Close your eyes, and image a dark, intense sipping rum, created in a distillery surrounded by vast sugarcane fields and then aged for a decade or longer. Odds are you’re picturing an idyllic Caribbean island like Jamaica or Martinique. You probably weren’t thinking of a coastal valley just fifteen minutes from the Pacific Ocean in South America. Sure, Peru is known for Machu Picchu, pisco, and wine, but rum? Believe it or not, rum from Peru makes sense – numerous South American countries support sugar industries and produce rum, including Venezuela, Guyana, Brazil, and Argentina. Knowing that, it’s not a stretch to imagine that Peru might also play in the cane spirits world. Since the high-end Cartavio rums started appearing on shelves around 2008, they’ve won a bushel of awards at spirit tasting competitions. Let’s check it out.
The Cartavio story starts in 1782, when Domingo Cartavio purchased land in the Chicama valley of central Peru, near the Pacific Coast. Sugar cane and other agricultural products have been grown there for centuries. Fast forwarding to the late 1800s, the agricultural operations were purchased by W.R. Grace, at one time a Peruvian steamship company that these days is a Maryland-based chemical conglomerate. In 1929, W.R. Grace started the Ron Cartavio plant to begin producing rum. Over the subsequent turbulent decades, the fortunes of the sugar and rum production waxed and waned, and in 1968 the Peruvian government took over its operations. This did not lead to stability, however.
By 1994, the distillery was a bit of a disorganized mess, as photos show. Luckily, a wave of privatization of Peruvian state industries led to the forming of Cartavio S.A. to run the operation, which subsequently turned into Destilerias Unidas S.A.C. Since that low point, they’ve implemented an aggressive modernization program, bringing the operations into the 21st century with major equipment upgrades to increase efficiency. Approximately 85 percent of the Cartatvio facility’s sales is from sugar itself, with the rest attributable to rum and ethanol production. To give a sense of Cartavio’s scale, it’s the second largest sugar refinery in Peru. The facility has 11,000 acres of land and can create 15 million liters or more of ethanol annually, used for industrial and transportation purposes.
While it may only be a small part of Cartavio’s overall output, Ron Cartavio isn’t playing around when it comes to making serious rum. The distillery uses multiple vacuum column stills, which make a higher quality product than non-vacuum columns: Because of the vacuum effect, the mash boils at a lower temperature, leading to less heat degradation of the mash components. (It’s similar technology to what the highly regarded Foursquare distillery in Barbados uses.) In addition, Cartavio also has a British-made, 4,000 liter (1,056 gallon) John Dore pot still, made in 1953, used for making heavier rums. The distillate from the pot still ends up at around 82 percent alcohol.
Master blender Federico Schulz oversees the aging of Cartavio’s rums. They have fourteen cellars equipped with a misting system, allowing them to control humidity to reduce the angel’s share. Don’t feel too bad for the angels, though– they still get about 6 percent annually.
In those cellars you’ll find 46,000 barrels in 100-, 200-, and 500-liter sizes. Of particular note is that these aren’t all Ex-bourbon bourbon barrels like many rum producers use. Instead, they’re a mixture of barrels from America, Slovakia, Scotland, France, and Spain. How’s that for a “We Are the World” story? At least some of the Spanish barrels are ex-sherry barrels, always a good thing in my book. The American and Slovakian barrels make up roughly 80 percent of the barrel stock. I confess, I’d never heard of Slovenian oak until researching this post; it’s supposedly somewhere between American and French oak in intensity. Several of Cartavio’s rums use the solera method, wherein rum ages in multiple barrels over time, with no barrel ever being emptied, making the final the output from the final barrels more consistent over time.
Cartavio reconditions barrels that ordinarily would have reached the end of their useful life. First, workers remove the top and bottom ends of the barrel, and then a machine removes about 2mm from the inside of the barrel; they call it “brushing.” A machine then re-chars it in a blaze of fire.
If you want to see more of the Cartavio facility beyond the photos here, I found a short Youtube video (in Spanish) with a lot of video within the distillery, as well as a short interview with Federico Schulz.
Cartavio’s story in the U.S. market starts around 2009. It bounced around from importer to importer till landing at Texas-based Ekeko Fine Wine & Spirits, named for a Central American god of abundance and prosperity. Ekeko specializes in Central and South American wine and spirits with a special focus on Peruvian import. Of the seven current Cartavio expressions, Ekeko imports five: Blanco, Black, Selecto, Solera, and the top of the line XO. While chatting with Ekeko CEO Jim Driscoll at the 2015 California Rum fest, he explained the Cartavio story using trip photos from his visit, and later on sent me sample bottles of the Selecto, Solera, and XO to try out. Let’s take a closer look at them.
Selecto (Five Year)
The Selecto is a blend of rums aged for at least five years. The bottle is a notch up in quality from the average five year rum. The cylindrical top slowly transitions into a substantial, square base, which provides a touch of elegance. I was surprised to see a flow restrictor underneath the stamped metal cap. The rum is a dark gold in the bottle.
Nosing the Selecto gives subtle hints of caramel and cinnamon. The first sip reveals a pleasing dry, wood-forward, Spanish style of rum; a bit of roast coffee and more caramel, and not much in the way of fruit. I find the flavor profile to be in a similar vein as Flor de Caña 7, from Nicaragua. The body is relatively light, leading me to believe this is a mostly column distilled rum. The Selecto finishes without much burn so it could be enjoyed neat. At around $20 U.S., it’s perfectly respectable five year rum – Not an everyday sipper, but a solid choice for craft cocktails that call for a dry, Spanish-style gold rum.
Solera (Twelve Year)
The Cartavio Solera is a solera style rum with a minimum barrel age of twelve years. Yes, specifying an age for a solera style rum requires a precise definition, since it’s a blend of rums across a whole spectrum of ages. Federico Schulz says it’s composed of 85 percent column still and 15 percent pot still rum, and it’s bottled at 80 proof. The bottle is your basic cylinder with a stovepipe neck, topped with a synthetic cork.
The color of the solera is just the slightest bit darker than the five year Selecto. The nose is delightful – caramel, a bit of leather, and sherry. This is a very smooth rum, with significantly more depth than the Selecto. The first thing I notice is sherry, although in a very pleasing, non-dominating way. It has great mouthfeel, without verging into sugar induced viscosity. I performed a quick, informal hydrometer test to estimate added sugar content, and it indicated no added sugar. The Solera has with a long finish that ends up pleasingly dry, unlike many heavily sherried rums, and leaves you ready for the next sip. At around $32 U.S., this a fine entry level rum that’s best enjoyed neat.
XO (Eighteen Year)
The top of the Cartavio line is the X0. It’s also aged in a solera, with a minimum barrel age of 18 years. It’s bottled at 80 proof and retails for around $65 U.S. Per Federico, it’s approximately 80 percent column still and 20 percent pot still rum, aged in Slovenian and American oak barrels.
The XO’s bottle stands out from the crowd and immediately piques your interest. Instead of adhesive labels, the label is etched into the bottle, inlaid with gold ink. It’s capped with a wooden-topped synthetic cork stopper, which is held in place by a wire cage, similar to a champagne bottle. The back label says it was created to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the distillery’s founding in 1929.
Side-by-side, the XO and Solera are very similar in hue. The nose of the XO is very inviting–caramel and fruit. Taste-wise, it starts out sweet and fruit forward. The mid-palate brings vanilla, oak, and cherry. The finish starts strong but fades somewhat quickly. The initial sweetness and viscosity point to the common practice of adding a bit of sugar after distillation. My hydrometer test yielded similar results to what Johnny Drejer found for the Cartavio XO, i.e., roughly 29 grams of sugar per liter. This is in the same ballpark as the Ron Abuelo 12, another well regarded sipping rum, and less than El Dorado 12 and 15, also recognized as worthy sippers. The XO is quite enjoyable with no rough burn to speak of. It would be an ideal “gateway rum” for folks who think that rum is screech-inducing white lightning.
I’ve had quite a bit of fun digging into the Cartavio backstory. I don’t think I’ve ever used Google Translate so much! I’m most appreciative of Jim Driscoll for sharing background details, presentations, and photos, as well as answering a ton of my wonky questions. The three Cartavio expressions covered here are all solid rums that can solidly compete with their better known Caribbean equivalents. The Selecto is nicely priced as a mixer, competing with rums from Guyana and Trinidad. The XO will find favor with fans of lush sippers like El Dorado, Zacapa, and Abuelo. But for me, the standout of the bunch is the Solera. It’s got an enjoyable, balanced flavor profile with hints of sherry, is nicely dry, and is a bargain in the low $30 U.S. price range.