum is a true solera, fully 50% of the result is actually fifteen years old.  Ummm.  Okay. That doesn’t square with the mathematics, but a blend is a blend no matter what you call it, so I take it without comment and move on.

d3s_3683Part of the reason for the sweetness in this case lies in the finishing regime. The Botran Reserva 15 is laid to rest for several months in sherry casks after having been aged in lightly toasted bourbon casks (although I’ve heard some age in port casks, but that may be anecdotal). Those soleras I have tried before hewed to certain markers of taste (coffee for the Dictadors, some lighter fruity notes on the Cartavio, generally firm mouthfeel and soft exit), but this one certainly went its own way.  The initial scents on the copper-brown rum were a rather startling charcoal and ashes mixed in with unsweetened dark chocolate: as full and luscious as a seedy lady of the night somewhat past her prime.  It was musty at first, warm, not hot, and rather grudgingly gave way to a subdued fruitiness  – the heavier notes of overripe cherries and light tartness red currants.  Not bad, really, since originality of assembly is something I enjoy if done right.

It also presented some rather good heft for a 40% rum (this is where the suspicions of dosing creep in), presenting a medium to full bodied mouthfeel that was quite soft, and smooth to a fault.  The initial taste was of caramel and burnt sugar – none of that ashes and charcoal taste carried over from the nose at all. Indeed, here the fruits took on a greater influence, with the heavier notes of plums, cherries, peaches taking their turn but mixing it up well with some chocolate and coconut shavings  – there was perhaps some smoke at the back end, leading to a finish where the slightest bit of wood and vanilla were back, breathing drowsily into a short ending.  All in all, there was no single backbone of flavour upon which all the other tastes were hung, more a commingling of individual pieces that tasted and smelled well, but were individually unassertive.  What that means is some will like it for that precise reason, while others will think it’s too wussy and too easy and meant for those lacking an adventurous yo-ho-ho spirit embodied by a higher and more intense proof point. But that, I believe, is to miss the point, since soleras are not brutally elemental monsters for connoisseurs, but lighter, gentler rums that seek more to go along and get along, than to make a point of raw drinking machismo. And this one does a good job.

Speaking for myself, I have no particular issues with a rum that is sweet (or sweetened, although Botran rums’ hydrometer test results suggest they don’t add anything)…it all depends on how I feel on any particular day, and (perhaps more importantly) who I’m chugging with.  If I want to introduce someone to rums, this one would be a very good place to start.  It’s perfect for an easy neat sundowner, to be sipped while we discuss how best to run the world and make it safe for rum. For those somewhat more dour drinkers of the Malt family who I’m trying to bring over to the True Faith (and who usually prefer their Hebridean hooch at cask strength), I’d probably not let them near this elegant but perhaps over-soft solera.



Sep 182016


A laid back white rum with more of a profile than expected



“A balanced combination of distilled rums” remarks the webpage for the Guatemalan company Botran, which makes a number of light, Spanish style rums in the solera method, and goes on in rhapsodic marketspeak about being aged in the mountains of Guatemala in lightly toasted white oak American barrels (although note that I was told by a brand rep that this rum was aged in French oak).  It may sound like snippiness on my part, but in truth this is still more information than many other makers provide, so back to my notes: what else is there to say about the rums they make…let’s see…column still product, aged up to three years, charcoal filtered, from reduced sugar cane juice (“honey”), fermentation taking five days or so with a pineapple-based yeast strain.

The five Botran brothers (Venancio, Andres, Felipe, Jesus and Alejandro) whose parents immigrated from Spain to Central America, established the Industria Licorera Quetzalteca in the western Guatemalan town of Quetzaltenango (2300 meters above sea level) back in 1939 when most rums were produced by Mom-and-Pop outfits on their own parcels of land.  The company remains a family owned business to this day; curiously, the sugar cane comes from the family estate of Retalhuleu in the south.  They also produce the Zacapa line of rums which have come in for equal praise and opprobrium in the last few years, a matter originating in the disdain some have for the solera method, the sweetness and the light nature of the rums, as well as the feeling that no age statement should be put on such products.

botran-blanca-2Still, the rum’s profile is what I’m looking at today, not how it’s made, so let’s move on. Those with preferences running towards lighter, easier fare will find little to complain about here, and for a white rum that has been filtered to the colour of water, it’s not bad.  It doesn’t smell like much at the inception – mostly light vanilla, a little watermelon and sugar water, with some estery potential more sensed than actually smelled.  It was really faint, very light, very easy — and that didn’t allow much aroma to come out punching, another thing that cask strength rum lovers sniff at with disdain.

You get more on the palate, which was pleasing: the undercurrent of acetone and nail polish remained firmly in the background, some grassiness and vanilla, as well as bananas and a flirt of sweetness that reminded me of nothing so much as marzipan, all mixed up with coconut shavings and sugar water.  Even at 40% ABV it was a very gentle, relaxed sort of rum (as many aged whites are), and unfortunately that carried over to a rather short and lackluster finish that had nothing additional to add to the conversation.  All in all, it was a slightly above-average white mixer, drier and with somewhat more tastes evident in it than I had been expecting – it was certainly better than the baseline Bacardi Superior, for which I have little patience myself unless I want to get hammered when nothing else is available.

At the end, the question is what the rum is for, and the conclusion is that outside the mixing circuit, not much – and indeed, that is how it is sold and marketed.  Even with the flavours described above, it’s likely too bland (and too weak) to appeal to those who like sipping their rums, and is more a wannabe competitor for the white Bacardis which have greater market share.  I’m not convinced the solera system helps this (or any) white rum much, or provides any kind of real distinctiveness to the brand.  The company might be better off not trying to go head to head with the mastodons of the white mixing world, but to carve out a niche of its own by being fiercer, more aggressive, more unique.  But then, of course, it would not be a Botran rum: and given the decades and generations the family has put it into their products, it’s unlikely to happen anyway. Too bad…because that means it remains what it is, a decent cocktail ingredient, displaying little that’s extraordinarily new or original.


Other notes

Introduced in 2012.  There are other flavoured whites made by the company, none of which I’ve tried

Mar 262013

Image courtesy of wikipedia


First posted 18 July 2012 on Liquorature. 



The Zacapa 23 is some kind of touchstone for rum drinkers as a tribe. It consistently appears on Ministry members’ rum lists as a favourite, and garners high points across the spectrum of whole populations, has received unbelievable ratings from international panels and is a perennial reviewers’ favourite.  When I was over at the Arctic Wolf’s lair some month ago and he offered me a try from his collection, it was the Zacapa 23 I asked for.  Some see it as the benchmark by which all soleras are measured.  I’m not one of them, but you see?  The thing is a Marciano of rum, consistently punching above its weight.  For a solera that’s unusual.  For its price, that’s nothing short of amazing. What makes this one rum from Central America, from a company that makes almost nothing else of such note (unless it’s the 25) such a standout?

Well, let’s start there.  Ron Zacapa is made in Guatemala, in a small town appropriately named Zacapaneca, by the Industrias Licoreras Distillery. It has two points of difference that set it apart from more traditional Caribbean rums (although to consider Guatemala a “Caribbean” nation is to misunderstood a term which has more cultural than geographical implications) – one, it is not made from molasses but sugar cane juice (thickened by boiling to a honey-like consistency), and therefore has more in common with the agricoles of Martinque and Guadeloupe, and two, it is aged by the solera method used in sherries, a trait it shares with the Venezuelan Santa Teresa.  In this instance, literature available online advises me that the blend in the 23 is a mixture of rums aged 6 to 23 years, and is then further aged in white oak barrels.

Previously, the Zacapa had an age statement (23 anos) printed on the bottle, front and centre; however, since Diageo took over the distribution of the product, a more reasonable “23 Solera” has replaced this, and that makes more sense, otherwise confusion results (remember the Flor de Cana 21 which isn’t a 21 year old?). The bottle itself has a neat little palm leaf wrapping around it, and has a well seated cork: I’m a little ambivalent about corks these days – it’s the seal I’m after, as well as a lack of degradation of material – but I always have a soft spot for real old-school stuff, so this one worked just fine for me.  All in all, then, there is an aura of professionalism about the whole thing.

Decanted, the rum displays surprising body in the glass for something so apparently light, and has slow and strong legs down the side of the glass. Yet the nose is soft, missing being delicate by a certain muscularity that reminds me of the grace and strength of a ballet dancer: it is smooth in character, with hints of cocoa, caramel and a dusting of cinnamon and vanilla.  Nuts, perhaps, and after a bit I could swear I smelled cherries. It lacks the pachyderm heaviness of the El Dorados, and it seems just about right that it be so – this is a rum where the colour and the nose match precisely.

And where the taste does not let one down, I should add.  This thing is smooth and very slightly dry. Sweet. Perhaps a little too light on the body, but like the sugar, it’s a personal thing (I like slightly darker, heavier rums, a tad sweeter than some, which in no way detracts from my enjoyment and appreciation of one like this). And on the palate, excellent…I mean, really, really good. Hints of that same cocoa-vanilla blend, honey, caramel and burnt sugar, the very faintest smidgen of something like citrus, all in some kind of harmonious balance, a coming together of all parts that made me understand why people have been drooling over it for years. To my surprise, there is almost no bite at all, no sting, no claw, no scratch.  It’s not on the level of smoothness of the heavier Pyrat’s 1623 or the El Dorado 25, but then, it’s not a liqueur like the former either, and not a seeming wannabe like the latter.  The 23 coats the tongue and lasts for seeming small cycles of the universe, before gently letting go and passing into a fade that makes you want to pour another shot immediately.

The fade is the third leg, and it keeps up.  It does not drop the ball – unlike the Mount Gay 1703, I would say, if pressed for an opinion – by having that last departing bat of the cat’s claw on the way out.  It simply wafts up fumes, strokes your throat in zephyr breezes on the way down, and you swallow and look at the glass and wonder where your two ounce shot just went and why the bottle is suddenly half empty.  My father in-law (him of the Russian rotgut preferences, remember him?) isn’t a rum dude, but he simply adored this one; for a guy who at 72 rarely takes more than one sip for face (honour and duty must be maintained when in my house, so refusing is considered rude – same way I am unable to decline the sheep’s eyeball when at his), he immediately asked for another…and then another.

Note the rums to which I compare this lovely product.  All of them are north of a hundred bucks, sometimes two.  All of them are marketed as ultra premiums.  All are aged blends with large age statements (except Mount Gay and the Pyrat’s).  Yet this Zacapa 23, blended from rums containing a range of rums the oldest of which is 23 years old, holds its own without ever seeming to try (much like the Juan Santos 21).  It cost me the equivalent of sixty bucks from a friend who brought it in from the UK as a favour.  Even the Juan Santos clocks in at around ninety in Alberta. Value for money?  Ron Zacapa may have hit the sweet spot here.

It’s instructive to compare the Zacapa 23 to the Pyrat’s Cask 1623 which I angrily skewered not too long ago. I mentioned my disappointment with its overwhelming citrus taste that at the premium level should have been moderated and better balanced and that it was a forty dollar rum in a hundred dollar package selling for two hundred.  Ron Zacapa is almost exactly the opposite: all elements come together like a swiss watch, no one flavor overcoming or dominating any other; and while it may not be a two hundred dollar rum or come in a hundred buck package, it sure as hell doesn’t cost either of those numbers either.  For what you are paying compared to what you are getting, I stand here in front of you and state it flatly: this rum has one of the best quality to price ratios of any kill-divil it has ever been my pleasure to sample, and sweet or no, it’s good.  If it ever comes to Alberta again, I’m getting me a some more. And looking out for the 25.

(Note: Zaya, from its similar taste profile, maybe uses the same stock, though bottled in Trinidad and aged there)


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