Puerto Rico is an interesting corner of the rum world—home to one of the world’s largest rum producers and most visible brands (Bacardi), but often relatively overlooked by rum geeks thanks to its lighter, Spanish-style distillates (column distilled) that lack the heft or funk of rums from locales such as Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, Guyana or Antigua. It’s the home of many blending and “mixing” rums, but Puerto Rican distillers also produce plenty of quality aged spirits, as seen in my recent revisit of 4, 8 and 10-year-old Bacardi expressions.
Another fact that many U.S. consumers would miss—despite being a massive, international company, Bacardi actually isn’t the #1 selling rum in Puerto Rico. No, that would be Don Q—the product of Destilería Serrallés, the nation’s oldest family owned company, it’s the local favorite, selling better than the likes of Bacardi or Captain Morgan. The company, meanwhile, has been producing rum since 1865, and has the expected wide range of expressions, including Cristal and Gold, and into extra-aged, flavored, and finished (sherry, vermouth, etc) products. I was already familiar with the Don Q Cristal in particular before this tasting—it’s an extreme value in white rum, being a lightly aged product that is filtered to remove color, but is still regularly available for $15 or less. In fact, it finished at #2 in our blind tasting of cheap white rums, handily besting the flagship Bacardi Superior. Tasting that, we could see why it outsold its competition.
Today, however, I’m tasting the newly redesigned Don Q Gran Reserva XO, previously called Don Q Gran Añejo. This is the same product as before, in new, more curvy and less angular packaging, and at the same $50 MSRP. Specifically, Gran Reserva XO is a blend of column-distilled rums aged between 9 and 12 years in American oak barrels, “with the additional of solera rums aged up to 55 years” in small quantities. As the distillery goes on to say, “this smooth, aged rum has no added sugars and its tannins as well as the subtle oak nuances and hints of spice, help distinguish Gran Reserva OX’s award-winning flavor profile.” It’s bottled at the baseline of 40% ABV (80 proof), the same as its most obvious competition: Bacardi Reserva Ocho and Gran Reserva Diez. In terms of price point, it’s a bit higher than either, as Reserva Ocho runs around $30, and the newer Gran Reserva Diez is $40, although neither claims to contain the older solera-aged rums like Don Q Gran Reserva XO.
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, the initial impressions here are on the subtle side. Green apple fruitiness and light notes of melon fill in the fruity side of the spectrum, while there’s also a faint impression of warm toffee, along with traces of grain/baked bread and slightly musty anise. Oak is very, very light, but you can find it over time. All in all, it’s just not a very expressive nose, even considering the low proof.
On the palate, things are a bit more interesting, with initial fruit and caramelized sugar notes that suggest apple pie and some light caramels, along with molasses and a bit of gingerbread. Cinnamon sugar impressions are enhanced by mild sweetness, and there are hints of char and oak tannin present as well. It’s very light and insubstantial in terms of mouthfeel, however—the feeling of missing some heft—and a lingering flavor note of “raw” ethanol mars what is otherwise a pleasant, lower-assertiveness sipping rum. This is not to say that the Gran Reserva XO displays alcohol “heat,” per se—rather, that the flavor of the ethanol itself shows up more strongly than you would expect at the low proof point.
All in all, my ultimate impression of Gran Reserva XO is sadly that it feels a bit plain, if perfectly serviceable and quite easy to drink. Its flavors could really stand to pop with more intensity, and I wonder if even a bump to 43% ABV (86 proof) for what is meant to be a premium expression might help it seem a bit more characterful. In particular, it’s hard for me to specifically imagine spending $50 on this bottle when the likes of Bacardi Reserva Ocho is down there at $30, offering a similar experience.
I can certainly understand that desire to support Destilería Serrallés, being a true product of Puerto Rico and family owned company as they are, and our previous blind tasting seems to indicate that Don Q’s “white” rum offering blows their competition at Bacardi out of the water. In the aged arena, though, I can’t help but think that the shoe might be on the other foot.
Distillery: Destilería Serrallés
City: Ponce, Puerto Rico
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $50 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.