Friday, June 17, 2016

Diplomatico Rum: Venezuela, Water Buffalo & Tasty Rum

What do 2000 water buffalo have to do with Rum? Seems like a strange combination but it will make sense later in this post.

Some time ago, with the oil boom in Venezuela, whiskey, especially Scotch, became their drink of choice, a high-end status symbol. That continued for decades until recently, when their economy tanked, and high-priced whisky became out of the reach of many. As a replacement, Venezuelans started embracing domestic rum. For example, in 2013, whiskey sales decreased by 29% while rum sales increased by almost 23%. In addition, domestic rum production increased from about 16 million liters in 2012 to about 22 million liters in 2013. Statistics for the last couple years don't seem to be readily available.

Though rum production in Venezuela has a lengthy history, extending back hundreds of years, it was often considered a lesser beverage and it has been only during the last 15 years or so that a number of the rum producers have begun creating higher quality products and gaining a measure of prestige. As such, exploring its newer rum products is a fascinating and worthy effort and you'll probably find some brands which you will favor. One of those brands that I strongly recommend to you is Ron Diplomatico

I've tasted several of their products before, finding them to be delicious and an excellent value, and recently had the opportunity to meet and chat with one of their Master Blenders, Gilberto Briceño, at two different events. One was a public tasting event held at Redstone Liquors in Stoneham, and the other was a media dinner at Barcelona Wine Bar on Tremont Street in Boston. At both events, I got to taste through Diplomatico's six different rums, and at Barcelona, I also got to taste several cocktails made with the rums.

The history of Ron Diplomatico extends back to the 18th century, to Don Juancho Nieto Meléndez, who spent time producing high-quality, artisan rum. During the 1950s, the main companies involved in producing and distributing alcohol in Venezuela united, becoming the Licorerias Unitas S.A. (and Seagrams owned 51% of this new entity). The distillery which would eventually make Diplomatico rum, was founded in 1959 in La Miel, a town located at the foot of the Andes Mountains. During the 1990s, a series of mergers and acquisitions changed matters, eventually leading to the creation of the Distilleries Unidas S.A. (DUSA) in 2002, which now makes Diplomatico.

Diplomatico owns about 1200 hectares of land in the La Miel area, which is an excellent region for the cultivation of sugar cane with its hot days and cool nights. They grow only a single type of sugarcane here, selling it to other companies which then return molasses and sugar cane honey back to Diplomatico, which they can then use to produce their rum.

It is very important to note that DUSA, the company that owns Diplomatico, is environmentally responsible, even having received the ISO 14001 Environmental Management Certification in 2009, which has only been attained by five other liquor companies. DUSA is dedicated to being green, to minimizing their impact on the environment, and some of their efforts include: recycling 100% of their wasterwater, recovering & recycling 100% of their solid waster, and planting over 6,000 trees. They even generate sufficient energy that they are able to sell 10% of their energy back to the government.

When discussing distilleries, the issue of waste often doesn't arise but it's such a significant matter that maybe it should take a more prominent role in our discussions with these distilleries. I was told that the production of 1 bottle of alcohol creates 17 bottles of waste. That is a disturbing statistic and should make you concerned about the disposal of all that waste. For example, if that waste is simply disposed of in a body of water, then 1 liter of waste can spoil about 5 liters of water. We shouldn't allow that to happen. Proper treatment of all that waste is essential to protecting the environment and DUSA is cognizant of this issue. With their waste treatment plant, they transform their waste into useful products including natural fertilizer, a natural pesticide and animal feed.

And we now arrive at the role of water buffalo. Diplomatico has approximately 2000 water buffalo on their property, and part of their feed is derived from the treatment of waste. The milk and cheese which is derived from these water buffalo is provided, for free, to Diplomatico's 500+ employees and their families. In a country that is currently undergoing massive food protests and shortages, this is an important benefit. Diplomatico also pays their employees a fair wage, provides health insurance and more. One of their employees worked for the company for 44 years without taking a single day off during all that time. That is loyalty and dedication.

The next time you speak to a distillery, ask them what they do about their waste.

Gilberto Briceño (pictured above) is one of the Master Blenders (Maestro Ronero) of Diplomatico,  the other being Tito Cordero. Gilberto has spent over 30 years in the spirits industry, having a degree as a chemical engineer. He led our tasting of the Diplomatico rums, providing background on the company and information on their production process. He stated that Diplomatico is "one of the best rums in the world" noting, with humility, that he didn't claim it was the best. He was personable and down-to-earth, and certainly extremely knowledgeable about rum.

Within Venezuela, there is a Denominación de Origen (DOC) Ron de Venezuela which provides specific restrictions for rums to be included in this DOC. For example, the rum must be made from a byproduct of sugarcane, which includes molasses and honey, and it must be aged for at least two years in white oak. There are a few other requirements and Diplomatico rums follow all of them, thus earning the right to be included within this DOC.

Diplomatico uses both molasses and honey to create their rums, noting that it takes about 24 hours to ferment molasses (as it has more sugars) and about 48 hours to ferment honey (which tastes fruitier than the molasses). They use their own proprietary strain of yeast for fermentation and also use open-vat fermenter tanks, though they are temperature controlled which helps to control the process.

When Seagram's was part owner of Licorerias Unitas S.A., they provided superior distillation equipment which is still being used for the production of Diplomatico rum. Currently, they use three different distillation methods, dependent on the type of rum they wish to produce. They have a Continuous Column still for their light rums made from molasses, a still which is similar to that used by many other rum producers. They also have a Batch Kettle still, which they obtained from Canada, for their medium body rums, usually made from honey. This was originally going to be used to make whiskey but those plans fell through and Diplomatico is the only distillery in Venezuela to have one of these stills. Lastly, they have a Copper Pot still, which is about 175 years old and was originally from Scotland, where it was used to make Scotch. This is the "soul of Diplomatico" and used to produce their most complex rums.

Per the DOC regulations, all of their rum is aged for at least two years in white oak though they also have a number of other barrel types they use, from ex-bourbon barrels to Spanish Sherry barrels. Each barrel is specifically marked to indicate how many times it had already been used, so they understand the impact of the oak based on its age of usage. Their barrels are stored in 21 warehouses, which contain a total of approximately 255,000 barrels, and the oldest barrels are about 14 years old. It should be noted they lose about 6%-8% of their rum each year to the Angel's Share. Production wise, they make about 500,000 cases of rum each year. Their rums are available in about 50 countries and France is actually their largest market, with the U.S. being a lesser market.

Diplomatico has two lines of rums, Tradition and Prestige. The Tradition line includes the Anejo, Blanco Reserva, Reserva, and Reserva Exclusiva while the Prestige line includes the Single Vintage and Ambassador. Before we began our tasting at Redstone Liquors, Gilberto explained the process of tasting spirits, which differs in some respects from a wine tasting, especially because of the higher alcohol content of spirits.

The Anejo (about $15), which was launched in 2004, is a blend of 70% light rum from a column still and heavy rum from a copper pot still, It was aged for about four years and has an alcohol content of 40%. It's the youngest rum of the Diplomatico line, and at its low price is an excellent value. With a light amber color, it has a pleasant nose of caramel and spice, with hints of chocolate and vanilla. Sipping it, I found it more full bodied, with a smooth and creamy body, and a pleasing blend of flavors, from caramel to toffee, chocolate to baking spices. The sweetness is mild and balanced, and you could even enjoy drinking it on its own though it was created more to use in a cocktail, such as a Daiquiri or Cuba Libre. At this price point, you would be hard pressed to find a better quality rum.

The Blanco Reserva (about $30), which was launched in 2008, is a blend of light and heavy rums distilled in copper pot stills and column stills, which has been aged up to 6 years and has an alcohol content of 40%. It has also been carbon filtered and treated with charcoal to strip away the color from the barrel aging. This is a clear, white rum with a more subtle nose though it is more prominent on the palate. It is silky smooth with a lighter body and crisp flavors, with some citrus and tropical fruit notes, hints of  sweetness, and a lengthy, complex finish. It is definitely an excellent white rum, which you could drink on its own or use in a cocktail.

The Reserva ($28) is a blend of rums from column stills and copper pot stills which have been aged for at least 8 years. The pot still rums were also made from honey and not molasses.  This was also another delicious rum, with a smooth texture, a light sweetness, and plenty of intriguing flavors of  vanilla, brown sugar, caramel, honey, almonds and some interesting ripe black fruits. Complex and well balanced, this is another rum which you could drink on its own or use in a cocktail like a Mai Tai.

The Reserva Exclusiva (about $30) is a blend of about 16 different rums distilled in copper pot stills and has been aged for 12 years. It constitutes about 80% of their total production and is obviously the most popular of their line. With a rich amber color, this is a sweeter rum, a pleasant after-dinner drink or something to accompany dessert. Rich flavors of caramel, butterscotch, vanilla and some tropical fruit, accompany some baking spices and slight earthy notes. Complex and alluring, this is a rum to seduce your palate, which on its own will appeal to many rum lovers though you could also use it as a whiskey alternative in a Manhattan or Old Fashioned. I'm a huge fan of this rum and think it is reasonably priced for all the complexity and taste it offers.

The 2002 Single Vintage (about $95) is a limited edition of about 3000 cases or so. Their first Single Vintage was the 1997 but it wasn't imported into the U.S. The first vintage to be exported to the U.S. was the 2000 vintage and the 2002 Vintage is only the second vintage to have been brought to the U.S. Not all future vintages will be exported to the U.S. either. There is some vintage variation each year and that helps to determine what will and will not be exported to the U.S.

The blend for this vintage rum comes from copper pot still and kettle batch stills and is only heavy rums. This rum was aged for 12 years in ex-bourbon and single malt casks and then placed into ex-Oloroso Sherry barrels for another year. With a 43% ABV, this rum has a slightly lighter color than the Exclusiva, and presents an intriguing aroma of caramel, vanilla and salted nuts. On the palate, the taste is complex and intriguing, a fine blend of caramel, vanilla, honey, almonds, baking spices, and dried fruit. There are hints of Oloroso in the rum, especially on the lengthy finish. An amazing rum, this is definitely a drink to slowly savor on its own. Highly recommended.

Finally, the Ambassador (about $260) is also a limited edition, of only about 5000 bottles and is at a cask strength of 47% ABV. It is made from 100% copper pot still rum, using only their highest quality rum. It is aged in used white oak barrels for 12 years and then spends another 2 years in PX Sherry barrels. This rum will remind you in some respects of an aged Port, presenting an alluring nose of red fruits and exotic spice. On the palate, there are more dried red fruit flavors, baking spices, more exotic spice notes, a touch of leather and a hint of herbs. Complex and fascinating, this is also a rum that would benefit from slowly savoring it on its own, trying to unwrap its various layers of flavor, discovering something new with each taste. If you have the cash to splurge, you certainly won't regret purchasing this superb rum.

At Barcelona Wine Bar, we first began with a tasting of all six rums and then moved onto a multi-course dinner, paired with four different rum cocktails. We began with a few tapas, including Cana de Cabra a la Plancha (with Eva's Rhubarb & Marcona Almonds), Bacon-Wrapped Quail (with Sherry Jus), and Marinated Beets (with Mint Chimichurri). The chef also sliced Mangalista pork table-side. An impressive beginning to the dinner, with the creamy, but also crunchy, Cana de Cabra, a Spanish goat's milk cheese with the always delightful Marcona almonds. The quail was another delicious dish as well as the silky and nutty Mangalitsa.

With the tapas, we were brought two cocktails: the Noche Española and the Daiquiri Royale. The Noche Española was made with the Anejo Rum, Amontillado Sherry, Lime Juice, Dark Sugar Simple Syrup. A refreshing and nutty cocktail, it was well balanced and I think it worked well with the goat milk cheese. The Daiquiri Royale was made with the Reserva Rum, Lime Juice, Simple Syrup and served in a Champagne flute with a topping of Cava. This too was a refreshing cocktail, with a little effervescence that allowed the rum tastes to show forth.

Moving onto the main course, we enjoyed a well-prepared Seared Red Snapper, with blood orange, snap peas and pea tendrils, paired with an El Juancho cocktail. The El Juancho is made with Reserva Exclusive Rum, Vermouth Royale Blanc, Grenadine, and a dash of Suze Orange Bitters. Bright, bold flavors, with a little sweetness, this held up well to the fish.

Finally, we ended the meal with a delectable Chocolate Pudding with Bananas Foster Puree, paired with a Willie Juancho & The Chocolate Factory cocktail. The Willie Juancho is made with Reserva Exclusive Rum and Dark Creme de Cacao, with a rim of lime juice and instant coffee. As I'm not a coffee fan, I wasn't crazy about the rim, but the cocktail itself was delicious, with the chocolate flavors enhancing the sweet caramel and nutty notes of the rum.

Diplomatico produces some impressive rums, including several at very competitive prices, and they are well worth seeking out. As I've said before, rum doesn't get enough respect as a spirit and it's time that people start exploring the diversity of the rum world. And as Diplomatico is a green company, which seems to treat its employees very well, then it is a company worth supporting, especially when their products are at this quality level. The next time you stop by your local liquor store, seek out Diplomatico Rum and give it a try. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

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