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Aging: the Solera Method demystified...

 
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Did this post clarify the Solera System?
Yes
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No
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Solera this!
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Total Votes : 2

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Capn Jimbo
Rum Evangelisti and Compleat Idiot


Joined: 11 Dec 2006
Posts: 2518
Location: Paradise: Fort Lauderdale of course...

PostPosted: Thu Jan 29, 2009 10:08 am    Post subject: Aging: the Solera Method demystified... Reply with quote

I'll take one from column A and one from column B...

The "Solera Method" - common in the production of certain wines (especially Sherry) and vinegar - came to be known in the wild and wacky world of rum some years ago, promoted primarily by marques such as Zacapa, Botran, Matusalem and the "new" Atlantico, among others. The primary pitch is something like "...our Solera method continues to slowly age rum from barrel to barrel, until the final barrel represents a unique combination of rums of different ages". Sounds great, doesn't it?

Sure. Let's take an example, Ron Atlantico, the new-old kid on the block:

Quote:
Our 3rd generation master blender has developed a unique process for the creation of Atlantico. It begins with the selection of the finest small batch aged Rums from the Dominican Republic.

Once we have selected the individual Rums, we blend them together to create something truly unique. We then take an additional step and age the blend yet again (private cask), which results in a mellower, more complex Rum.

From the private casks, we place the Rums in another set of barrels for 15 to 25 years. This third aging uses the solera method most commonly used with Sherry production which guarantees a consistently balanced Rum. Only when we feel the Rum has reached its perfect state do we remove it from the barrels and bottle it by hand.


Sound lovely, but we really ought to think about this. Atlantico "selects" some "small batch aged" rums. Do they mean the rums were batch produced? As by pot still (a batch process)? Or is "batch aged" simply made up? I'm going with the latter; I've never heard of "batch aging" as opposed to what? Continuous aging? Hmmm. All we know so far is that we have some rum that has been aged for an unknown period.

Let's continue.

Now they "blend" these selected aged rums, and age 'em again, this time in "private casks"? This is their way of saying they are, uh, aged in, uh, casks. All we know at this point is that now we have a blend of rums of unknown age, which is further aged for yet another unknown period of time. To provide a "mellower, complex flavor".

OK.

But Atlantico is not done. Now there is a third "Solera" aging for "15 to 25 years". This is where it get's murky. We know, or ought to, that the "hand bottled" product is drawn from the last barrel in the Solera, usually (but not always) annually. Now here is where it gets downright mysterioso. When Atlantico states a range of "15 to 25 years", we are left without guidance. True Solera age is generally given as an average age, and/or perhaps the oldest rum in the mix. So in this case I'm forced to assume that they are considering the entire process - the initial aging, the blended aging - and - their version of Solera aging.

But first a bit about the true Solera process.

The true Solera process involves a series of aging barrels, say four, and an aging/removal schedule, say annual, and the periodic removal amount, say half a barrel. The Solera is born when all four barrels are filled at the same time. After the first year, a half barrel of product is removed from the last barrel. This amount is replaced from the third barrel, which is topped from the second barrel, which is - yup - topped from the first barrel. New rum is then added to the first barrel.

And so it goes.

Without publishing a spreadsheet, what will then happen over 20 years will be that the last barrel will contain the same rum, but with different amounts of from age 4 yrs to age 20 years. The average age of the final product, based on volume and after those 20 years, will approach 8 yrs. The oldest rum in the mix will then be 20 years, and will continue to age. Furthermore, a true Solera system is exponential. For every 1/2 barrel of final product, you need 4 barrels. This, friends, is 8-to-1, and represents a huge investment in cooperage. And that doesn't even address major losses of the angel's share. Not a big deal?

Wrong.

Let's say you age a rum (or blend) in a single barrel, non-Solera system, for say a loss of 10% of that barrel. Now consider a four barrel Solera system - each of the four barrels would lose 10%, for a total loss of 40% compared to the single barrel aging. Now although I'm sure the relative loss is not likely to be that extreme, it will still be very, very substantial. And don't forget you are tying up 75% of your inventory, even for this small Solera!

Solera is very expensive.

Furthermore, no distiller who wishes to remain both profitable and competitive can afford to incur costs much beyond the rest of the marketplace. Accordingly, I have some justified skepticism when I hear the Solera marketing claims. Let's reconsider Atlantico (or Zacapa) in this light.

Atlantico makes much of their triple aging - intial aging, blended aging, and Solera aging. So impressive, yes? I think not. Notice they avoid stating ages, except for what seems to be an overall range. Here's what I'd guess:

The intial and blended aging is substantial. The Solera portion is notably less so, perhaps using fewer barrels, shorter intervals and larger bottlings. Perhaps the Solera portion is intended more for marketing and promotion. And without stating the specifics, only Atlantico knows the reality. One thing for sure...

It's not what I'd consider true Solera. And until the distillers fess up and openly discuss their version of "Solera" we will never know. Here's the myth I would like to destroy, something like "...expensive Solera aging produces more complex fine rums". Does it?

Maybe. I'll conclude with these:

1. The quality of a true Solera is entirely dependent on the quality and potential of the distillate. No amount or type of aging can really fix up a bad rum.

2. A true Solera is a very long, expensive and committed process. If at a point the final bottling starts to head south, there really is no easy fix. Changing the first barrel will have no effect for some years, and even then the change may not be desired. Another option is to start a whole new Solera. The last is the perhaps the most likely, and that is to simply blend the defective Solera with another rum(s) to correct it - an altered Solera product.

3. "Solera" - unless fully described by the distiller, is meaningless. It is a true Solera or just a finishing ploy? How many barrels, at what frequency and with what bottling amount? Any age statements must be considered with genuine skepticism. Not one of the Solera rums provides this information. And even if they did, so what! The fact of a rum being a Solera does not make it more likely to be a better rum. Indeed, the opposite may be true.

4. The real truth is that while Solera may work for Sherry and vinegar, or for rum marketing purposes - nothing, but nothing - can replace the art of hand blending by a skilled artisan master distiller. No two distillations, barrels or agings are completely alike. It is only the master distiller who can draw from his palette of thousands of barrels to create wonderful (and relatively reliable) products. Think Jerry Edwards, Joy Spense and Richard Seale.

The next time a rhum snob condescends to you with "...try this one, it's a Solera!", just grab your crotch and say "Solera? Solera this! It's 50 years old...".
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Last edited by Capn Jimbo on Sat Mar 06, 2010 4:52 am; edited 5 times in total
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Capn Jimbo
Rum Evangelisti and Compleat Idiot


Joined: 11 Dec 2006
Posts: 2518
Location: Paradise: Fort Lauderdale of course...

PostPosted: Thu Jan 29, 2009 10:39 am    Post subject: Speaking of spreadsheets... Reply with quote

Speaking of spreadsheets...

I spoke briefly before that a real analysis of a true Solera aging is actually quite complex, better done by spreadsheet. After much work, I finally was able to create one that appears to work. Here's what I found...

Regardless of the years of age of the initial filling of all the barrels, each additional barrel in the series seems to add roughly one year to the average age across the board. This holds true for about 6 barrels, then the gain appears to reduce in an exponential fashion.

With this in mind, it is no wonder that a typical true Solera system is about four barrels in length. Because of the exponential fashion, it appears that most of the returns can be achieved with 3 or 4 barrels in about 7 or 8 years. And this is for a true Solera system. For finishing or blending purposes, even less time has noticeable results.

With this in mind, I am very skeptical of Atlantico's reported "15 to 25 years". There is no way to make sense of this claim, either in ranges within the product or as an average.

It is a claim without justification...
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Capn Jimbo
Rum Evangelisti and Compleat Idiot


Joined: 11 Dec 2006
Posts: 2518
Location: Paradise: Fort Lauderdale of course...

PostPosted: Sat Mar 20, 2010 6:45 am    Post subject: I'm wrong. Or am I? Reply with quote

I'm wrong. Or am I?

Over at Dood's I long ago posted most of the original post (above). At issue is the following:

Quote:
Me:

Let's say you age a rum (or blend) in a single barrel, non-Solera system, for say a loss of 10% of that barrel. Now consider a four barrel Solera system - each of the four barrels would lose 10%, for a total loss of 40% compared to the single barrel aging. Now although I'm sure the relative loss is not likely to be that extreme, it will still be very, very substantial. And don't forget you are tying up 75% of your inventory, even for this small Solera!

Solera is very expensive.


An apparently astute reader pointed out the risks of believing me - the Compleat Idiot of Rum - in this matter. His smarfy retort:

Quote:
BeeHappy:

Capn Jimbo, I hope you are not basing your bashing of RZ on your math, because it is wrong by a factor of FOUR. If you have four barrels and they each lose 10%, then the total loss is 10% NOT 40%. If there WAS a 40% loss and it was replaced with newer stock, then there would be a case to rail against the age claim. That’s not the case.


His observation seemed so right I considered Seppuku (hara-kiri) for a moment, but then I decided to really tear apart the process to examine the actual losses. Here's what I determined...

Although the reader's observation has a certain simplistic obviousness to it, in truth his assumption does not address the fact that in a multi-leveled solera system - unlike a simple aging/topping off - the losses are cumulative as the rum moves down. Consider again a four level solera, with 1/2 barrel removed each year and with a 10% loss:

The bottom barrel will have 1/2 barrel removed for bottling. This must be replaced with 0.6 barrel from the third level (0.5 barrel plus the 0.1 bottom barrel loss). This must be replaced with 0.7 barrel from the second level (0.6 barrel plus a 0.1 third barrel loss). Likewise this must be replaced with 0.8 barrel from the top level (0.7 barrel plus the 0.1 second barrel loss). Lastly the top barrel must be replenished with 0.9 barrel of new rum (0.8 barrel plus the 0.1 top barrel loss at that level).

Total: for every 1/2 barrel removed from the bottom for bottling, 0.9 barrel of new rum must be added at the top level!

That's an 0.4 barrel loss for each year of solera operation, or 40% of a barrel lost annually. I have been redeemed. And remember too that the 4 level system ties up a lot of rum that can't be sold and continues to accumulate losses. Now in real life I do not believe the losses are quite so dramatic. The best I can determine is that real losses are more like 2-6% per year. Still the fact remains that a true solera is an expensive operation. Even ignoring losses completely a solera system has a hard time exceeding an average age of even 8 years.

As Richard Seale so well puts it: "...sure there's some 23 year old rum in your Z-23. Maybe a teaspoon".

Again BeeHappy, thanks for your post as I probably should have posted a more thorough description of the process. Until solera producers start labeling their bottles with real and complete information - which should include youngest age, oldest age and average age...

"Solera" will remain a vague but seemingly impressive marketing gimmick.


*******

Note: The above - however true and accurate - is basicly meaningless bullshit. As befits a Compleat Idiot bordering on Idiot Savant (but not quite). By now you should have accepted the following. These are the real bullets:

1. True solera is a very expensive process.

2. You can be assured that the "solera" processes used in the production of rum are not true soleras, nor are they particularly extensive. I believe most solera rums are finishing ploys more designed for marketing.

3. No matter what you may see, the average age of your "solera" is probably less than 8 years. Perhaps much less.

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PostPosted: Mon May 03, 2010 11:30 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I would concur that based on economic constraints, very few rums exceed an average age of 8 years. And you can find very good rums at half that age, for example Cruzan ED, Barbancourt, and FDC.

I tend to ignore any number greater than about 10 or 12 on a rum bottle, as pure marketing hype.

As I see it, all those 21's and 23's and 30's are just there to help the investment bankers keep their d#%$ hard while they are drinking it in their baccarat tumblers (with too much ice).

Taste the rum, not the number!
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