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A Complete Guide to Cachaça: Brazil’s Most Popular Spirit

Everything you need to know about distilled sugarcane.

If Mexico has tequila, America has bourbon, and Russia has vodka, then cachaça is the spirit of Brazil. Best known for its role in the Caipirinha, cachaça—a spicy, sweet, and fruity clear liquor distilled from fermented sugarcane juice—must, by law, be produced in Brazil and contain alcohol by volume of 38 to 48 percent.

As Brazil’s most popular spirit, cachaça is distilled throughout the country, from small home distilleries to large industries, yielding 800 million liters of the spirit annually—30 percent of which comes from small-batch producers.

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Up until 2013, in the United States, cachaça was sometimes labeled as "Brazilian rum," causing consumer confusion with rum produced in other places, such as Caribbean countries. But as of two years ago, an agreement between U.S. and Brazilian governments has established that all Brazilian sugarcane spirit arriving in the U.S. must be named "cachaça."

The country's first sugarcane mills date back to the discovery of Brazilian territory in 1500, and since then the cachaça market has continued to evolve and the spirit's quality has improved. "I think cachaça, when it's well made, is one of the most interesting spirits in the world. Proper artisanal cachaças are rich, full-bodied spirits that also have a great deal of subtlety and even grace," says Dave Wondrich, noted drinks historian and scholar.

A Growing Industry

Though cachaça is best known for its role in the Caipirinha, the spirit is appearing in more drinks these days as bartenders become better acquainted with the booze. "When I started Leblon in 2005, cachaça was relegated only to the Brazilian restaurants and churrascarias in the United States and Europe. Now, you see a Caipirinha on every menu, and bartenders are moving beyond the Caipirinha and making amazing creative cocktails with cachaça," states Steve Luttman, president and CEO of premium cachaça brand Leblon.

According to IWSR, cachaça sales have grown from 6,000 9-liter cases in 2005, to nearly 100,000 9-liter cases in 2015 in the United States alone. "And what’s interesting is that the majority of volume now sold is premium artisanal cachaça made in alambique copper pot-stills, and not the industrial cachaça" adds Luttman.

"I believe that the moment of cachaça has come, and that from 2016 on many doors will open. Cachaça is already established in Brazil and it is becoming a lasting trend abroad," affirms Jean Ponce, former bartender at D.O.M. in São Paulo, rated number nine on S.Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurants list.

Bartenders like Ivy Mix from Leyenda in New York, Nicolas Lasjuilliarias of Les Bains Douches in Paris, Marco Russo from 1930 in Milan, and Rudi Carraro formerly of Artesian in London all serve cocktails that incorporate cachaça.

For Luttman, from the consumer standpoint, a Caipirinha cocktail is simply a cheap ticket to Rio: "I always believe that we experience travel and culture when we are enjoying fine wine and cocktails, and there is nowhere better to travel to than Brazil—with a delicious Caipirinha or other cachaça cocktail in your hand." He adds that cocktails provide the potential for cachaça to expand beyond the current limited usage, but this requires a shift in attitudes with mixologists and bar staff embracing the spirit's versatility.

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Photos via Facebook/Mapa da Cachaça.


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