Cachaça's Identity Crisis

photo by Corrina Schenk
photo by Corrina Schenk

The visibility of Brazil is on the rise. They are hosting the World Cup in June of this year and the Summer Olympics in 2016. There are big changes happening in what has becomes the largest economy in South America. Among all of the hype that is surrounding this country right now, something happened in 2013 that only people in the liquor industry would have noticed. The United States officially recognized cachaça (pronounced kah-SHAH-sa) as a distinct product of Brazil. This would put it equal with Tequila, Champagne, and Cognac as spirits with that sort of designation. America was tardy to the party; cachaça was already a force to be reckoned with.

Cachaça is the third most consumed distilled spirit in the world, behind vodka and soju. It has struggled for years with its own identity crisis. This sweet and rich spirit is made from the first pressings of sugar cane, which puts it in the very vague territory of rum. Most of the spirits and liqueurs used in bar are very well defined. You use a certain grain, a certain grape, make it in a certain region, and the end product is crystal clear. If it is missing any of those attributes, it becomes something else. Rum doesn’t do those boundaries very well. Rum is typically made from sugarcane byproducts. Except when it is not. Aguardiente CAN be made with molasses, but really can be made with any fermentable material. Rhum agricole is also made from first press sugarcane juice, but it has an Appelation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) when made in Martinique and in most areas of the French Caribbean.

Destilação Cachaça Sapucaia, photo by Schermann
Destilação Cachaça Sapucaia, photo by Schermann

The national spirit of Brazil has its own, robust identity. It MUST be made from fresh pressed sugarcane juice. Sugar can be added to the final product, but it MUST be less than six grams per liter. It MUST also be between 38 and 48% ABV. For years the United States Government Federal Standards of Identity defined rum as “an alcoholic distillate from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses, or other sugar cane by-products”. That placed this incredible spirit in the same category as every other rum on the shelf, labelled as “Brazilian rum”.

“Brazilian rum” is not just any other rum. Because it is fermented from the fresh sugarcane juice, it has its own remarkable sweetness. That is where the complexity of this spirit starts. The cachaça industry in Brazil is very similar to the beer industry in the United States. You have your craft distillers, creating premium spirits in small batches. They are sold at a premium price, and are hard to find outside of the country. You also have industrial distillers, creating enough for the insatiable demand for it within the country with a little left over to ship around the world. White cachaça (branquinha) can be bottled straight out of the still, or aged for up to a year in in stainless steel. Rested cachaça (armanezem)is aged in wood under one year, and aged (envelhecido) the variety aged in wood greater than one year. The varieties of woods used are all native to Brazil, which include oak, cherry, amburana, cedar, balsam, mahogany and other varieties, and most cachaças aged in them are not imported to the U.S. Each wood imparts its own signature on the spirit, providing everything from delightful floral notes on the nose to its richness and deepness as it rolls over the tongue.

Brazil is producing almost 1.3 billion Liters per year, but not all of it stays in the country. Four million gallons are distributed around the world, most of which is the industrial style cachaças. That number is growing as the taste develops for what Brazil already knows is a world class spirit. Leblon is the most well-known of the exported cachaças, but Pirassununga 51 is the bestselling one globally, with Velho Barreiro andYpóica (purchased by Diageo in 2012) rounding out the top international brands. Brands like Avuá, with their Prata (silver) and Amburana aged varieties, are paving the way for the more artisanal varieties to enter into the top bars

Cachaça barrels at Ypióca's museum, photo by Eric Gaba
Cachaça barrels at Ypióca's museum, photo by Eric Gaba

in the world. Cocktails with this spirit as a base are enjoying an expanded presence on menus in finer restaurants around the world, demonstrating the momentum cachaça is gaining.

Anyone in the United State that is familiar with this spirit most likely has enjoyed it in a caipirinha, a combination of limes, sugar, and white cachaça. There are many bars in the United States that have incorporated the combination of earthiness and sweetness into a variety of well-crafted cocktails.

Brazil has its own favorites created with cachaça. Here are a couple of those recipes using Avuá:

Jaguar’s Milk (Leite de Onça)

1.5 oz./45 ml Avuá Prata cachaça 1.5 oz./45 ml Chocolate Liqueur 1.5 oz./45 ml milk .75 oz./20 ml condensed milk Cocoa powder or cinnamon for garnish

Mix the milk and the condensed milk until they are well blended. Pour in the Avuá cachaça and give the mixture time to rest. Before you are ready to serve it, add the chocolate liqueur. Sprinkle the cocoa powder or cinnamon on top for garnish. It is typically served in a small mug, coupe or wide flute.

Most cocktails in Brazil are made with the white cachaça, but I would also consider the Avuá Amburana in the Jaguar’s Milk. It adds richness and depth to the drink, balancing the sweetness of the other ingredients with the richness of the spirit.

Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil. Ctsy Portal da Copa
Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil. Ctsy Portal da Copa

Maison du Brésil (House of Brazil)

1 oz./30 ml Avuá Prata cachaça .5 oz./15 ml Chambord 4 oz./120 ml Dry Champagne

Pour the Avua cachaça and Chambord into a Champagne flute. Fill with champagne and enjoy! As a side note, France and Brazil have a very good international relationship. France was the first country to recognize Brazilian independence, with each recently spending a year celebrating the culture of the other (France celebrating Brazil in 2005, Brazil celebrating France in 2009). Of course, these two football powerhouses could face each other in the World Cup!

Brazil has stepped onto the world stage in many ways, and the national spirit has come with it. Cachaça is making its way across the country as craft cocktail aficionados discover its magic. The fact the United States has recognized it as the unique liquor it is, and not just a variation of rum, speaks volumes for the future of cachaça in the United States. Have a bottle ready as you root for your favorite team in the World Cup, it will almost be just like being in Brazil! Without all that pesky sunshine, warm weather, and beautiful scenery, of course.