In 1979, at the beginning of the Nicaraguan Revolution, Lorena Vásquez moved from her hometown of San Marcos, Nicaragua, to Guatemala with her then-husband. The most difficult thing about embarking on a new life in a new country was leaving her family behind, but she managed to get the most out of it. In September 1984, she started working at Zacapa Rum, in quality control; she was later promoted and became the distillery’s and the country’s first female master blender. In the decades since, more women have become master blenders in a male-dominated industry, but the spirits industry has a long way to go.
Her expertise came from having studied chemistry and food technology in college. While working at Zacapa, she developed their Sistema Solera, in which the rum — made from virgin sugar cane juice, not molasses — is aged in four casks instead of just one at an altitude of 2,300 meters (1.4 miles) above sea level. This allows less oxygen, pressure and temperature to pervade the rum so it can age longer, generating a richer and more complex product. Guatemala isn’t typically known for its rum — parts of the Caribbean are more well-known — but Vásquez and Zacapa have put the country on the map as a purveyor of excellent rum. One initiative Vásquez began was hiring 700 Indigenous Guatemalan women to work from home and weave palm bands (petate), which wrap around the bottles of rum. “It was born out of necessity when the brand was growing to help the people of Guatemala, 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 refers to herself as a “Guardian Angel” because she oversees the entire process of rum, talks from her home in Guatemala City, Guatemala, about why she became a master blender, representation in the industry and how it was her destiny to work in rum.
When I arrived at Zacapa, it was 200 men and me. When I started, a lot of these men were more artisans than technical master blenders. I was coming from a technical side. I was relatively young and female, so trying to explain how to do things differently to these older men who came more from an artisan place instead of the more technical place — that was a bit challenging. 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’s very difficult to be successful, because it’s a very demanding job. … It’s an ‘always on’ job to be on top of everything.”
I have three pieces of advice to women who want to be master blenders. One, in this industry, it’s very important to be prepared and to study and have the chemistry knowledge. Second, it’s very important to train the nose — flavors and aromas. Without that, it’s very difficult to be a master blender. There’s a lot of practice in that. The third one is about passion. Without passion it’s very difficult to be successful, because it’s a very demanding job. It’s about 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 journey, and it makes things easier. I always try to work with women when possible. Women normally pay more attention to detail and have more sensitivity in the nose with the aromas and flavors.
I’m training two master blenders: one is female and the other is a man. Every single part of the process, you find women. Representation has improved a lot, but obviously we need more women to get into the industry. I think women like me can hopefully be a role model and inspire more women to get into the industry.
I studied pharmaceutical chemistry because my dad 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 to play around 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 anything related to aromas and flavors. I got a job at a brewery [in Guatemala], but I didn’t like beer. It was kind of a suffering every time I worked with beer. When I had a 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 massively changed over the years. At the beginning, rum was a very popular drink that was more for the masses. What Zacapa did was establish a premium category. I get a lot of energy from getting challenged with new products. My obsession is working with and playing around with flavors, which makes me come up with a better, consistent rum. I’m passionate about Guatemala being known around the world as a country that produces good rum because that allows them to create more jobs in Guatemala — not just Zacapa, but in general, the economy of Guatemala.
My great-grandmother used to distill a sugar cane spirit at home. A lot of people went there to try it. It was really good. I realized I have been connected to rum in multiple ways. It was my destiny. My dad worked in a sugar mill hospital for a long time. If you look at my birthday in Mayan astrology, my symbol is the sugar cane. Everything in my life has been related to rum.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.