Of all the many ridiculous made-up marketing “holidays” out there, one of the few I can get behind is next week’s National Rum Day (August 16). That’s because I like rum, but also, despite a lot of progress among spirit connoisseurs, rum remains overlooked by many, even though as a category it has far more complexity, variety and nuances than many more popular hard liquors (vodka, gin and tequila, for instance). Rums are most akin to whisky in their breadth and complexity, very dependent on the quality of the raw ingredients, the wide variety of woods for ageing, blending, and length of ageing. Rum is also an excellent hot weather choice, whether you are sipping aged rum neat, drinking it over ice, or making tropical cocktails. Good rums are only made in places where it is hot, and they are born to be enjoyed in summertime. The good news is that there are more high-quality aged rums out in the market than ever before.
Most years I recommend some new or unique rums to try around this time, but today I am going with a golden oldie. The Ron Botran lineup disappeared from shelves in the U.S. pre-pandemic, but now it is back, re-introduced with some new twists, and that is a very is a very good thing for rum fans.
While far from a household name here, Botran is the bestselling aged rum in Guatemala. In the three years since it was last sold on these shores, it has gone through a sustainability-focused rebranding. It looks new because all of the packaging is new, but this is not just aesthetics, it was done in part to highlight some key certifications the spirit has obtained. The new labels include a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) seal for “Ron de Guatemala,” and PDO is the highest level of legal protection afforded products that are dependent on terroir and regulated production methods tied to a specific place, the same quality protection afforded French champagne or Parma’s famous prosciutto. The new labels also bear an ISCC Plus (International Sustainability & Carbon Certification) accreditation, and Botran claims to be the world’s first “from crop to drop” sustainable rum, meaning across all parts of the journey including plantations, mill, distillery, ageing facilities, and bottling. In addition, as part of the brand’s commitment to the planet, since 1977 Botran has planted and grown more than 1.8 million trees in Guatemala, and also recently earned Carbon Neutral Certification from SGS (a global leader in testing, inspection and certification).
Now let’s talk rum. Botran was founded more than 80 years ago by five Botran brothers, and it is still family-owned, led by second generation Chairman Don Jaime Botran. All Botran rums are single estate products made only from fresh first pressed sugar cane juice (most rums use cheaper molasses) with two varieties of cane harvested on the estate on Guatemala’s Pacific south coast. It then gets a slow (4-5 days), discontinuous fermentation with pineapple yeast before distillation in copper sectioned stills. Botran rums never include added sugar, and the distillate is aged in the mountains of the Quetzaltenango Highlands at 2300 meters above sea level. Botran uses a spinoff of Spain’s Solera method used for sherry called the Dynamic Ageing System. Botran stacks its vintages in columns, and each column features different types of casks, and as the rums are blended, the casks are repositioned, again and again, to ensure that all the variables at play in ageing spirts, which vary by type of wood, individual casks even of the same wood, and even small variances in location within the warehouse, are equalized. Just as the Solera system continuously keeps some portion of the oldest liquids in play, the concept here is that over time, Botran’s younger rums take on the bold flavors and distinct personalities of the more mature rums in the column.
Blending is the key to the brand, and the lineup consists entirely of blends from stocks of differing ageing, jointly chosen by a trio of Master Blenders, the three “Maestras Roneras.”
There are five versions in the family, one white and four dark. While white rum is usually for cocktails, Ron Botran Reserva Blanca is actually good enough to drink straight, and surprisingly well aged, a blend of rums 3-8 years old. Because of the tropical heat, rums age faster than spirits produced in more northerly climates, and the age generally equates to somewhere in the range of 1.5 to 2 times in Scotch years, so an 8-year-old rum is roughly equivalent to a 12-plus year-old whisky. While it can stand alone, it is still best for cocktails, but this is a premium white rum, and should be mixed carefully. I’d use it for lighter bodied and colored drinks, like a rum and tonic ($25).
The other four are all dark rums varied by the age range of rums in the blend:
Ron Botran No. 8: Uses a mix of American oak ex-whiskey casks and Spanish sherry casks, has a lighter golden color, noticeable vanilla and nuts. Ideal for tropical rum cocktails, including Mai Tais, rum punch, anything with juice. (5-8 years old, $20).
Ron Botran No. 12: Same mix of casks, a touch darker, more tropical fruits and toasted wood in addition to vanilla and nuts. On its own or in cocktails. (5-12 years old, $25).
Ron Botran No. 15: Adds port wine casks to the whiskey and sherry, more complex, adds caramel and a spicy note to the tropical fruit, nut and vanilla. Very good on its own, but also good for rum forward cocktails where the flavors are not hidden behind mixers, and makes an intriguing tropical twist on an Old Fashioned, as it goes very well with orange garnish (5-15 years old, $33).
Ron Botran No. 18: Same mix of Spanish and American casks as No. 15, but the considerable ageing gives it the darkest brown color with hints of red, adds more sweetness and cocoa to the complex flavors. Dry and full bodied, excellent for sipping neat, how I enjoy it, but in Guatemala they often drink it on the rocks (5-18 years old, $45).
Botran rums are high quality, well made, and with consumers increasingly focused on sustainability, a very welcome addition back to our shelves. They are also an excellent value proposition, given that rums aged up to 18 years are still at the most rarefied end of the spectrum. Yet the priciest bottle, the No. 18, sells for the same as an entry level single malt Scotch.
So far Botran Rums have relaunched in 12 states: New York, Florida, California, Texas, Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. They can also be found online from major alcohol e-tailors such as Drizly.com and Totalwine.com.