Tuesday, February 24, 2015

From Top-Shelf Sipper to No Thanks: The Fall of Zaya Rum

Home >> From Top-Shelf Sipper to No Thanks: The Fall of Zaya Rum
Zaya Gran Reserva at Rumba
It is rare, for this site, that an article casts a rum into such a disheartening (and now perhaps sobering) light as this one. Don't fear dear readers, our Mission still stands strong. However, there are times when balance and tough love is needed. It isn't without a bit of sadness that I declare Zaya Gran Reserva to be this rum. I can hear many rum lovers' responses now; "WAIT, WHAT!? Are you talking about the same Zaya Rum that I sipped years ago. The Zaya that opened my eyes and those of my friends to world of rum and how good sipping rums can be?" Well, if you are thinking something like this too, here is what I would say to you:

Yes, same Zaya Rum, but...
 Have you tasted it recently? 

No, I'm Not Talking About.... Imported Rum from Guatemala

Let's be clear, this article IS NOT talking about the differences between the Zaya Rum produced and bottled in Guatemala pre-2008 and the Zaya Rum from Trinidad. Now for a quick step back in rum history. In the early part of 2008, Diageo realized the value of a certain rum and, no surprises here, they bought it. That Rum was the lovely Ron Zacapa. Bet that name sounds familiar, eh? Zaya Rum, along with Ron Botran, were also being produced under the same roof by Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala. At the time, Diageo's acquisition created an unfavorable situation for Zaya Rum production due to its similarities with Zacapa; both required a supply of limited aged rum stocks and both competed for more or less the same market share; rich, complex, sweeter style sipping rums. Hence, the brand was moved to Trinidad where it has been produced ever since. What this article IS talking about are the differences observed in Zaya Rum from Trinidad over the past few years.

A Rum's Blend May Change a Bit Over Time or....Metamorphosize 

Everyone with any common sense knew that Zaya Rum would likely taste a bit different after production moved from Guatemala to Trinidad. In fact, some thought it might actually improve! Consider its new location, Trinidad Distillers Ltd., the distillery that makes Angostura Rum, one of the best rum brands in the world. Okay, so Trinidad makes GREAT rum; but they have their characteristic style and that differs from Guatemala. Certainly it takes a lot of skill to come up with a blend of rums, using different molasses and water, different stills, barrels, climate, etc. for each rum, to smell and taste the same, right? Plus, consider that they probably didn't transport a sufficient supply (if any) of the aged rums stocks from Guatemala necessary in the blend to carry them over for another 12 years. So how did they do it? Well, when the first bottles of Zaya Rum from Trinidad came out, there were far more similarities in aroma and flavors to its Guatemalan version than differences. Vanilla and caramel were a bit more dominant in the aromas and flavor, but otherwise, it still maintained much of its complexity, mouth feel and enjoyable finish. Don't get me wrong, it was not the same rum. That stated, if you ask me, Carol Homer did a pretty damn good job with the new blend. What many people didn't expect was that Zaya Rum made in Trinidad would continue to change. Further, that new rum from Trinidad would change so much, that to some seasoned palates, it became unrecognizable to the Zaya Rum they had once loved.

It's Fall From Grace....and the Shelves of Rumba

Zaya's fall from grace isn't meant to be interpreted literally, unless it happens to be at Rumba, one of the best rum-oriented bars in the country. Jim Romdall, their talented bar manager, not only boasts about their 400+ rums in stock but can show you how and what do with them. Bottom's up! More recently Rumba is faced with busier nights and limited shelf space and selecting new rums for their coveted "Wall of Rum" has become challenging. Jim announced to me he was pulling Zaya off Rumba's shelves after he had a taste of the most recent iteration of Zaya Rum. I went down to speak with Jim and after tasting and talking more, he admitted cold-sober, "If someone asks for it, I would recommend a different rum. If I have a bottle on our shelf that I can't recommend [anymore], then I shouldn't have it on our shelves." His words ring true from a business standpoint and from someone who loved what Zaya Rum once was and why it meant so much to so many rum enthusiasts. It was a gateway rum for many people who only knew rum to be Bacardi and Captain Morgan. Rumba, you may know if you'd had the pleasure, is filled with much respect and rumlove, and now, will no longer serve Zaya Rum. Let me repeat, Rumba is going to remove a luxury "sipping" rum from its shelf because they can no longer recommend it based off quality. This is saying something. Although, to be fair, there are lots of other rums that have changed for the worse over time that I won't mention here. So why make an example out of Zaya? Perhaps it is the gross difference between the quality perceived and/or expected of this rum, what it has become and the bartender's frustration on reconciling this disconnect with each patron of the bar. Regardless of the reason, the truth is difficult to swallow (pun intended) and now they have spared you that surprise at Rumba.

What Happened to My Zaya....and By the Way, You Forgot to Take Off the Petate!!

So just what happened to Zaya Rum from Trinidad?  A quick search indicates, that after the Guatemalan version received a "Double Gold" from the respectable 2007 San Francisco Spirits Competition, there are no such comparable "awards" for the Trinidad version to be found. This may be simply explained by whether or not it was entered into any competitions. Professional rum reviews also give some indication of changes witnessed. For example, well-respected rum advocates, such as Dave Russell was one of the first to post a formal comparative review of the Guatemalan and Trinidad versions on Rum Gallery in late 2008. He indicates subtle changes and their underlying explanations when factoring in working knowledge of some of characteristics of Angostura's aged rums. Nice! Then, another well-written and balanced review of the Zaya from Trinidad came out in 2010, from Matthew "RumDood" Robold. He accurately noted, "Its intense vanilla and caramel flavors can either be very welcome or entirely-putting off depending on your palate". Even by the end of 2012, The Rum Howler, Chip Dykstra, found in his review that Zaya Rum from Trinidad, "lacked balance due to the overabundance of vanilla". Despite its noticeably sweeter and unbalanced aromas and taste, each review noted some degree of complexity and character found in an aged rum. So what has happened since between 2013-2015? Bottle changes happened and so did the blend.

It's Not You, Zaya Rum....It's Me

After speaking with Jim and having some personal concern this new finding was a batch issue, I went out to purchase a few bottles at different liquor stores in the Seattle area. I also happened to have a bottle from 2010, before they changed the sticker on its crest to read "Producers of World's Finest Luxury Rum - Aged 12 years" and embossed "Zaya" into its side. It is worth noting that changes in bottle design have long been associated with changes to the contents inside. I tasted each of the 2015 iterations side by side with its earlier counterpart. I even brought out a Guatemalan version from 2008. The Zaya Rum from Trinidad has changed over time without question. I'm not trying to understand why they call this a Hand Selected Spirit, but why it has changed. Moreover, without transparency by the brand of such changes, it is arguably perceived as deception. But I'll admit, I'm no Rum Expert. Zaya Rum today offers a intense candy like sweetness and ripe vanilla and caramel aromas with subdued baking spices and cocoa giving the impression you are smelling a spiced rum, not a sipping rum. Kilo Kai anyone? I note strong butterfinger candybar aroma. I'm sorry Infinium Spirits, I just don't like that much added sugar and flavors. The initial flavors that once developed towards the finish are more heated and hollow in the 2015 version, rapidly fading by mid-palate; the long complex finish, now mostly empty, offering a more astringent mouth feel as some lingering fusel alcohol and petroleum distillate like flavors come together to reveal cough syrup notes reminiscent of Vicks Formula 44. I'm sorry Infinium Spirits, I just prefer honesty to the claim that this is still a blend of 3-5 rums each aged a minimum of 12 years. 

"Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are."
John Wooden


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Wow . . .sad news, but true responsibility to your product is key. I was at a bar telling they should have it just the other day . . . I guess I am due for a refresh before I mention it to anyone else. If AN EXPERT like Nicolas Feris or Jim Romdall say it is so.. I will trust you two without even putting a drop in my EXPERT mouth.

  3. "them that" before they . . .
    "Nicholas" not Nicolas . .

  4. If Zaya is aged for 12 years and only shifted production to Trinidad in 2008, wouldn't it be 2020 before any of the distilled-in-Trinidad Zaya hits the market. Am I missing something? Are they using someone else's distillate that was already aging in Trinidad?

  5. The label is different now as well. Instead of the cursive script font it is now a typical plain block font. So is the rum. It's gone from pretty good to almost undrinkable. Such a huge change, what a shame. Back to an Appleton or Sea Wynde for an everyday rum. Bye-bye Zaya.

  6. I embraced quite a few bottles of the Guatemalan Zaya in years past. It was ambrosia!!! We passed bottles among friends as special occasion gifts. I hadn't seen any Zaya here in the SF Bay Area for a number of years. In January (2016) several friends and I broke out a bottle of Trinidad Zaya for after dinner drinks. It was disappointing to say the least! This evening I saw a bottle at a local establishment and had the barkeep pour a round for myself and another patron. It had a vanilla nose but shallower that the original Zaya. It was thin compared to the older Zaya too. It was hot on the swallow and VERY disappointing! Diageo SCREWS up another good thing for the almighty buck!

  7. A second Joshua's comment. If Zaya started producing 12 year old rum in Trinidad in 2008, wouldn't the first released be 2020?

  8. I only started drinking Zaya about two years ago. I enjoyed the smoothness and the vanilla nose. Two bottles over a couple of years, cursive type and "aged 12 years". I just bought a new bottle, block type and "blend of 12 aged rums". Less vanilla and complexity. A string of genuine pearls has become a genuine string of pearls. Harsher in the palate and throat. Maybe they ran out of sources of twelve year aged rum to blend. Maybe they read too many reviews saying the vanilla was too strong. Maybe they changed master blenders. I never had the Guatemalan original. Going to Cuba in February. Hope to find some great stuff to bring back now that the limit has been lifted.

    1. Couldn't agree with you more Chuck. We're new to rum sipping and when the older "aged 12 years" bottle ran out, we replaced it with "blend of 12 aged runs" only to learn what was inside has changed as well, and not for the better.

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  9. Having just now finished my last, treasured pre-2013 bottle, I'm suddenly disheartened and confused about finding a viable 2016/Zaya replacement. Reasonable suggestions are welcome?

  10. I was given a bottle of Zaya in a gift set with two glasses for my birthday last year. It was delicious. I treasured every drop. Last week I purchased a bottle and it just wasn't as good. I thought it was perhaps my memory playing tricks on me but now I know. Damn, and I thought I had found a reasonbly priced sipping rum. Glad to know I'm not the crazy one though.