Sep 162019

Going back to familiar rums we liked back in the day is something in the nature of revisiting the comfort food of our youth. The memories are strong and consoling, recalling a time of less snark, less cynicism and a whole lot more enjoyment. Surely such positively-associated, fondly-remembered rums deserve a place on the high-scorers list? The problem is, that’s all some of these arememories. The reality, informed by a more discerning palate and more varied experience, tends to deflate such candidates and show us both what we liked about them then, and maybe don’t so much, now.

Which brings me to the Zafra 21 Master Reserve which is almighty peculiar in that I tried it a lot in the early years, yet never took notes on itand almost nobody else in the current rum-reviewing landscape has either. Back then, I really liked Panamanian rums, before their overall placid sameness eroded my enjoyment and other, more exciting, forceful, original rums came to dominate my pantheon. Taste-wise, I always associated and linked the Zafraperhaps subliminallyto Diplomatico, Zaya and Zacapaand (to a lesser extent) to Dictador and Santa Teresa. They all share certain similaritiesa smooth velvety mouthfeel, sometimes solera production, with an oft-accompanying sweetness so characteristic of the typeand a kind of amazing longevity and popularity. I mean, just take a gander at the notes on Rum Ratingsalmost 80% of the 201 respondents give it a score of 8 or better. That’s far from the massive 1,472 ratings of the Zacapa 23 or the 1,721 of the Diplo Res Ex, but it shows something of the way popular opinion bends for these soft Latin-style rums.

Still, it’s been many years, so has anything except my hairline and chubbier corpus changed in any significant way here? For example, is it still made the same way? Does it still taste as easy-going and slickly-smooth as my recollections suggest?

Based on research I had done at the time, and again for this essay, I’d say it is. It remains a rum whose original blend dating back to 2009 when it was first released, has not appreciably changed. It’s a Panamanian column-still rum created by Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez who is better known for both his moniker “The Minister of Rum” (not to be taken seriously, since there is no such position), and a true 21 year old aged in bourbon barrelsthough trust issues such as those which afflict other aged Panamanians in these sadly suspicious times might make one take that with a pinch of salt. In yet another odd thing about the rum, nobody has ever done a hydrometer test on it and post-2010, good luck finding a reviewer who’s written anything (back then the reviews were mostly positive, but of course Johnny Drejer had yet to upend the rumiverse for us).

Yet for its adherents the Zafra 21 YO remains a popularif fadedstar, and people like it, and trying the gold-brown rum makes it clear why this is the case. At 40% it’s hardly going to blow your socks off, and when inhaled, there was nothing I wasn’t already expecting: caramel, creme brulee, dark fruit, leather, sawdust. There were subtler notes of cinnamon, vanilla, brown sugar and ginger. The problem with itfor me at any ratewas that it was just too faintit smelled watered-down, weak, with hardly any kind of serious enjoyment available for the nose, and complexity of any kind was just a vanished dream.

Nothing about the palate and mouthfeel greatly impressed me either, though I must admit, it was nice. Inoffensive might be the kindest word I can come up with to describe the faint driness, saltiness and sweetness, too vague to make a serious impression (and I was trying this first thing in the morning before a single rum greater than 45% had crossed my glass). Caramel, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon led off, with some additional brown sugar, treacle, molasses. Trying to elicit and identify the fruity notes was as pointless as sniffing an orchard shut down for the winter. It simply had no edge, and stayed light, warm and smooth, with a finish that was short, sweet and light, with light oak, vanilla, pancake syrup and some peanut butter. Big yawn. How 21 years of ageing in the tropics can impart so little character is the great weakness of the rum, and raises all kinds of flags to the wary.

Look, the Zafra 21 is a completely comfortable drink, like a worn pair of familiar slippers and if that lights up your wheelhouse, go for it, you won’t be disappointed. The thing is, that’s all you getit’s something of a one-trick pony, lacking in excitement or oomph of any kind. Thinking I was being unduly critical, I sampled nothing but 40% rums all day and then returned, but it still failed to impress. It’s one of those rums we enjoy for its unaggressive nature and decent profile, but sooner or later, when we have moved on and come back to it, we realize that the nose is anemic, the taste boring, the complexity a let down and the finish lacking any kind of fire. Then we sit back and wonder how we ever loved it so much at all.


  6 Responses toZafra Master Reserve 21 Year Old Panama RumReview

  1. Always enjoy your work. Don’t forget, the stuff you are tasting from new bottles today may not mirror the rum that was bottled in years past. The trade won’t admit it, but that dynamic is irrefutable. Your passionate reviews are also of course, relative to your evolving taste in bottled rum

  2. My reading and experience has hardened into a rule what my parsimonious nature had initially pointed me towards in regard to most Latin rums. It is that for those who still enjoy a lighter distillate with a bit ofenhancement” ,hydrometers be damned, there’s really no need to exceed a price point of ~$35US. Rums like DRE, Millonario 15, Dos Maderas 5+5, and the newish overproof Panamanian from Don Pancho via an American IB that replicates his work with Panama Red, remain within grasp While those with fancier bottles, gaudier numbers and higher price points can be left behind for those with less experience, fatter wallets, and the misfortune to have missed your reviews.

    • You know, that’s actually a really good idea, and you’re absolutely right: you can get pretty much the same quality of Spanish-style rum for a lesser price without bothering with the IBsif you’re prepared to put up with a little messing about by the maker.

      • In regard to IBs, the American ones (perhaps with the assist of lower taxation) have managed to put some reasonable PILSA product on the shelves. For those who DO wish to avoid additives, Grander store picks over 100 proof can be found in the southeast states as low as $40US. And the Autentico Nativo 108 proof I referred to earlier is only $33. There’s no information if that one is messed with, but swapping tasting notes with Eric Renfer gives me some of the same suspicions you (and I) harboured about the Panama Red. On the other hand, Russ Ganz told me it was the most interesting rum he encountered at the last Rum Renaissance, and he’s no fan of additives. In any case I know if I were travelling in the southeast US, I would jump on either of those before Don Pancho Origins or the Zafras. {If you think that part of the purpose of this latest is to ignite some envy of unobtainium, you’d be right. Welome to my world. 🙂 }

  3. Strongly agree with this reviewZafra used to be one of my favourite rums, but after having tried stronger and more complex rums I realized it is very ‘meh’ for a 21 year age statement… :c

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