Image Courtesy of Zacapa Rum
To become a great master blender, it takes a sharp nose, discerning palate and vast storehouse of knowledge, but if you ask Zacapa Rum’s Lorena Vásquez what helped her reach the pinnacle of her profession, she’ll add another requirement. “Children of a certain age are constantly asking why, why, why—about everything,” Vásquez says. “My mother says I never got past that stage. I always want to understand the why of things.”
That curiosity has served her well, helping her become Guatemala’s first female master blender, a job title that no woman anywhere held until 1997 when Joy Spence of Appleton Rum in Jamaica knocked down that barrier. After overcoming personal hardships, proving her worth as a working woman and eventually changing the game when it comes to rum production, Vásquez is a force.
The spirits industry remains largely male-dominated, with research indicating that in 2020 women represented just 10% of C-suite roles in the food and beverage sector. But that’s an improvement from the different world Vásquez first encountered when she joined the Zacapa team in 1984. At the time, Vásquez was in her late 20s and worked in quality control. During visits to the distillery floor, she was the only woman among approximately 200 men. “As I’d walk past them, they’d make catcalling noises, so I would turn back and say, ‘Hello, I’m Lorena. Nice to meet you. How can I help you?’” Vásquez recalls. Gradually, they got the message.
These struggles, however, paled in comparison to those Vásquez had already faced. She and her then-husband, a Guatemalan, were living in Vásquez’s native Nicaragua when fighting broke out between the Sandinistas and the Somoza regime. In 1979, the Guatemalan embassy urged its nationals to leave, and the couple (along with their one-year-old son) were among those airlifted out of Managua by the Spanish military, taking only the clothes on their backs. They made their way to Guatemala, which has been her home ever since.
With a degree in chemistry and food technology, Vásquez has used her unique position and knowledge base to shake up the beverage industry. She first landed at a beer company, but her dislike for beer eventually led her to Zacapa. Although not a rum connoisseur at the time, she enjoyed the puzzle that is sensory analysis and fell in love with the rum’s complex flavors and aromas. “I saw that aging the same rum in different climates produced totally different results, and I started asking why,” she says.
The answers led her to transform Zacapa’s operations. While rum is most commonly made from molasses—a legacy of the Caribbean sugar trade, which produced it in abundance as a byproduct—Guatemala law required its rums to be made with sugarcane. After investigating different varieties and studying the results, Vásquez settled on three sugarcane plants. All of Zacapa’s rums start with “virgin honey,” the first pressing of the three sugarcane varieties, which are grown in clay-rich volcanic soil on the company’s own plantations in southern Guatemala.
Vásquez also relocated Zacapa’s aging facility to its “House Above the Clouds,” which is situated at an altitude of 7,500 feet in Quetzaltenango, in Guatemala’s western highlands. The cooler temperatures and decreased oxygen levels allow rum to age more slowly.
Additionally, Vásquez developed her own version of the solera system, a method of aging Spanish sherry. Using oak barrels that once held oloroso, Pedro Ximénez or whiskey, toasted to different specifications, she blends new rums with older batches before moving them from one barrel to the next. The work is part art and part science, but the result is a smooth rum with complex aromas and flavors. “It’s not a mathematical formula,” she says. “The blend tells you what it needs.”
Of course, it helps to have an acute sense of smell. Vásquez laughs as she recalls her frequent childhood complaints about meals she disliked. “You found the best job for that nose,” her mother tells her now, “because then you finally stopped bothering us.”
Lifting Up Women in a Man’s World
With 38 years worth of experience in the industry, Vásquez is keen to pass on her expertise, particularly to other women. She make it a point to hire many women at Zacapa—in the distillery, at the aging facility and even driving tractors on the plantations. The company also employs 700 women from two Guatemalan communities to weave the bands inspired by traditional petate (a woven fiber often used as bedding) that adorn every bottle of Zacapa 23.
One cooperative is composed largely of widows whose husbands died during the civil war, while the second community was previously devastated by severe drought and suffered from malnutrition. Most of these women have little education and few work prospects, but now both groups are able to work from home while caring for their children. “If you support women,” says Vásquez, “you’re supporting families.”
“She is deliberate with her work and how she gives back,” says Lynnette Marrero, a master mixologist and co-founder of the female bartending competition Speed Rack. Marrero is a Zacapa trade advocate who has been collaborating with Vásquez for nearly 15 years. “Lorena is a driving force with a killer palate. She really cares and is always willing to give advice,” she says.
When asked about that advice, Vásquez’s response sounds a lot like her own story. “Don’t be afraid—you have to persevere, fight and learn every day,” she says. “Nothing is easy in life, but you can’t give up. Ask questions. Ask why.”