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Rum Review: Colombian Or Not Colombian?

I have a love hate relationship with Colombian rum. My partner is from Colombia, so I visit this beautiful country now and then. With my passion for rum, I want to love Colombian rum as much as I love the country, but that’s quite the challenge.


I’ve tasted and written about Colombian rums before, where I went quite in depth on some of the brands. You can read that here if you’d like. I struggled with a few unanswered questions that I’m still struggling with. There is a lot of mystery in regards to Colombian rum. How’s it produced? Who’s producing it? I guess only the Colombian producers and importers have all these answers, but they aren’t willing to be open about it. Even if they were, it would likely be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Let’s give this another go though.


First of all, what is Colombian rum? The answer to that question should be easy, but it isn’t. There is a government monopoly on distilling. Different departments of the country have their own government owned distillery, which produces alcohol for that region. Think of brands like Ron Medellin, Ron Viejo De Caldas and Ron Boyaca. All of them from different distilleries in different regions. Sales wise, you won’t find Ron Medellin in Boyaca for example. Some have suggested this monopoly is no more, but a reliable source confirmed it’s still in place. There are independent Colombian brands like Parce, La Hechicera and Dictador. They are sourcing rum from outside of Colombia. I believe in the case of Parce it’s from Panama. La Hechicera is secretive about where their rum comes from. Dictador is likely from Panama as well. They all call their products Colombian rum, which is very questionable in my opinion. What’s Colombian about it? Has it been blended or aged in Colombia? Perhaps call it a product of Colombia, but certainly not rum from Colombia. It’s a slippery slope. It’s misleading.


Another new rum to me in this lineup is Hacienda Calibio. A Colombian brand that states the following on their website:”Hacienda Calibio has combined the best from two continents - sugar cane from the Americas and the centuries old techniques of the sherry cellars of Jerez de la Frontera”. Hhhmmm, what does that mean? Colombian rum or not? Again on the website, there is more information about Hacienda Calibio, an 18th century colonial sugar estate in Popayán Colombia. “On the estate lands of Hacienda Calibio in Colombia, sugar cane has been harvested continuously for more than two centuries. The sugar cane is milled to derive the juice known as guarapo. This mosto (base) is used to derive the sugars which will ferment and become highly prized alcohol. From the distilled spirits aged in select barrels in Jerez de la Frontera Spain, Ron Hacienda Calibio is born”. This certainly makes it sound like Colombian sugar cane is used to produce this rum, but it’s not 100% clear, as is usual with all these independent brands in Colombia I find.



To get some clarity, I was able to get in touch with Juan García from Ron Hacienda Calibío. He graciously took time out of his busy schedule to answer some of my questions. Turns out, Calibio is made with virgin cane honey (syrup) from Nicaragua, double distilled with a column still at Destilería Salobreña Granada, Spain. Further internet searches led me to Azucarera Montero and on the bottle it states Destiladores y Bodegueros S.L., but I didn't dive deeper into this rabbit hole. The ageing is also done in Spain in PX and Oloroso Sherry casks. Specifically, the 42 has been aged for 6 years in American oak and 2 years in Oloroso Sherry barrels. The PX has been aged for 9 years in American oak that's previously had PX Sherry in them for 2 years. Conclusion is that it’s a Colombian company producing rum in Spain.


I took the opportunity to ask Juan more about the general rum producing situation in Colombia. Particularly about the distilling embargo and the government distilleries. His answers were eye opening. He said:”In Colombia there is a lot of sugar cane, but for other uses, like bio fuel. 90% of the alcohol used to make rum is imported from Ecuador. Only the government liquor industries can produce Aguardiente and Rum. The other producers must be in a “free zone” (within the same country) or outside the country. These zones are all over the country, especially near seaports, airports or the outskirts of major cities. In either case, to sell in Colombia, an import process must be carried out”.


This means it’s not just the independent brands like La Hechicera and Parce who are importing rum into Colombia, the government run companies are doing this as well, at least partly.


With all this in mind, one can be forgiven for wondering if there is such a thing as a Colombian flavour profile. Looking at the government owned distillery output, it’s usually light, not very expressive or complex rum at an abv below 40%. My feeling is that most of it is near neutral alcohol from a multi column still that’s been exposed to wood for a while to add some flavour. How long it’s been in a cask is anyone’s guess. The age statements are highly debatable. The flavour profiles usually suggest younger rums than the stated age claim. Plus, some of them randomly use the word “solera”, to suggest they’ve been blending rums from different ages. Most of the rum enthusiast world knows by now that this is a misleading marketing word that’s used to put a higher age claim on the label (Zacapa anyone?!). The independent brands make the answer to the Colombian flavour profile question more confusing. La Hechicera is a pretty nice rum, but it wasn’t distilled in Colombia. It makes sense these don’t taste the same as the government distillery output, as it was produced in another country. But, then again, it sounds like some of the government produced rum might have been distilled outside of Colombia as well. Confused anyone?!


Then there is Dictador, the king of deceiving consumers. I don’t know how they get away with it. I visited a few rum bars the last time when I was in Colombia. They all have one or more Dictador expressions on their menu. When looking at the labels it seems like Hernan Parra, their “master blender”, uses a dartboard to determine which number to put on a label as an age statement. 16, 18, 12, 20, 25, 40, some solera, some non solera. You could play Dictador bingo with them. Disgraceful. They claim to have a distillery, which they don’t. Nobody has ever been there. I asked a few bartenders about the Dictador brand training they received from Hernan Parra. Each of them confirmed he talks about their distillery in Cartagena. I said:”Why don’t you ask him if you can visit the distillery?”. The answer:”They don’t allow visits, as it’s a factory”. Lol, ok. Nobody can deny their sales success though. Dictador is sold all over the world. Fancy bottles with big age statements and flashy marketing campaigns have done the trick. Lots of consumers think they are drinking very old, premium rum from Colombia.They are even catering the ultra rich with fancier bottles that carry million dollar price tags. Mainly based on lies. I guess some could call it a clever money making enterprise.


Despite all this, I couldn’t stop myself from tasting and buying some rum. This will never stop. Heck, I even continue tasting Plantation stuff, as long as it’s free. :) Some of the tastings I did in bars in Colombia. I tend to not do this, as I prefer to have peace around me….but this way I didn’t have to buy overpriced mediocre bottles of Dictador for example. I brought some rum home as well, mostly smaller sized bottles from the local supermarket.


The Cast


Ron Medellin 5 yr – Medellin – 35%

Ron Medellin 8 yr – Medellin – 35%

Ron Santa Fe 6 yr – Bogota – 35%

Hacienda Calibio PX 9 yr – Spain – 40%

Hacienda Calibio 42 6-9 yr – Spain – 42%

Dictador Best Of 1984 31 yr – 44.6%

Dictador 18 yr – 40%

Ron Viejo De Caldas 15 yr – Manizales – 35%


The ones I tasted at home, the two Medellins and Santa Fe, were done with the semi blind format. I know which rums, not in which order. I obviously couldn’t do that in the bars.



Nosing


Medellin 5

Oak, vanilla, light tobacco, chocolate mint ice cream. Light but pleasant.


Medellin 8

Oak, red fruits and red candy, vanilla, candle wax. It’s a bit boozy, which suggests it’s young. Light nose, quite pleasant.


Santa Fe 6

Light nose. Some oak and vanilla, candy-ish. Extremely light and somewhat unpleasant.


Hacienda Calibio PX

Lots of wood and sherry, vanilla, dusty wood. Hard to smell past those two overpowering elements.


Hacienda Calibio 42

Wine and wood, vanilla, citrus, it’s quite floral. On the light side.


Dictador Best Of 1984

Molasses, caramel, strong honey, chocolate, wood, hay. Nose is nice at first, on the sweet side. Turns really sweet after a while with vanilla and cotton candy, which is not that pleasant.


Dictador 18

Two year old Christmas cake, oak, vanilla, raisins, strong caramel, double salted licorice. Light molasses.


Ron Viejo De Caldas 15

Artificial banana, cherry, wood, vanilla, smells like walking into a candy store.


Tasting


Medellin 5

It’s minty, like chewing gum, especially on the front palate. Burnt wood, vanilla, some wood spice. As good as no finish. Not nice.


Medellin 8

Watery with quite a bit of burn. Oaky, caramel, some wood spice, vanilla and some plastic…like it’s been kept in an old plastic bag instead of a glass bottle. Slightly bitter on the short finish. The feel is of something very young and watery.


Santa Fe 6

Woody with some sweetness, light pepper, vanilla, light wood spice. No real finish worth mentioning. It’s ok-ish.


Hacienda Calibio PX

Lots of red wine, lots of wood. A ton of wood spice and wine on the medium finish. Almost like drinking woody wine. Must have been a wet barrel. Not rummy enough for me but easy drinking.


Hacienda Calibio 42

Nice sweet wood, wood spice, vanilla, light red wine, pepper. Quite nice. Prefer that much to the PX.


Dictador Best Of 1984

Burnt wood, bbq sauce, molasses, light licorice. Finish is nicely sweet and spicy at first with wood dominating, but it turns bitter after a while. The bitterness stayed with me for the rest of the glass. My mouth so dry, like I’ve been licking a barrel.


Ron Viejo De Caldas 15

It's hot and thin. Oak. Very candy like, cotton candy, bubblegum. Dreadful. No finish.


Dictador 18 40%

Strong licorice, similar to Dictador 12 in that sense. Caramel, oak. It’s bitter and thin. As good as no finish with licorice and a tiny bit of wood spice. Dreadful.


Conclusion


I tasted Medellin 5, 8 and Santa Fe 6 semi blind. At first I thought the 8 was the youngest. Thing is, all three are watery, thin and seemingly younger than the age statement they carry. Interestingly, on the label of Medellin 5 it says “Sin Azucar Adicionado”, which means “without added sugar”. I measured both the 5 and the 8 with my Easy Dens and the abv was exactly as per the label. This could mean no additives in both. However, if you specifically state one is without sugar, shouldn’t the other contain sugar then? Not so according to the hydrometer. So just another meaningless marketing phrase? I was disappointed with both Ron Medellins and the Santa Fe. Previously I had somewhat enjoyed 12 year rums from both these brands, but the younger expressions are a waste of money.



Hacienda Calibio is a different story. I had never heard of this brand until I spotted it in a rum bar in Cartagena. I really like the bottle design with the chalk like writing on it. PX are two legendary letters and I had high hopes because of this. Unfortunately, the sherry is completely dominating this expression. “Woody red wine” was the term that came up in my mind when I was tasting it. Still, better than the mediocre Dos Maderas 5+5 for example. I enjoyed Calibio 42 a lot more. A much dryer expression in comparison. That profile gives more room for little complexities to raise to the surface, which would otherwise be dominated by sherry or sweetness and go unnoticed. An easy sipper that most non die hard rum geeks would enjoy. It’s much closer to what a rum should be than the PX in my opinion. However, the Colombian bartender said it's the other way around for them. Sweeter is typically seen as better and more representative of what they know as rum. Different perspectives. Calibio is a Colombian company, but the rum is made in Spain from Nicaraguan sugar cane. Can’t really call that Colombian rum, right?


Dictador’s approach with all their tricks and cheats makes me dislike them as much as Plantation. I don’t want to like their rums, but I do keep tasting them whenever I have an opportunity and attempt to do so with an open mind. I’ve always been highly skeptical of Dictador’s age statements and that hasn’t changed during this tasting. Rum from 1984, bottled at 44.6% abv…..what a waste to water it down that much. Unless it’s not that old of course. I surprisingly enjoyed this rum quite a bit. That’s a first for me when it comes to Dictador. Nice level of complexity and good texture. It was let down by the bitter finish. Wood is dominating too much for me. It’s so dry and woody that it felt like I had been licking a barrel. Biggest issue, of course, is the questionable pedigree of this rum. Hence why I’d never spend money on it. Unless you are sensitive to showing your (virtual) friends the age on the label and expect to get ooohhss and aaahhhsss, I would leave this bottle in the store and spend less money on buying better rum.



The 18 provided me with a more typical Dictador experience. Lot’s of licorice in the profile, so much so that this flavour remained with me for quite a while. It’s thin, bitter and not complex. Dreadful stuff that’s mightily overpriced.


I can’t say I’ve ever been a real Ron Viejo De Caldas fan. Their 15 didn’t change this at all unfortunately. Artificial candy smells and flavours, combined with a lot of alcohol heat and a finish so short that it was gone before I could blink my eyes. One of the worst rums I’ve ever tortured my tongue with.



I struggle with Colombian rums and even more so with their pedigree. However, we always have to keep in mind that the rum enthusiast world is a very tiny bubble in a large sea of rum drinkers. Judging people for liking some of these rums is a slippery slope. It’s all about different perspectives. What someone in Colombia sees as a typical good rum profile, I might not. Doesn’t mean either one of us is right or wrong though. We don’t all have to like cask strength Jamaican rum after all. Next to that, it’s also a case of not knowing any better. The rum selection in Colombia is mediocre, even worse than in Toronto. Mostly local rum. Everything else is from South or Central America and Cuba. I did find a bottle of Appleton Signature once. A miracle! You can’t like what you don’t know. I do hope that changes. The rum universe has so much diversity in it. It’s a real shame when you are stuck with such a narrow selection.


Despite not liking most of the rums I tasted in Colombia, I really enjoyed myself while going through the tasting motions. It increased my knowledge and perspective of the local Colombian scene, which is valuable to me.


I brought a Foursquare rum sample with me on this trip, in case I wanted to drink something excellent. I ended up giving it to a local bartender in a rum bar. She loved it. There is still hope :)

Scores


Ron Medellin 5 yr – 41

Ron Medellin 8 yr – 38

Ron Santa Fe 6 yr – 48

Hacienda Calibio PX 9 yr – 62

Hacienda Calibio 42 6-9 yr – 73

Dictador Best Of 1984 31 yr – 68

Dictador 18 yr – 39

Ron Viejo De Caldas 15 yr – 30


Click here for info on the scoring method.

Click here for the complete list of reviews & scores.

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