The Rums of Central America

June 23, 2015 by

Food, Drink & Travel, South & Central America


One of the great benefits of traveling through Central America is that it’s easy to find really good rum for a ridiculously low price. While most people associate rum with the Caribbean, many of the best ones actually come from the mainland of Central America. They might not be as famous or as heavily marketed brands like Bacardi, but that’s a good thing. Thanks to more abundant sources of fresh spring water and the ability to store the barrels above sea level, these often beat out the island brands in international tasting competitions.

The easiest and least expensive way to try these brands is in their respective home country, but you’ll find most of them in bars across the whole region and in duty free stores.

Guatemala: Ron Zacapa and Botran

Zapaca rum

Ron Zapaca Centenario.

For many connoisseurs, Ron Zacapa Centenario from Guatemala is the ultimate rum. Made from pure cane nectar (not molasses), it’s the most reliable choice for something special to augment a home bar or to give as a gift. What makes this one so special is that the maturation in the oak barrels happens at 2,300 meters in altitude, allowing a less aggressive aging process than ones stored in the tropical heat. The final product goes through a blending process, so the 23-year version of Zacapa is not all 23-year rum: it’s mixed with some younger barrels to attain a consistent flavor profile from year to year.

The least expensive is the 15-year version, there’s a 23-year version then the XO premium one goes for more than $100. Sold in a gorgeous bottle, this is aged in Cognac barrels at the end of the process, giving it unique flavor overtones.

Botran rum

Botran rum from Guatemala.

The other Guatemalan rum is Botran, which is very similar to Zacapa but in a less fancy package. It is made by the same company, in the same distillery, by the same master distiller. The main difference is that Zacapa is made from the sugar cane harvest late in the year, while Botran is made from the first harvest of the year. Apparently that’s enough since they do have a different taste profile. These come in an aged version and one specific for making cocktails.

You can try both in a tasting flight is at the Villa Los Añejos VIP sipping lounges. There are three in the country: in Guatemala City, Antigua and the main international airport.

Costa Rica: Ron Centenario

Centario rum

The smooth, rich Centenario rum.

This is one of the smoothest rums on earth, with a taste sensation like warm liquid caramel. With 35% alcohol, it is (for better or worse) something you could sip neat for hours and then say, “What happened to our full bottle?” It’s balanced and well-crafted, but without any overpowering bite.

Centenario comes in a wide array of options–the five-year version is the best bet for cocktails and the 30-year version is ideal for very special occasions. In between are seven, nine, 12, 20, and 25 years. The youngest one is the most simple, as sweet as candy, and as they age, they become more mature and complex. The 12-year or 15-year are great sipping rums to savor—for a price of $20 or less for a bottle. The top ones make good gifts without maxing out your credit card: in a Costa Rica airport duty free shop the 20-year goes for just $35.

Nicaragua: Ron Flor de Caña

Flor de Cana rum

Nicaragua’s popular Flor de Caña rum.

Pronounced “floor de kahn-ya,” this is the brand from Central America that you are most likely to see in your local liquor store or bar and it is a staple of hotels and restaurants throughout Latin America. It’s also a favorite of many connoisseurs, especially those who like to have a fat cigar in hand with their glass of rum. If Costa Rica’s main brand is like a sunny day on the beach, Nicaragua‘s Flor de Caña is more like a leather sofa by the fireplace at night: intense, dark, and complex. Perhaps in part to being aged in hot places, plus a 40% alcohol level, this is a rum that feels downright serious.

The four-year and seven-year versions are what you’ll see all over the place as a traveler. It’s a common sight to see Nicaraguan locals ordering bottles with meals and making cocktails with abandon. Advancing to 12 and 18 years of aging, they’re meant to be savored neat. Novice drinkers will taste the requisite caramel, vanilla, toffee, and spices that should come through in any quality rum. Experienced palates will probably detect different nuts, chocolate, or cloves. The 25-year version is a real treat, especially while sipping it on site in the rum room at Mukul, the luxury beach resort built by the head of the parent company.

This company controls the whole process, from sugar cane planting to bottling. Their 23-year rum is made completely from barrels aged 23 years, so naturally that one is quite pricey. At the low end though, getting a rum cocktail in Nicaragua is as cheap as ordering a beer.

Panama: Ron Abuelo

This “Grandfather Rum” is the least sophisticated one of the bunch, but the trade-off is that it’s a real bargain. In Panama you can often find a liter bottle for less than $10 and cocktails made with it are a few dollars in a bar. The regular version does not have any age indication, but it’s too unrestrained for sipping anyway. It flows freely in every cocktail bar, mixed with fresh tropical fruit juices.

The seven-year and 12-year versions of Ron Abuelo, however, become something interesting to sip on. It is attractively priced throughout the portfolio though until you get up to their high-end Centuria version. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the brand, they began producing a family reserve blend–made from rums aged up to 30 years. It can be the most expensive one on the liquor store shelf though, easily topping $120 outside of Panama.

– Contributed by Tim Leffel


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