Factor in the sheer size of the country of 3.2 million square miles (the 5th largest in the world), the huge population of 208 million (the 6th most populous) comprising ethnic backgrounds as obvious as South American, African and Portuguese, but as diverse as Italian, Spanish, German, Polish, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese, and you’ll soon see that things cannot be the same throughout the land.
Industrial vs. Artisanal
Artisanal, along with ‘small batch’ or ‘hand crafted’ is one of those much-abused marketing terms, but in the case of Cachaça, we can feel happier in that it invariably means that the fermentation process will have been carried out with a little more care and attention and that the distillation was likely to have been made using a pot still (if it wasn’t – then it’s worth being wary).
Rules, Rules, Rules…
2. It is obtained by the distillation of fermented juice of sugarcane, that exhibit the appropriate sensorial characteristics. Addition of up to six grams of sugar per litre is permitted without disclosure.
3. Cachaça that contains sugar in more than six grams per litre and less than thirty grams per litre amount will be called Cachaça Adoçada.
Unaged vs. Aged
The post distillation resting allows the spirit to develop and improve and whilst this isn’t a cast iron fact, I find that those brands that rest longest allow their Cachaça to develop more pronounced fruit notes over the typically grassy, green, vegetal notes more usually associated with the category.
Some producers use very large vats of wood types – such as jequitibá, freijó, and amendoim - that do not tend to impart much colour to the spirit resting within. These wood types may still impact on the spirit in terms of flavour though.
To be considered ‘aged’ at least 50% of the Cachaça in the blend has to be a minimum of one year old – aged in a barrel or vat not bigger than 700 litres. Not much in terms of real amounts of ageing – but the impact of barrels such as amburana is not to be overlooked, and I always point out that age is just a number and that older doesn’t always equate to better – the balance is everything!
What’s Premium and What’s Not?
In the case of Premium and Extra Premium, the terms are not setting the bar particularly high, and so we can infer the majority of the domestic market is unaged and ‘cost effective’ price-wise, but I’m not so sure I’d state that unaged can’t also equate to Premium in terms of a quality spirit.
The opportunity for getting a sense of terroir really is a thing with a quality Cachaça. Brazil has something like a hundred different cane types growing there. All with different properties for sure – but the scope for difference in flavour due to the soil type, and geography is quite marked.
Whilst most Cachaça stays in Brazil, the brands that export do offer the opportunity to explore some exciting (and genuinely Premium) expressions. Brands such as Novo Fogo, Yaguara, Avuá and Leblon are all making big in-roads on the US, European and Asian markets – bringing that taste of Brazil to the world.
Plenty of other high-quality brands such as the ethically produced, certified organic Abelha are both relatively inexpensive and absolutely delicious. The Silver being ridiculously fruity and the Gold which has been aged for three years in Garapeira (Brazilian Ash) and offers a beautiful balance of fruit and mellow wood notes.
Germana offer a range worth exploring – the Caetano’s being a great example, and brands like Capucana offer innovation as well.
The Portuguese, along with more than a little help from Dutch traders starting distilling in Brazil in the early 1500’s and it was probably the expulsion of the Dutch by the Portuguese that really kickstarted the production of high quality Rum in other parts of the Caribbean like Barbados and Jamaica.
Originally Cachaça would have been consumed in its unaged state – the notion of waiting for it to take on additional properties through barrel ageing might have been understood, but it wasn’t on trend (to coin a modern phrase).
At the time, Cachaça was being produced in Paraty (in the state of Rio de Janeiro) to the south and on the coast. In order to transport it all the way in land, they had to store the spirit in barrels made from whatever wood they happened to have readily available.
The 250+ mile journey – which could take many weeks back then due to the lack of decent roads – resulted in the barrels influencing the contents and with time, the palates of the people in the region; the preference being for aged Cachaça.
Fancy a Drink?
In itself, the drink (which can vary a bit in it’s presentation) is nothing more than half a lime, quartered and muddled together with a teaspoon or two of sugar and a large measure of Cachaça.
It’s the drink that is often the vanguard of Cachaças attempts to reach new markets and more often than not, seen to be little more than a fad in the big cities that don’t have a permanent supply of hot sun to maintain the image.
Brands such as Leblon have embraced the Caipirinha, their website offering many variations – all exploiting the natural affinity Cachaça has with fresh fruit; whereas brands like Yaguara have eschewed the serve, simply to point out that damn-fine Cachaça is more than just fodder for Caipirinhas.
A well-made, aged Cachaça works rather nicely with Vermouth and all of a sudden, the notion of a stirred and served straight up cocktail becomes interesting to a bartender, a challenge to find the ultimate pairing and a serve that can be sophisticated in its delivery.