Since my blog’s inception I have refused to limit myself to just posting cocktail recipes. Those recipes require context and further knowledge to be properly understood and successfully applied. There are large numbers of topics that I’ll get around to posting about sooner or later. Including discussing all of the major spirits used in the making of cocktails. Today I’m going to make a start on this by introducing Cachaça.
The trigger for this decision is my recent post on the Caipirinha. Writing my first draft for that post I felt I had to give an overview of cachaça, upon which the Caipirinha is based. But I tried to cram too much information into a single post, and it just ended up messy and untenable. So I decided to split the post in two and start my look at spirits early than I had planned.
For those of you who are unsure, cachaça is pronounced [kah-sha-sa].
Cachaça is the national spirit of Brasil. It is distilled directly from sugarcane juice, of which Brasil has historically produced vast quantities. This has caused many people to consider it a Brazilian version of rum. Which is also made from sugarcane. This isn’t entirely accurate, but isn’t entirely false either. I’ll go into more detail about this below.
Cachaça displays a wide variety of different flavours and aromas depending on its type or style. More on this later. But in general it is often considered to be fruity, sometimes spicy and definitely aromatic. And at high quality levels it has a lighter, purer and more subtle taste than most other major spirits.
Cachaça is not one of the primary spirits used in making cocktails. It is instead a second tier spirit. Used only for one truly world class classic cocktail, the Caipirinha. You’d expect a good cocktail bar to stock it, but usually only one type. The biggest cocktail bar I worked in in London had a back bar comprising 300+ bottles. We only had three or four different cachaças. Compared to over a dozen rums and closer to thirty gins. Both of which might be considered a modest selection by other bars’ standards.
The reason for cachaça’s comparative lack of popularity is plain enough. Although cachaça has been produced in Brasil for centuries, it is only quite recently it has been exported in significant quantities. Before the slow cocktail revival which began in the 1980s there was no market for it. No real interest in cachaça in the cocktail world. But times are changing.
As I said, some people think of cachaça as the Brazilian version of rum. This is understandable, but inaccurate. Both rum and cachaça are distilled from sugarcane. But while rum is distilled from molasses, cachaça is distilled direct from sugarcane juice. A good question is why this is the case? Isn’t it harder to make molasses from sugarcane juice first than just distilling the raw juice?
Yes, it is. But that misses the point. Sugarcane was planted and harvested across the Caribbean to feed the growing European demand for sugar. It was typically cultivated in huge plantations. On Caribbean islands conquered by European countries. These plantations were owned by wealthy (and sometimes absent) white landlords who made vast profits from the sugar trade. The actual hard work was performed mostly by slaves imported from Africa for the purpose, who suffered a horrendous mortality rate.
Raw sugarcane juice was harvested, boiled and processed into the desired product – sugar. The thick residue left over as a waste product we call molasses. But rather than throw it away it was instead put to good use as the base for spirit distillation. And rum was born. But always the sugarcane was planted to produce sugar for the European market. Using the waste product of this process to produce rum was originally merely a profitable afterthought.
A Little History
But the Portuguese had a tradition of fermenting and then distilling sugarcane juice even before the New World was officially “discovered”. They originally grew it on their tropical island colony of Madeira, off the coast of West Africa. When they transplanted that sugarcane cultivation system to Brasil, they naturally continued to use some for alcohol rather than sugar production. The sheer quantity of sugarcane that could be produced in Brasil, the first plantation economy, was vast. So there was easily enough to meet both needs.
Cachaça production is actually very old. Centuries old. Like Pisco, it likely enjoyed an international heyday at the time the Portuguese Empire was mighty. But as it declined, cachaça came to be replaced by rum worldwide. Not that Brazilians care that the world as a whole forgot about cachaça. It has been an integral part of their cuisine and cultural heritage since their country’s origin.
So it should come as no surprise that ~98% of cachaça producers are tiny, artisan style producers spread all over the country. While often of excellent quality, it is unlikely that any of this is exported. The export market is instead dominated by small numbers of industrial scale producers, largely based in the state of São Paolo. Historically, a town called Piracicaba was the heart of this area and where the Caipirinha was created.
Styles of Cachaça
Like rum, cachaça is on the sweet side for a spirit. The two spirits also share many flavour components, but not that many. Better to think of them as distant cousins rather than siblings. One key difference is that rum is traditionally aged in oak barrels, which significantly alters both its colour and flavour. Often giving it caramel tones. But when cachaça is aged it is usually done so in barrels made from tropical woods native to Brasil. This might or might not effect the colour, depending on the wood used. But it will definitely effect the flavour in subtle ways far different to oak.
It is this aging process that makes cachaça so distinct and fascinating. Brasil is, of course, home to the Amazon basin. Probably the greatest area of biodiversity on the planet. So the number of trees native to Brasil from which barrels for aging cachaça could be made is huge. And aging cachaça in barrels made from each of these different woods mellows the raw spirit in different ways. Adding subtle, unique flavours and hidden complexity to the finished product.
The main wood types used for aging cachaça include Araúva, Amburana, Balm, Peanut and Jequitibá. Each imparts subtle and unique colour changes and flavours to cachaça. The result is an almost staggering array of potential flavour combinations within what is known as a single spirit.
When it comes to classification, cachaça comes in two main varieties – silver and gold. Silver (branca) is colourless, and is typically not aged (though it might be). Golden (amarela) is aged in wood barrels. In general, gold cachaça is both higher quality and price than silver, but not always.
As a small case study I’m going to talk about the brand of cachaça I am most familiar with – Sagatiba. Sagatiba is a very recent brand of cachaça, being released in 2004. I have to assume it was set up specifically for the export market. I would imagine, therefore, that any locals who do know of it would probably turn their noses up at it. But despite that, it is a decent quality spirit, good for making cocktails.
Sagatiba cachaça comes in two main types – silver and gold. The silver is colourless and has not been significantly aged. While the gold has been aged, but it bourbon oak barrels. I would expect that this was to make it more palatable to especially American tastes. but it does seem to be to be something of a wasted opportunity to show off the potential diversity of flavour in aged cachaças.
I have worked with both, and can tell you without a doubt that the gold is the better product. It is smoother, softer, more mellow and with a greater depth of flavour. But the silver makes a far better Caipirinha. And that is what western bartenders are most likely to use cachaça for. I can only assume that Sagatiba silver was specifically designed to make a great Caipirinha as beyond that it is not good for much. Doesn’t work that well with most simple mixers. And too close to firewater to sip and appreciate.
But, if the Sagatiba brand was designed to help cachaça break into the cocktail world, then it did its job well. More and more people are taking note of cachaça. They want to try some of the better quality stuff made in small batches. To try real cachaça the way the Brazilians know it.
If I were a betting man, I would expect many new cachaça based classic cocktails to arise in the coming years. Except that rather than being based on a generic cachaça, they would instead specify one particular brand for some subtle flavour which only it can provide. As such I would expect many of these new classics to be Alcoholic Powerhouses. So that the delicate flavours of the cachaça have a chance to shine through.
Then again, there is a Brazilian saying which translates as: “Brasil is the country of tomorrow. And it always will be.”
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.