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A Complete Guide to Cachaça: Brazil’s Most Popular Spirit

Everything you need to know about distilled sugarcane.

If Mexico has tequila, America has bourbon, and Russia has vodka, then cachaça is the spirit of Brazil. Best known for its role in the Caipirinha, cachaça—a spicy, sweet, and fruity clear liquor distilled from fermented sugarcane juice—must, by law, be produced in Brazil and contain alcohol by volume of 38 to 48 percent.

As Brazil’s most popular spirit, cachaça is distilled throughout the country, from small home distilleries to large industries, yielding 800 million liters of the spirit annually—30 percent of which comes from small-batch producers.

Up until 2013, in the United States, cachaça was sometimes labeled as "Brazilian rum," causing consumer confusion with rum produced in other places, such as Caribbean countries. But as of two years ago, an agreement between U.S. and Brazilian governments has established that all Brazilian sugarcane spirit arriving in the U.S. must be named "cachaça."

The country's first sugarcane mills date back to the discovery of Brazilian territory in 1500, and since then the cachaça market has continued to evolve and the spirit's quality has improved. "I think cachaça, when it's well made, is one of the most interesting spirits in the world. Proper artisanal cachaças are rich, full-bodied spirits that also have a great deal of subtlety and even grace," says Dave Wondrich, noted drinks historian and scholar.

A Growing Industry

Though cachaça is best known for its role in the Caipirinha, the spirit is appearing in more drinks these days as bartenders become better acquainted with the booze. "When I started Leblon in 2005, cachaça was relegated only to the Brazilian restaurants and churrascarias in the United States and Europe. Now, you see a Caipirinha on every menu, and bartenders are moving beyond the Caipirinha and making amazing creative cocktails with cachaça," states Steve Luttman, president and CEO of premium cachaça brand Leblon.

"I think cachaça, when it's well made, is one of the most interesting spirits in the world."  -David Wondrich

According to IWSR, cachaça sales have grown from  6,000 9-liter cases in 2005, to nearly 100,000 9-liter cases in 2015 in the United States alone. "And what’s interesting is that the majority of volume now sold is premium artisanal cachaça made in alambique copper pot-stills, and not the industrial cachaça" adds Luttman.

"I believe that the moment of cachaça has come, and that from 2016 on many doors will open. Cachaça is already established in Brazil and it is becoming a lasting trend abroad," affirms Jean Ponce, former bartender at D.O.M. in São Paulo, rated number nine on S.Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurants list.

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Photos via Facebook/Mapa da Cachaça.

Bartenders like Ivy Mix from Leyenda in New York, Nicolas Lasjuilliarias of Les Bains Douches in Paris, Marco Russo from 1930 in Milan, and Rudi Carraro formerly of Artesian in London all serve cocktails that incorporate cachaça.

For Luttman, from the consumer standpoint, a Caipirinha cocktail is simply a cheap ticket to Rio: "I always believe that we experience travel and culture when we are enjoying fine wine and cocktails, and there is nowhere better to travel to than Brazilwith a delicious Caipirinha or other cachaça cocktail in your hand."  He adds that cocktails provide the potential for cachaça to expand beyond the current limited usage, but this requires a shift in attitudes with mixologists and bar staff embracing the spirit's versatility.

Cachaça Production

Cachaça vs. Rum vs. Rhum Agricole

Cachaça, rum and even rhum agricole are all distilled from sugarcane. But each spirit is produced through slightly different processes. Technically, cachaça can only be made in Brazil from fresh cane juice, which is fermented and single distilled. Rum, on the other hand, can be made anywhere, and is usually produced from molasses, a cooked byproduct of sugar production, and distilled to much higher percentages of alcohol by volume.

... cocktails provide the potential for cachaça to expand beyond the current limited usage, but this requires a shift in attitudes with mixologists and bar staff embracing the spirit's versatility.

Rhum agricole is more similar to cachaça and is made from freshly squeezed sugarcane juice as opposed to molasses within the French island of Martinique, which has its own controlled appelation under European Union law. The juice can only be taken from sugarcane grown in 23 designated regions of the island. "It should be noted, however, that rhum agricole can be made anywhere, and is often found in other standard rum destillaries, but only those produced from local sugarcane juice in Martinique follow those rules," explains Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley, authors of the book Distilled.

As for taste, cachaça, rum, and rhum agricole are very different. Cachaça and rhum agricole tend to have a much fruitier, livelier nose, whereas rum has a spicier, caramelized flavor. "Cachaça is much gentler than rhum agricole and much cleaner in flavor than most molasses rums," notes Wondrich.

Indigenous Woods

Wood barrels are widely used in the alcohol beverages industry as a way to enhance a spirit's aroma and flavor, and also to "soften" the spirit. Around 60 percent of the aroma from an aged beverage comes from the wood in which it rested. But cachaça is one of the only spirits in the world that can be aged in indigenous Brazilian wood, and these woods just recently become a subject of study.

In Brazil, cachaça producers age their spirit in many types of wood beyond non-native oak, such as amburana, cabreúva, jequitibá, ipê, and balm. "Studies involving native woods may provide alternatives for the characterization of typical flavors and aromas and to enable the preparation of cachaça blends aged in different woods," says Aline Bortoletto, researcher and PhD student from Laboratory of Technology and Chemical Quality of Alcoholic Beverages from Universidade de São Paulo (São Paulo University).

The main objective of the researchers is to discover what flavors and aromas each of these native woods imparts on the spirit. This is one way of proving that amburana or balsam can yield cachaças with a far more Brazilian soul than the good old (and overly used) oak.

Bartender Ponce explains that cachaça has great potential for mixology, mainly due to the diversity of woods that can be used to age it. "Each wood has its own characteristics, which allows for a lot of creativity. Amburana, for instance, makes the cachaça sweeter, with a strong wood flavors and a soft feeling in mouth, perfect to mix with some fruits such as the native jabuticaba, strawberry or liquors like Disaronno. Balsam on its turn makes cachaça more mineral, herbaceous, good to mix with spices."

Mapping Aromas

Since beginning his exploration into the world of cachaça, researcher Felipe Jannuzzi has discovered that the spirit is more likely an universe in itself. He crossed Brazil from North to South to map cachaça producers in a project he named "Mapa da Cachaça" (The Cachaça Map). The awarded project (which won the Best Cultural mapping project in Brazil from the Digital Culture Secretary of the Ministry of Culture and an international prize at The Gourmand Awards) was a pioneer to disclose the sensory quality of many cachaças produced throughout the country.

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Photos via Facebook/Mapa da Cachaça.

"It was hard work because cachaça is sensorially very complex. We want to be a reference for quality and explain to the consumer the importance of valuing good producers. Making well-made artisanal cachaça is lengthy, difficult and expensive work," tells Jannuzzi. In partnership with other sugarcane researchers from Universidade de São Paulo (University of São Paulo), they created an evaluation methodology and the first step was the unique creation of a cachaça aroma wheel. "With this research, we identified more than 70 aromas found in different types of cachaça," he adds.

"With this research, we identified more than 70 aromas found in different types of cachaça..."- Felipe Jannuzzi

The project was divided into three parts: bibliographic research (in which they studied many subjects already done in this area of spirit and wine sensory analysis); chemical analysis (in which they selected the main chemical congeners of cachaça and researched their corresponding aroma for example, ethyl acetate, an ester heavily present in cachaça, smells like apples) and finally, they drank a lot of different cachaças. "Good, bad, aged in different woods, different vintages, using different sugarcanes ... We tasted everything we could," he laughs.

What Jannuzzi found was similar flavor characteristics in certain regions, which means that the terroir and the same processes adopted by producers could enhance the same aromas in their cachaças. "In Salinas, one of the most known regions for cachaça in the state of Minas Gerais, producers commonly used balm barrels for aging their spirit during long periods [which produces] cachaça with a herbal punch, notes of clove and a green-golden color," he explains.

Classifications

Cachaça is classified by the way it is stored before it's bottled. Cachaça that is not stored in wood after distillation, or just stands in stainless steel containers before bottling, is labeled branca (white). Same goes for cachaça that rests in woods that do not release any color (such as peanut, jequitibá, and freijó). White cachaça is also sometimes called clássica (classic), tradicional (traditional) or prata (silver).

Amarela or yellow cachaça is stored or aged in wood, which causes a substancial change in its color. Producers may call these ouro (gold) or envelhecida (aged). It's also worthwhile to note the difference between stored and aged cachaça. Stored cachaça is kept in wooden barrels of any size for a non-specified period of time. Meanwhile, aged cachaça must contain over 50 percent of a spirit that is at least one year old and rested in barrels of up to 700 liters.

Aged cachaça is then divided into "Premium" (aged for a period not shorter than one year) and "Extra Premium" (for a period not shorter than three years). In both case, 100 percent of the cachaça needs to be aged in suitable barrels.

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