It’s one of the most consumed spirits in the world, yet it’s practically unknown in the United States.
Cachaça – a distinctly Brazilian alcoholic beverage sold in the rum aisle, and the base spirit for many tropical drinks – is just beginning to endear itself to local bartenders. But it’s only a matter of time before it finds a permanent home on many cocktail menus.
Yet, those drinking it often don’t know what it is, let alone how to pronounce it.
Cachaça (pronounced ka-SHAW-suh) is often classified as a rum – and is often used in place of it – but it has its own personality. The spirit has been made in Brazil for nearly four centuries and predates rum production. Its origins lie primarily in the African slave trade when Portuguese plantation owners moved sugar cane production from Madeira Island off the south coast of Portugal to Brazil back in the 1500s.
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As sugar cane was boiled and processed at these plantations, African slaves would collect the foam that formed at the top of the cauldrons. This foam, which the slaves called “cachaça,” was fermented into liquor and consumed. Over time, the recipe was adopted and gentrified by the ruling classes.
Today, Cachaça is one of the world’s most produced and consumed spirits. The Brazilian Program for Cachaça Development insists that Cachaça is the third-most-distilled liquor on the planet, a claim that’s debatable. Still, many analysts of the spirits industry place it in the top 10, and that’s no surprise, considering nearly 400 million gallons of the spirit are consumed worldwide annually, with Brazil drinking 95 percent of that alone. While the rest is sold around the globe, the United States has yet to develop a real taste for Cachaça; we accounted for only 10 percent of international consumption in 2012.
Nevertheless, Cachaça is beginning to see a spike in interest in the United States. That’s due in part to last year’s World Cup, which was held in Brazil. Local bars and restaurants, eager to take advantage of FIFA fever, put the classic caipirinha – Brazil’s official cocktail – on their menus. Composed of muddled lime, sugar and a splash of Cachaça, caipirinhas encouraged Americans to show an interest in what Brazil had in the mix.
It’s worth noting that both Cachaça and rum are made from sugar cane. So what’s the difference? Cachaça is made from fermented sugar cane juice, whereas rum is usually made from molasses, a byproduct of sugar production.
Furthermore, Cachaça must meet very specific requirements set forth by the Brazilian government, much the same way France protects what can and cannot be called Champagne.
These requirements dictate that the fermented sugar cane juice must contain between 38 and 54 percent alcohol by volume. If the Cachaça is sweetened, it can be done so only with sugar, and only in amounts less than 6 grams per liter. If sugar is added, the resulting Cachaça must be labeled as “sweetened Cachaça.”
As for aged Cachaças, these must consist of at least 50 percent of distillate that’s at least 1 year old. This means that any aged Cachaça might be blended with unaged Cachaça. In addition, aged Cachaças are permitted to have caramel color added to alter their hue.
These regulations are important to the development of Brazil’s Cachaça export plan. The country wants to maintain the purity of its products to help develop a strong brand identity.
In 2013, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau amended its regulations on the identity of distilled spirits to recognize Cachaça as a distinctive product of Brazil. This was a bilateral move between the United States and Brazilian governments. In return, Brazil amended its liquor regulations so that only bourbon and Tennessee whiskey produced in the United States, and meeting official U.S. standards, can be sold in Brazil.
So what does Cachaça taste like? Think of it as an offspring of tequila and rum. It’s a bit more vicious than rum, with an acidic bite.
“It’s earthy and grassy,” says Jordan Wynn, veteran bartender at The Waterboy. “The smoke that finishes it is nice, and I can often convince wine-only drinkers to love it.”
Cachaça is usually aged in wooden barrels. Most industrial producers use oak. Modern, small-batch distillers rely on native woods such as balsam, ipê, cedar, jequitibá and umburana, resulting in flavors of cinnamon, anise, vanilla and coffee.
In addition, Brazilian-hipster tastes have led to the flavoring of Cachaça with Brazilian fruits such as guava and guarana, though the flavoring is often terribly artificial. These Cachaças have yet to hit an international audience en masse.
But it won’t be long. Cachaça is picking up speed in major cities across the United States, including Sacramento, and the ever-increasing diversity available is constantly growing.
“It seems that Cachaça is still under the radar,” says Carl Wenger, general manager at Shady Lady Saloon and partner at Field House. “But these days we definitely are ordering more than in the past. People who love spirits with smoky or tangy flavors just can’t get enough of it.”
A simple cocktail with a bit of spice that tastes best when the weather is above 95 degrees. The spirit’s grassy, smoky flavors are an intriguing match with the fruit.
1 ounce lemon juice
2 ounces Cachaça
1 ounce simple syrup
5 or 6 blackberries, plus more for garnish
Lemon slices for garnish
Place all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker and muddle. Fill with ice; shake vigorously. Pour in a glass with ice. Garnish with extra blackberries and a slice of lemon.
Developed by Carl Wenger, who prefers Novo Fogo Tanager, a darker Cachaça that spends its first year in oak and second in Brazilian zebra wood, resulting in notes of clove, wild grass, cinnamon and tropical fruit.
2 pineapple wedges
1/2 ounce ginger simple syrup
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 ounces Novo Fogo Tanager
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce Bank Exchange pineapple cordial
Pineapple leaves for garnish (optional)
Muddle one pineapple wedge with ginger simple syrup and salt in a cocktail shaker. Add remaining ingredients and shake vigorously. Double strain into a rocks glass. Add ice and garnish with a pineapple wedge and pineapple leaves.
Summer in the City
Crafted by Jordan Wynn, bartender at The Waterboy. Hot, sour and refreshing, it brings out the latent heat in the Cachaça.
2 ounces Cachaça
1 ounce watermelon juice
1 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce sour habanero simple syrup (see below)
Lime slices, small watermelon cubes, for garnish
To make the syrup: Bring 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar to boil in a pot, stirring until liquid is clear. Remove from heat. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon citric acid and 1/2 teaspoon habanero chili powder. Reserve.
To make cocktail: Fill a tall glass with ice. Pour the Cachaça over, then the juices and syrup. Stir. Garnish.