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On Cachaça

Everything you need to know about the little-known Brazilian spirit bursting into the modern cocktail scene.

As the most popular spirit of Brazil, and the third most consumed spirit in the world, it still exists just on the periphery of much of the greater cocktail scene. However, its potential is proven through its recent rise in the market and, whether you’re in the industry or keep up on the spirits world by hobby, it’s definitely a trend to be on top of.

In fact, from a study undertaken by researcher Felipe Jannuzzi in partnership with Universidade de São Paulo, it was discovered that there are over 70 aromas present across existing Cachaças

A Troubled Start

Much like the Tequilas of Mexico and Champagnes of France, Cachaça, a 400-year-old sugarcane spirit with over 5,000 brands is from—and can only be from—Brazil. But why doesn’t it yet sit amongst the ranks of these peers? Perhaps it’s because we’ve simply thought it was something else for years. In fact, up until 2013, the labeling of Cachaça in the United States lent itself all too well the confusion of what Cachaça really is and its status as a unique spirit; for the majority of its existence as an export to the United States, it was often grouped into a “Brazilian Rum” category. That, unfortunately, sufficed to hide Cachaça behind some blurred spirit lines and stunted the growth of its prevalence by recognition.

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Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

However, the United States and Brazil have since come to an agreement on the labeling of Cachaça as, well, Cachaça, for all of its Cachaça exports. And while it may, besides place of origin, still seem negligibly different from Rum, there are some very key differences to be aware of.

A Spirit of Its Own

Cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice, which is fermented and then once distilled. Rum, however, is usually made from molasses. And while molasses is also a product of sugarcane, it’s a cooked product (and more specifically the byproduct of sugar production), thereby contributing to a more caramelized, heavier, and spicier flavor. Both white and dark Rums usually rely on a molasses base. As such, the flavor of Cachaça lies more on the fruity, grassy, and light end of the spectrum.

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Sugarcane plant growth

Of course, you may have noticed my use of the term “usually”—that’s because nothing is perfect, and we get into a bit of trickier ground here. As you may know, Rum can also be at least partially made from sugarcane juice as well. But for the most part, you won’t have to worry about this confusion: Only 3 percent of Rum is made from sugarcane juice as opposed to the 97 percent made from molasses.

The Many Types of Cachaça

While all Cachaça is made of fresh sugarcane juice at its base, the time and method between distillation and bottling can vary greatly, thereby altering the profile and creating Cachaça classifications.

First, Cachaça can either be stored or aged before it’s bottled. The term “stored” here does not denote any particular period of time or specified barrel type, but serves as a differentiation from “aged” Cachaça. “Aged” Cachaça, on the other hand, has two different levels.

As the most popular spirit of Brazil, and the third most consumed spirit in the world, it is still on the periphery of much of the greater cocktail scene

For the base or Premium level of an aged Cachaça, it must contain at least 50% one-year-old spirit that is aged in a barrel up to 700 liters. Extra Premium requires no less than three years of aging.

Next, we have the color classification, itself broken into two camps. White (also called branca, classica, tradicional, or prata) Cachaça results from storage in stainless-steel or non-wood barrels, or wood barrels that do not impart any coloring. Yellow (amarela, ouro, or envelhecida) Cachaça is the product of storing or aging the spirit in wooden barrels that, as you probably guessed, do impart coloring.

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Lastly, in the same vein as other flavored or sweetened spirits, there are “sweet” Cachaças. Distillers may add up to six grams of sugar per liter to a Cachaça before it must be classified as a “sweet” Cachaça.

How to Use It

As Cachaça is still on its way up and into the mainstream cocktail scene, the most prominent—or perhaps only well-known—Cachaça drink dotting select cocktail menus is the Caipirinha. As a simple mix of Cachaça with muddled lime and sugar, it’s a fresh way to keep the spirit itself clean and the highlight of the cocktail.

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Otherwise, as a clean, light, and slightly herbaceous spirit in the 38–48% ABV range, Cachaça will lend itself pretty well to many a cocktail recipe, imparting new notes to cocktails you might find with, say, a white Rum, Tequila, or Vodka base. From a simple martini to a Cachaça Tom Collins–esque cocktail, it’s ripe for experiment and unfussy to integrate.

What to Try

With thousands of Cachaças in circulation (though fewer outside of Brazil’s borders), it perhaps goes without saying that there is a fantastic spread of flavors that can be found across Cachaças from different Brazilian regions. In fact, from a study undertaken by researcher Felipe Jannuzzi in partnership with Universidade de São Paulo, it was discovered that there are over 70 aromas present across existing Cachaças. As that might be a daunting figure to be introduced to, I’ve compiled a few suggestions below to help navigate into the Cachaça landscape.

For the majority of its existence as an export to the United States, it was often grouped into a “Brazilian Rum” category. That, unfortunately, sufficed to hide Cachaça behind some blurred spirit lines, and stunted the growth of its prevalence

Pitu, on the lower-cost end of the spectrum (and frequently recognized by the prominent lobster on its bottle), is a white Cachaça fit for mixing cocktails, such as an introduction to the Caipirinha.

Leblon, another more prevalent white Cachaça outside of Brazil, is a step above and makes for a smoother, more sippable option. Leblon is a five-time winner of the Double Gold for Best Cachaça at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Photo credits Leblon, Sagatiba.

But if you’re able to find Sagatiba Preciosa, a hard-to-find, very rare bottle, I suggest you do; it’s is one of the best options available outside of Brazil itself.

Sagatiba Preciosa is barrel-aged in Limousin oak Cognac casks for over 20 years, and, with its highly limited release, can fetch over $1,500 in an auction. (Very limited quantities can be found through online vendors but finding the opportunity to actually purchase it while in stock can prove quite difficult.) However, it’s well worth the trouble and price tag: Distilled in 1982, Sagatiba Preciosa sits amongst the prestige of only 25 peer spirits in the world that have made it into the “Superlative” category of the Beverage Tasting Institute of Chicago, with a score of 96/100.

Written by Rina Addison

Rina writes, educates, and strategizes in the corporate world by day, and is a freelancer in everything from the sustainability to spirits worlds, at every other time. As a former Environmental Studies major, bartender, landscaper, researcher, Wes alum, and a resident of Idaho, Connecticut, Japan, New York, and back again, she is wholly curious about the world and everything that makes it. (And she tends to write about it!)

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