Words: Louise Crane
Thursday 03 May 2018
This article is from
Can of The Year
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Cachaça is a Brazilian spirit that you might be familiar with from its appearance in the juicy caipirinha cocktail, a jumble with sugar and lime, similar to an Old Fashioned, but samba-style. It is the most popular distilled spirit in Brazil, where you’ll find it drunk neat – and strong, up to 51% or even higher for something more akin to moonshine. Around 1,500 million litres are drunk there annually, compared to 15 million litres outside the country. And for some reason, most of this international drinking takes place in Germany. But it is fast becoming a hot topic on the shelves, and in the United States, it has seen a 29 per cent growth in recent years.
Cachaça (say it kah-SHAH-sah) is made from fermented sugarcane, a very tall grass with stout, fibrous stalks full of sucrose. Sugarcane produces 80% of the world’s sugar, and it’s the reason that the grass was brought to Brazil from the Madeira Islands by Portuguese colonists in the 16th century. Along with the plants came pot stills that were used to make aguardente de cana, which basically means “cane firewater”. The name cachaça evolved over many years and is accompanied by other nicknames such as abre-coração (heart-opener), água-benta (holy water), bafo-de-tigre (tiger breath), and limpa-olho (eye-wash).
Now, you might be thinking, “This sounds familiar, alcohol made from sugarcane, that’s rum, right?” Well, yes and no. Rhum agricole is indeed made from fermented sugarcane, largely in the French Caribbean (the other, more popular style of rum is made from boiled sugarcane juice, or molasses). Its flavour, however, is unique, with grassy and orchard notes coming through in the better quality styles. In the United States, cachaça is recognized as a type of rum as well as a distinctive Brazilian product, after plans to boost trade with Brazil produced a 2013 agreement that the U.S. will drop the usage of the term “Brazilian rum”.
Producers of cachaça can be found all over Brazil, numbering 4,000 or more, when you count small, homemade styles. Several regions are noted for their fine, pot still cachaça including Chã Grande in Pernambuco state, Salinas in Minas Gerais state, Paraty in Rio de Janeiro state, Monte Alegre do Sul in São Paulo state and Abaíra in Bahia state. Pot stills are like giant kettles, the same equipment used to make malt whisky. Cheaper cachaças are made using industrial column stills, which are more efficient, but strip out many of the richer flavours and make for a lighter, softer drink.
Just like rum and tequila, there are two main types of cachaça, aged and unaged. The cheaper Branca, [white], or prata, [silver] is the unaged variety, bottled immediately after distillation or after a brief (up to a year-long) rest in wooden barrels for a smoother blend. This is the variety you’ll see used for mixed drinks such as caipirinha. Aged cachaça, named amarela, [yellow], or ouro, [gold], is the premium variety, left in the wood for three years, or even more for an ‘ultra premium’ style, as long as fifteen years. After such a time, the flavour of the distillate is influenced by the wood it matures in, just like whisky. Unlike its Scottish cousin, cachaça need not only be matured in oak.
The Brazilian way to drink a fine, handmade cachaça is to sip it with care and attention from a small shot glass, taking time to appreciate the subtly sweet flavours. For a cheaper blend, give cocktails and mixed drinks a fruity punch by shaking them up with a shot or two. Famous ones include the Batida, a very popular recipe in Brazil that can be many flavours of fruit, with milk and sugar. The Melancia Sour introduces lemongrass and watermelon to this exotic spirit, or if that’s not to your fancy, go for lavender and blueberry with a Paulista. Or, for a daytime pick-me-up, add a dash or three to your afternoon coffee to make a Café Brasileiro.
Cachaças to get your hands on include the budget-price Pitu, an American brand that is instantly recognisable by the red lobster on its label. Definitely one for the cocktails. Velho Barreiro, aged in a large oak vat to enhance the complex vegetal flavours, is another one for caipirinhas. Moving from the serviceable to the sublime, we have Leblon Reserva Especial, a French brand that is finished in the French countryside in old cognac casks made from limousin oak. This one has delightfully sweet honey and caramel notes accented with nuts. Topping it all off at just under £2,500 is the Sagatiba Preciosa, a limited edition, barrel-aged over 23 year spirit that was sold at Christie’s in 2006.
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