In 1979, at the start of the Nicaraguan Revolution, Lorena Vásquez left her hometown of San Marcos, Nicaragua, for Guatemala with her then-husband. The hardest thing about starting a new life in a new country has been leaving her family behind, but she has managed to make the most of it. In September 1984, she started working at Zacapa rum, in quality control; she was then promoted and became the first female master blender in the distillery and in the country. In the decades that followed, more and more women became master blenders in a male-dominated industry, but the spirits industry still has a long way to go.
His expertise came from studying chemistry and food technology in college. While working at Zacapa, she developed their Solera System, in which the rum – made from virgin sugar cane juice, not molasses – is aged in four barrels instead of one at an altitude of 2,300 meters (1.4 miles) above grade from the sea. This allows less oxygen, pressure and temperature to enter the rum so that it can age longer, resulting in a richer and more complex product. Guatemala isn’t generally known for its rum – parts of the Caribbean are better known – but Vásquez and Zacapa have put the country on the map as a supplier of excellent rum. One initiative by Vásquez was to hire 700 indigenous Guatemalan women to work from home and weave palm bands (petate), which wrap around bottles of rum. “It arose out of necessity when the brand was growing to help Guatemalans, especially women,” Vásquez told HuffPost. “A little bit of Guatemala is in every bottle of Zacapa.” In this edition of Voices in Food, Vásquez, who describes herself as a “guardian angel” because she oversees the entire rum-making process, explains from her home in Guatemala City, Guatemala, why she became a master blender, her representation in the industry and how it was his destiny to work with rum.
When I arrived in Zacapa, it was 200 men and me. When I started out, many of these men were more craftsmen than technical master mixers. I came from a technical side. I was relatively young and a female, so trying to explain how to do things differently to these older men who came more from a craft place than a more technical place – it was a bit difficult. What really helped me was being humble and also trying to learn as much as possible from these men. But I had to work harder than a man because I had to prove myself.
“Without passion it is very difficult to be successful because it is a very demanding job. … It’s an “always active” job to be on top of everything. “
I have three tips for women who want to become master mixers. Firstly, in this industry it is very important to be prepared, to study and to have knowledge of chemistry. Second, it is very important to train the nose – the flavors and aromas. Without it, it is very difficult to be a master blender. There is a lot of practice in there. The third concerns passion. Without passion it is very difficult to be successful because it is a very demanding job. These are long hours and demanding tasks. It’s an “always on” job to be on top of everything. With passion, at least, you really enjoy the trip, and that makes it easier. I always try to work with women when possible. Women normally pay more attention to detail and have more sensitivity on the nose with aromas and flavors.
I train two master blenders: one is a woman and the other is a man. Every step of the way, you find women. Representation has improved a lot, but it is obvious that we need more women to enter the industry. I think women like me can hopefully be a role model and inspire more women to enter the industry.
I studied pharmaceutical chemistry because my father was a doctor and I didn’t want to study medicine. At school, I was already good at math, physics and chemistry. I already liked playing with aromas and flavors. I realized I was good at it. I had a very clear idea that I wanted to do something in food and drink because I liked everything about aromas and flavors. I have a job in a brewery [in Guatemala], but I didn’t like beer. It was kind of a pain every time I worked with beer. When I had the chance to move to Ron Zacapa, I took it.
“I had to work harder than a man because I had to prove myself.”
The rum industry has changed dramatically over the years. In the beginning, rum was a very popular drink which was more for the masses. What Zacapa has done is establish a premium category. I get a lot of energy to take on challenges with new products. My obsession is to work and play with flavors, which makes me come up with a better and more consistent rum. I am passionate about Guatemala being known around the world as a country that produces good rum because it allows them to create more jobs in Guatemala – not just Zacapa, but in general the economy of Guatemala. .
My great-grandmother distilled sugar cane alcohol at home. Lots of people went there to try it out. It was really good. I realized I was connected to rum in several ways. It was my destiny. My father worked for a long time in a candy hospital. If you look at my birthday in Mayan astrology, my symbol is candy cane. Everything in my life has been linked to rum.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.