Updated: Feb 17
Since my other half is from Colombia and I visit her beautiful country on occasion, I figured it was about time to compare some Colombian rums.
To me, Colombian rums have never been inspiring. From harsh, near flavourless ones to fairly nice light sippers, they always seem to have a certain level of dullness. One reason for this could be that it’s typically column still rum around 35% abv.
It’s easy to dismiss Colombian rum as overall bad products. I certainly have in the past and even though my knowledge of these rums and the Colombian culture has increased over the years, I’m still unimpressed by the majority of them. However, the more I visit Colombia, the more understanding I get for their rum culture. It barely exists. People are much more into drinking aguardiente (anise flavoured alcoholic drink) and whisky. However, when people do drink rum they seem to prefer the light Colombian style over others. I have two examples.
My partner’s dad visited us in Canada last summer. He likes to drink whisky and rum. I was excited to do a rum tasting with him. To make a long story short, most of what I gave him was “too strong”. This could either be in abv or flavour. I didn’t go crazy high ester on him, but no Barbados or any light Jamaican rum got the seale of approval. However, once I gave him a Juan Santos 9….he was happy. The only non Colombian rum he liked was El Dorado EHP at 40%. A small win! :) He explained to me he likes something light and easy to drink.
Second example happened during a visit to a rum bar in Bogota, called Pedro Mandinga. Very nice place. We were there with a few Colombian friends. I ordered a Caldas 15 and a Havana Club Seleccion de Maestros. Two very different rums. I’m typically not a fan of Cuban rum, too light for me, but I was enjoying this one. Very rum like, quite flavourful. The aroma of the Caldas 15 was reminding me of rum raisin ice cream and banana. Seemed confected. Without mentioning what they were drinking, I let the Colombian friends taste both. Result…..they liked Caldas and not Havana. They thought the Havana was strong and harsh, the Caldas very soft and sweet with no burn. It's a good example of how people’s expectations have been shaped by what they've been drinking for years.
The six rums I compared were bought in Colombia. They are Ron Boyaca 3, La Hechicera, Medellin 12, Ron Botero, Parce 8 and SantaFe 12. They are all supposedly aged in American oak barrels and distilled on a column still. Finding information on these is not the easiest task, especially when you want to find out where what is made and how it’s made. I’ve asked questions to quite a few people and stories seem to change from time to time. Rum in Colombia clearly is a complicated business. I’ll share what I’ve found out but can’t guarantee it’s all correct unfortunately.
There used to be a monopoly on distilling alcohol in Colombia. Nobody was allowed to distill except for government distilleries. The Caldas and Medellin brands are the more obvious examples, but there are many scattered around the country. This means any Colombian brands that aren’t affiliated with one of these distilleries is buying rum/alcohol somewhere else.
Parce for example. A while back one of the brand owners, Jim Powers, publicly stated that their suppliers are Arthur and Brojen Fernandes Domecq, a father and son duo in Bogotá Colombia. (In recent marketing they are referred to as master blenders) The Domecq family apparently has almost three centuries of experience in making wine, sherry and brandy in southern Spain. The distillate they use is from a four column stainless steel still in Pesé Panama. The blending and bottling is done in Armenia Quindío, Colombia. That means the distillate is bought from Varela Hermanos, which also produces Abuelo. Interestingly, some further digging shows Brojen being the Colombian area manager for Varela Hermanos. Next to that he’s director of Rio Magdalena Trading Company, where he’s listed as “Associate, Legal representative and Managing Director in charge of representing foreign companies, suppliers of bulk rum and beverage filtering solutions and other commodities for the alcoholic beverage business, in public tenders in Colombia.” A few pieces of the puzzle.
Jim Powers also mentioned they don’t add anything to the rum except caramel colouring. However, he also said:”Rum may contain residual sugar from distillation and blending process all coming from molasses. Cane syrup or juice may be added in small quantities.” I think he might have been a little confused. There can’t be residual sugar from distillation, since sugar doesn’t survive the distillation process. If they add cane syrup after, it’s an additive. I haven't found any tests on Parce 8 for additives yet. I have seen a lab test result for Parce 12 which indicated 15.5 g/l of additives/sugar and added vanillin.
It’s unclear if they buy aged rum from Panama and simply blend and bottle in Colombia or if they age it themselves. In any case, I can hardly call this Colombian rum. In that light, marketing statements like these are quite misleading:” Speaking of Bogotá, it's the home of PARCE's master blenders, Arthur Fernandes and his son Brojen Fernandes Domecq. In their skilled hands, PARCE 8 Year and 12 Year Colombian rums are 100% real aged and crafted to their satisfaction. PARCE uses natural spring water and homegrown yeast for optimal fermentation. Our carefully proportioned blend of sugar cane juice, fresh-crushed from three cane varieties, is brought to a flavorful finish through mellowed aging in charred oak whisky barrels.” Except….it’s rum from Panama.
Next up is La Hechicera, which is a brand from Casa Santana, who also produce Santero. For Hechicera they used to buy alcohol from outside Colombia. I say used to, because they’ve changed their processes, according to Miguel Riascos, co founder of Hechicera. “We’re sourcing unaged distillates from partner distilleries in Valle del Cauca, Colombia and then age our rum in Barranquilla for a minimum of twelve years, and up two twenty one.”
“We’ve worked with several distilleries, both in Colombia and neighboring countries, but are now favoring local sources for aguardiente. Neutral alcohol, when required, is a different story…we continue to buy abroad. In line with the Hispanic style, we prefer seeding light distillates into barrels. Sometimes, the aguardiente has the ideal taste and aroma but is too heavy physio-chemically. In those cases we might add a bit of neutral to lighten the blend and balance things out.”
They currently have 8400 barrels in their warehouse and are aiming to grow this to 24000 by 2020. Nothing is added to the rum, according to Miguel. The Fat Rum Pirate's hydro meter test confirms this.
Ron Medellin is made in……..Medellin, by state owned Fábrica de licores y alcoholes de Antioquia. Apart from rum they also produce aguardiente, brandy, vodka, gin and creams. They package 145000 units a day. All column distilled. They have 165000 barrels in their massive warehouses. The column still is 26 meters high and processes 48000 liters a day!! Aside from that, they also buy neutral alcohol from Bolivia and Ecuador, which they store in a 1 million liter storage tank. Surely this is used for the most popular alcoholic drink in Colombia, aguardiente. It might also be used in rum blends, just like Hechicera is doing.
Ron Botero is made at the same factory in Medellin. It’s a homage to the artist, Fernando Botero, who chose the image for the label himself. It’s supposedly aged for 15 years, but I’m not so sure. It was put on the market in 2012 and is still available. The bottle design stands out from the crowd, the 35% abv doesn’t.
SantaFe is produced at Licorera Cundinamarca in Bogota, another big state owned alcohol producer. In 1931 they were distilling panela in a column still that had a capacity of 4000 liters a day. In 1959 this capacity was increased to 10000 liters a day. In 1992 they installed three alcohol storage tanks with a capacity of 1.8 million liters. It’s also the year they started selling their products internationally. Of course this is not just rum. Nectar aguardiente is produced by them for example. Ron SantaFe was launched in 1997, the 12 year in 2012. It’s bottled at the typical 35% in a rather good looking bottle.
Ron Boyaca is made by Industria de licores de Boyaca. Located in the city of Tunja. It’s from 1924 and is state owned. The rum I’m tasting is their 3 year, at 35%.
To get a better idea of how massive these factories are, I’ve gone through a lot of online videos about them. In most cases you see the bottling lines only, sometimes barrels and very occasionally a glimpse of a still. I picked a few that might be interesting:
Click here for a video on Fábrica de licores y alcoholes de Antioquia (Medellin). At 0:51 you can see part of the column still.
Click here for a video on Industria de licores de Boyaca. At 2:51 you can see what looks like a column still.
Click here for a video on Licorera Cundinamarca.
Last video is also about Licorera Cundinamarca. It’s not as interesting, apart from the picture they show at 2:13. It’s a bottle of Parce. Another twist? Are they buying rum from them, or neutral alcohol for blending? Or is the photo misplaced? Oh Colombia. Click here to view it.
Quite a lot of time and effort has gone into getting these facts and figures. However, much is still a mystery to me when it comes to Colombian rum. I hear things like “nobody distills in Colombia, it’s all imported”, “there are pot stills in Colombia….there aren’t pot stills in Colombia”, “does it go into the barrels as near neutral alcohol?” etc. One thing is for sure, the government monopoly on distilling is over. This could be great for rum in Colombia, as smaller producers with a passion for making good rum can now start distilling. I’m looking forward to see if this changes things up a little.
Now for the tasting! I’ve tasted them blind. I knew which rums were in the lineup, but not in which order. I also don’t drink these very often, so the chance of an AHA moment was very small.
First thing I get is pineapple, dried fruit, cassis and perhaps some sweet wine. Is there a hint of oak somewhere in the distance?! It’s quite dull and it smells like young cheap alcohol. I had troubles nosing this. My stomach kind of turned upside down the more time I spent with it. That’s a first.
Very different from #1, it’s quite pleasant and smells a lot more like rum. The familiar scents of vanilla and oak, then some rubber, leather, tobacco and milk chocolate. It’s a bit smokey. Nice nose.
This one is strong on the chocolate. It’s got a hint of coffee and rubber. Rotting fruit and cardboard are there. This is something I usually appreciate in Jamaican rum, but in this case it’s somewhat off. It smells like the recycling room in a condo building. Beyond that I smell chocolate in a cardboard box. Some good and some bad on the nose. At some point I did ask myself “is this rum?”.
I love the smell of candle wax, and this rum’s got it. Furthermore there is toffee, Werthers, roasted nuts, molasses and some fresh paint from a home that’s been painted 3 days ago. It’s not bad.
This is a gentle one. Vanilla, oak, musty old fuit and a bit of chocolate. I like it. Gentle but pleasant. Smells like rum.
It’s a little strange. Smells like Fernandes Cherry Bouquet, a soft drink from Suriname. Candy cane, oak, raisins, citrus and……pickles. Not too fond of this one.
There were two rums I enjoyed so far, #2 winning this round with a very slight margin over #5. Rum #4 and #6 are quite some way behind these two. I disliked #3 a lot, but #1 was even worse.
It’s very spicy with some raspberry candy and a hint of orange. It’s clearly young and boozy. At this point I’m guessing it’s Boyaca.
It’s got a bourbon cask feel to it with spicy oak and vanilla. Even though I’m also getting hints of milk chocolate and tobacco, it still feels a bit like a one trick pony to me. Not super complex, but a nice easy sipper. I’m guessing Hechicera.
The chocolate from the nose translates to the palate as well. Reminds me of mint chocolate, like After Eight. It’s on the rough side and bitter on the finish. It unfortunately isn’t better than the nosing result. Very poor.
The bourbon cask vanilla and oak are back, together with a nice gentle burn. There is a hint of unpleasant cardboard, compensated by some nice milk chocolate. The finish is very nutty. Not great, but definitely better than #3.
I had some hope after the good nosing result. It doesn’t disappoint. Coffee, toffee, vanilla and some nice oak spice on the finish. My only complaint is that it’s too light. I can’t help but think this would be a very solid rum at 45-50% abv.
The nosing wasn’t great, but the tasting is surprisingly ok. Raisins and oak are back. It’s creamy at first and then peppery and spicy on the finish. Not a whole lot going on but not unpleasant either.
Rum #5 was a clear winner for me here. It’s nicely balanced and has some good flavour. In second place is #2, followed by #6 and #4. Rum #3 and #1 are dead last again.
1. Ron Boyaca 3 (35%)
2. Le Hechicera (40%)
3. Parce 8 (40%)
4. Medellin 12 (35%)
5. Ron Botero (35%)
6. SantaFe 12 (35%)
I wasn’t surprised by the reveal of rum #1 and #2. The first one was so young and horrible that it had to be the 3 year old Boyaca. The very low price is the only good thing about it. I expected Hechicera to be one of the nicer ones and the taste profile seemed to match that, which made me guess that one correctly.
I was disappointed by Medellin 12. I’ve drank it on quite a few occasions and thought it to be nicer than how I rated it this time (see comment at the bottom of the page). Another surprise was Botero. That went in the other direction, liking it much more than I expected. It’s such a shame the abv is so low on it. I believe this would be stellar at a higher abv.
I had never tried Parce 8 and SantaFe 12. The Parce is in a beautiful bottle. I like it so much that I will keep it after it’s empty. The rum is very disappointing though and so is the dodgy provenance and master blender story. Why call a Panamanian rum Colombian?
The SanteFa is in a good looking bottle as well. The difference with Parce is the rum being quite nice. Not very complex but a decent mixer, just like Medellin 12.
1. La Hechicera – 71
2. Ron Botero – 70
3. SantaFe 12 – 60
4. Medellin 12 – 65
5. Parce 8 – 35
6. Ron Boyaca 3 – 20
Click here for info on the scoring method.
EDIT 2022: When I tasted this bottle of Medellin 12 I thought it had gone off, as my memory of it was a much tastier drink. I recently bought a new bottle in Colombia and that confirmed this theory. It's much better than my experience during this tasting. I've increased the score from 55 to 65.