If life gives you limes, make Caipirinhas. The sweet but tangy cocktail mixed with green citrus, white cachaça and sugar fuels Brazilians and, given that they consume 99% of the 800 million liters of spirits produced in their country each year, it seems that they rather like it.
But there is more to this raw sugar cane juice distillate whose ambassador vehicle is the delicious Caipirinha. Microdistilleries located throughout the world’s fifth-largest country age their white or pure cachaça base (also known as pinga and abre-coração, or heart-opener) in local wooden casks, also blending casks to create new levels of expression – and their efforts enhance the flavor wheel of what the IWSR calls the third most consumed spirit in the world. It’s an exciting time to be a connoisseur, says Peter Banks, founder of Cachacier, a cachaça experience and American transplant living in the capital Brasilia.
“Over the past 15 to 20 years, several elements have come together to push cachaça forward: producers interested in making high-quality spirits; access to technological knowledge to create them; and an audience interested in a unique Brazilian spirit,” he says.
Sugarcane distillate has not always drawn favor at home. Its history begins in the 16th century when the Portuguese landed in South America with the Asian perennial grass that they had already successfully tested in Madeira. The expansive fertile lands of Brazil – from the stained south to the tropical northeast – allowed the crop to adapt easily, and thus an agricultural industry was born. When the first sugar mill was built in the state of São Paulo in the mid-1600s, Portuguese distilling expertise meant alcohol production soon followed, according to Bíblia da Cachaça. The history of the cagassa, its original name, is turbulent: alongside tobacco and sugar products, it was a barter currency used to purchase African slaves, while the heavy taxation of the distillate of Portugal led to an uprising in 1660, now known as the Cachaça Revolt. .
Pure or white cachaça is the most popular style, and production is dominated by Brazil’s three industrial giants – Pirassuunga 51, Velho Barreiro and Diageo-owned Ypióca – the style considered by Brazil’s wealthy class as a poor man’s liquor which lacks complexity. Thousands of microdistilleries, however, are changing the narrative, creating complex flavor profiles by aging in barrels of native wood for two or three years, their humble 20,000 liters each contributing to those 800 million liters recorded by the Brazilian institute. Ibrác. But, given that 89% of the approximately 40,000 distilleries are not officially registered, how do they begin to reach consumers? By linking them to gastronomy, explains chef-patron Rodrigo Oliveira de Mocotó in São Paulo, the original champion of artisanal cachaça in the culinary world.
He says: “It is almost impossible to talk about the Brazilian culinary world without paying homage to cachaça. When I started working at the restaurant in the early 1990s there was a lot of prejudice around drinking the drink because it was cheap [and consumed by the working class]. But I saw something beautiful and started meeting generations of families making high-quality spirits, and realized there was more to show than those cheap brands.
By stocking artisan products in Mocotó, Oliveira started a trend that is followed today by establishments across Brazil. In São Paulo, the capital of gastronomy, the best bars that appreciate cachaça are Tan Tan, Subastor and Santana, while restaurants include Evvai, A Casa do Porco, Maní and DOM.
When siblings Corrêa Bastos, chef Marcelo and beverage manager Nina, opened Jiquitaia 10 years ago, only 5% of the alcohol they sold was cachaça. That figure is now 95%, she says, after a decade of educating their diners. “Artisanal cachaça is changing our market and increasing consumption in all social classes,” she says.
IDENTIFYING WITH DIVERSITY
His legacy has contributed to a new wave of enthusiasts, Banks says. “Imagine, cachaça has been around since before Brazil officially became a country, so Brazilians consider it an important part of their history. Since it has European, African and Asian influences, when Brazilians think of cachaça diversity is almost the perfect representation of their culture, they identify with it and that’s significant: politics are divisive at the moment and people are finding common ground in the cachaça.
But there are still hurdles to overcome, and today’s artisanal facilities refer to their cachaça products as alambique (stills), given that the word “artesanal” in Portuguese is commonly interpreted as “poorly made.” Additionally, many only sell locally due to the high taxes imposed when “exporting” across interstate borders, not to mention the bureaucracy required to become a legal business. A microdistillery, however, is enjoying success outside of its home state of Espírito Santo and will begin exporting to the United States with Banks.
A family project, Adão Cellia and his son Pedro Cellia, both cardiologists, started growing sugarcane in 2012 on farmland in Linhares, located next to the Doce River near the Serra do Mar mountain range; they also raise cattle and grow cocoa. But it is their 8 hectares planted with four varieties of organic sugar cane that most fascinate Adão, a cachaça lover for 50 years. Together, in 2016, they released their first branded spirit under the name Destilería Princesa Isabel, named after Pedro’s mother.
“It was my father’s dream to grow something exquisite on the land he loves at Fazenda Tupã Farm and make an incredible product – it’s a tribute,” says Pedro Cellia.
Today, producing a line of eight people spread over 25,000 liters a year, Princesa Isabel’s white-label Prata de Princesa Isabel is the basis for all seven barrel-aged products, reinforcing cachaça’s Brazilian identity by choosing local woods rather than used bourbon casks. He uses several varieties, including jaqueira (jackfruit; known for its yellow fruit flavors), jequitibá (Brazilian mahogany), balsámo (balsam; herbal, anise and yellow fruit notes), castanheira (chestnut), and amburana ( floral); the first is particularly appreciated, he adds.
“A lot of spirits are aged in oak barrels; we wanted to age ours in Brazilian woods,” he says.
“In 2015 some jackfruit trees on our farm fell in a storm, but my dad saved the wood and had our cooper make a 5,000 liter barrel.” An elegant spirit, it has won numerous awards, including an IWSC Silver Award in 2017, for its mesmerizing ginger notes. Besides growing organic sugarcane, the family has also planted 1,000 amburana trees to date.
The autochthonous aging of the wood is writing the next chapter in the history of cachaça, according to Alex Mesquita, creative director of the Tan Tan bar in Sao Paulo, which ranks in the top 100 of the 50 best bars in the world.
“The ones aged in Brazilian wood are the most outstanding, in my opinion,” he says. “Three in particular have become popular: amburana, bálsamo and jequitibá, although Brazil has dozens more that offer different aromatic aging characteristics.”
The ever-growing number of aficionados appreciate this diversity, says sommelier Banks. “The fledgling community, which has emerged over the past 20 years and exploded over the past five years, enjoys cachaça like whiskey lovers do, because there is so much diversity in flavor depending on the barrel it’s in. been aged, the region in which it was aged, and its alcohol content,” he adds.
“People are interested in sharing with other cachaceiros, who come together to celebrate and enjoy this spirit. There are local clubs that meet monthly in most major cities, usually with a guest distiller sharing their product – it has become a way of life for this community.
While many enjoy sipping cachaça as if it were brandy or whisky, it’s also a dynamic replacement in classic cocktail making, says Mesquita, and there’s a Brazilian holy trinity of cocktails. cachaca based. A variant of the Manhattan, the Rabo de Galo prepared by Mesquita uses 60 ml of superior cachaça, and the cocktail has become so popular that many regional festivals hold competitions to find the best.
Meanwhile, Macunaíma, a contemporary sour created by bartender Arnaldo Hirai of São Paulo’s Boca de Ouro, uses white cachaça, Fernet, simple syrup and lemon juice. Bombeirinho (Fireman) uses 50ml of superior cachaça, 25ml of tahití lime and 20ml of grenadine, garnished with a slice of lemon.
Consumers should also consider replacing the gin with a cachaça amburana aged in Negronis, Cellia adds.
Blending Brazilian woods has become common practice as distillers seek to balance flavors and aromas and achieve new expressions, Cellia says. “We mix balm with cachaça aged in jaqueira for two years because the former can be very intense and the jackfruit helps balance it out.”
Chef Oliveira agrees that this exploration is crucial: “There are dozens of types of wood that go beyond oak. Aging white cachaça in these barrels results in different spirits and we are now exploring other styles… we are producing a special edition blended with four different woods for Mocotó, for example.
Single-barrel versions also hit the right notes with consumers keen to try something special, while Cellia’s latest innovation is a riff on the sherry solera system, currently in its third and final year and whose release is expected by the end of the year. “By blending cachaça in barrels of ipê (trumpet tree), castanheira and jequitibá-rosa, we create our own unique Brazilian style [of fractional blending],” he says.
Given that only 1% of cachaça is exported, there are plenty of opportunities to break into these artisanal gems in new markets. However, importers should appreciate them, Banks says.
“Producers need to partner with the right people who aren’t just looking for something new and are interested in these serious spirits. That said, the future is bright and cachaça is ready for the international market: it’s exciting, it crosses age, gender and socio-economic status. He is ready to take on the world,” adds Banks.
With Brazil’s National Cachaça Day approaching on September 17, now is a great time to sample some – if you can get your hands on a bottle.