Lorena Vásquez was drawn to science by way of her love of aromas and flavors and now that love helped her become a pioneer in the rum industry in Latin America. Vásquez, who is from San Marcos, Nicaragua and moved to Guatemala in 1979, is the master blender behind Zacapa, Guatemala’s premier rum. She is the country’s first female master blender and one of the few women in her field in the world. Her journey toward making history began when she started working for the brand in 1984 in quality control at the age of 28. She moved up the ranks and went on to become the distillery’s first female master blender and Guatemala’s first as well. Having spent decades now building her craft and revolutionizing the way Zacapa makes rum, Vásquez has made a name for herself and Zacapa.
“Being one of the few female master blenders is a true inspiration reflected in my work. I started my work at Zacapa when I was 28 years old and was able to quickly rise in spite of being an industry dominated by men – which was definitely not easy,” she tells HipLatina. “When I started at Zacapa, I was one of the only women working there, and now we have tons of women in all types of roles. It inspires me to see so many women around me every day and I hope we continue to see progress throughout the industry.”
Vásquez evaluates all the rum and develops new technologies and processes and creates new rum blends as well as performs quality control of the product. The rum is made from the local sugar cane juice versus molasses making for a distinct taste developed though their signature process. Guatemalan doctor and chemist Alejandro Burgaleta unveiled the first bottle of Zacapa Centenario in 1976, on the centennial anniversary of the town of Zacapa in eastern Guatemala. Through the years, with Vásquez at the helm, the company has received acclaim and recognition for its unique taste.
The journey toward breaking barriers started when she studied chemistry and food technology in college which led her to eventually develop the sistema solera that produces Zacapa No. 23. The rum is aged at an altitude that’s almost a mile and a half above sea level and in four casks as opposed to the traditional single cask. The result is a process that uses less oxygen allowing it to age longer (about three years per Guatemalan law) for a richer-tasting rum. Because of the process of blending and aging the rum, the XO takes 10 and 25 years, and six and 23 for No. 23. After the initial three years the blending process starts and Vásquez reviews the batches and decides which will have the flavor notes of the XO and which will have those of 23. As a result of her work, Guatemala has become one of the top producers of rum, famously dominated by the Caribbean
“Women are redefining the spirits industry and pushing boundaries in ways that we have never seen before. We bring a sense of sensitivity and emotion to the development of each spirit we touch,” she tells us. “Zacapa Rum believes that women will continue to make strides in the creation of quality spirits and I hope to pave the way for future generations to follow.”
The brand has also collaborated with Boricua Master Mixologist Lynnette Marrero, a pioneer in cocktail bartending, who works as a trade educator for the brand. She also co-created the world’s first all-female speed bartending competition, Speed Rack. Marrero tells HipLatina that part of the reason she wanted to partner with the company is because of Lorena’s work and the care put into the product and its packaging. “The bottle tells you everything about the brand and about Guatemala,” she says. “On top, there’s an embossed orchid, which is the national flower of Guatemala, the Monja Blanca, and the petate is made by hand by Mayan women that we work with, we’ve been working with them for a very long time, it has to be over 20 years. Each one of those is hand woven, put on the bottle and they’re modeled after Mayan prayer mats.”
Marrero adds that responsible cultivation of sugar cane and the mission to give back to the community versus simply stripping it of a natural resource is another reason she’s a fan of the brand. She’s worked closely with Lorena since 2008 and shares that “every time I’m with her, I learn more every moment. I get to learn more about everything about life and business and culture. The innovation with which she approaches, all these things with with the brand is what I really love.” When it comes to being a Latina in this space, she says she feels empowered by the small but fierce community of women .
“If there’s not a space for you, make the space and your Latin family will join you,” Marrero advises. “I really see so much incredible support from the community.”
Both women are making a name for themselves in an industry historically dominated by men but it feels like that much more of a win as Latinas. While there’s not specific date on the demographics of their fields, Marrero says the barriers were there but that she’s seeing change and wants to be a part of it.
“We were always kind of segregated. We’re not either Latin enough or not white enough or not anything enough. And you know what? We’re enough and people are excited to get to know that and so I’d love to be able to have an opportunity to be a part of that conversation,” she adds.