If you've ever been to a Brazilian bar, then you may have seen cachaça on the menu. But what is cachaça, what is it used for, and where can you buy it? In this blog post, we will answer all of those questions and more!
Cachaça, pronounced as Kah-SHAH-sah, is a sugar cane juice-based distilled spirit. It is exclusively produced in Brazil and is frequently mistaken for a style of rum. Cachaça is the Brazilian national spirit but is gaining popularity in the United States, South America, and other countries.
The History of Cachaca
Brazillian locals producing cachaca - Image by Bem Sao Paolo
The origin of cachaça is not a happy one. Production first began in the 1500s when Portuguese colonists brought sugarcane to Brazil.
The locals, whom the Portuguese enslaved and forced to work in sugar production, were probably the first to recognize that sugarcane juice could be fermented to alcohol. In addition to enslavement and sugarcane, the Portuguese colonizers brought stills, which the laborers used to extract the fermented sugarcane juice. As a result, cachaça was born.
Sugar plantation owners encouraged drinking alcohol among their workers. In fact, they were known to give enslaved people cachaça rations to calm them down, making their work more bearable.
How is Cachaca Made?
Cachaca distillery and production - Image by Avua Cachaca
Cachaça is made from freshly pressed sugarcane juice fermented with yeast. The resulting “sugarcane wine” is then only distilled once.
Column stills are used to distill mass-produced cachaças. Still, a new global interest in craft cachaça has driven some distillers to opt for older, more artisanal devices, such as alembic copper pot stills.
Industrial Vs. Artisanal
There are around 30,000 cachaça distilleries in Brazil, 90% industrial and 10% artisanal.
Industrial cachaça is made from machine-harvested sugarcane that is pressed and fermented with artificial yeasts before being distilled in column stills.
Artisanal cachaça is mostly manufactured in Minas Gerais, where sugarcane is gathered by hand with a machete. The juice must be extracted within 24 hours of being harvested, fermented in open vats with wild yeast, and distilled once in pot stills made of copper.
There are two types of artisanal cachaça, depending on whether it is the result of wild fermentation or manufactured using the caipira process, which combines sugarcane juice and cereal, primarily maize flour.
Native Woods Used for Cachaca Aging
Distillers occasionally age cachaça in wood barrels made not just of oak but also of indigenous woods such as aburana, balm, and canary wood. Cachaça is typically bottled and marketed at 38-54% ABV (alcohol by volume).
Arava imparts a little yellowish tint to cachaça and a subtle, floral aroma. Its distinguishing feature is the viscosity and oiliness the wood lends to the spirit.
Amburana softens cachaça by reducing its acidity and controlling its alcohol content. The primary scents are cinnamon and vanilla.
The balm is a very aromatic wood that imparts clove and anise scents.
Peanut reduces acidity and provides the cachaça a mellow yellow tint nearly invisible. Sugarcane and white flowers are two of the most prominent fragrances.
Jequitibá masks the slight taste of sugarcane bagasse without affecting the color of the cachaça. The wood also reduces the acidity of the spirit, making it smoother and rounder.
Cachaca vs. Rum vs. Rhum Agricole
Sugarcane is used to make cachaça, rum, and even rhum agricole. However, each spirit is created through a slightly distinct technique. Cachaça can only be manufactured in Brazil from fresh cane juice that has been fermented and distilled once.
On the other hand, rum may be manufactured almost anywhere and is often prepared from molasses, a cooked residue of sugar extraction, and distilled to much higher percentages of ABV.
Within the French island of Martinique, which has its restricted appellation under European Union law, rhum agricole is more similar to cachaça and is created from freshly squeezed sugarcane juice rather than molasses. But rhum agricole can be created anywhere and is frequently seen in traditional rum distilleries.
Cachaça, rum, and rhum agricole all have distinct flavors. Cachaça and rhum agricole have a fruitier, more lively scent, while rum has a spicier, caramelized flavor. However, cachaça has a milder flavor than rhum agricole and a cleaner flavor than other molasses rums.
Types of Cachaca
Cachaça, like rum and tequila, is classed by color, determining how it is preserved after distillation.
Branca or White Cachaça
Branca means “white” in Portuguese, branca cachaças are also known as prata (silver), clássica (classic), or tradicional cachaças (traditional).
This cachaça may or may not have been matured in wooden casks. These casks contain non-coloring woods such as peanut, freijó, and jequitibá.
Amarela or Gold Cachaça
Amarela means “yellow,” and this variety may also be known as ouro (gold) or envelhecida (aged). Gold cachaça bottles are aged in wooden barrels for at least 50% of their content for anywhere from 2 months to 1 year. This technique alters not just the color but also the flavor of the liquor.
The resting period after distillation permits the liquor to acquire stronger fruit notes rather than the normal grassy, green, vegetal overtones associated with the category.
Premium and Extra Premium Cachaca
“Premium” aged cachaça has been matured in smaller tanks for at least 1 to 3 years. Since these tanks are smaller than the others, the flavor, scent, and color changes are more noticeable.
The sole distinction between extra-premium and premium is the aging time. Extra-premium cachaça is aged in a wooden cask for at least 3 years.
Special Reserve Cachaca
This cachaça is aged in European wood casks for 2 to more than 3 years.
How to Drink Cachaca
Cachaça can be consumed in a variety of ways. Top-tier cachaças are ideal for sipping straight or on the rocks. Some folks enjoy it as a shot. It's also a versatile cocktail liquor gradually finding a home in the modern bar.
On the Rocks
Cachaça, like other spirits, can be consumed with ice cubes or “on the rocks.” The ice in the cachaça melts and dilutes the drink, potentially improving fragrance and breaking up the alcoholic flavor.
But be careful not to let the ice melt and get the cachaça watery and bland. This procedure is also more suggested in fragrant cachaças, such as those aged in oak barrels.
Cachaça in the Freezer
Some people prefer to drink cold cachaça and store their favorite bottles in the freezer. Cachaça softens in sensation and flavor when heated to low temperatures.
The freezer will give the cachaça a “liqueur” texture, lowering the alcoholic sense in the mouth while emphasizing other features akin to ice. And don't worry, the cachaça will not freeze!
Caipirinha is a lime-based Brazilian famous cocktail. It is the country's most popular alcoholic beverage and has many variations, depending on the region in which it is prepared.
Cachaça, lime juice, and sugar are needed to make the traditional caipirinha drink. This mixed drink is similar to the old-fashioned mojito, except cachaça is used instead of rum as the base spirit.
Where to Buy Cachaca
Cachaça is becoming more accessible, yet it is still not commonly available. Look for it in well-stocked liquor stores with a varied import selection.
If you're looking for a reason to celebrate with cachaça, you may do so on its national holidays.
Cachaça Day is celebrated annually on September 13. The 12th of June is now officially recognized as International Cachaça Day. And on May 21, locals in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais gather to celebrate this distilled spirit.
In summary, Brazil's national spirit is a fun and inexpensive way to treat yourself. Grab a bottle when you're out at the bar, or crack one open at home for an exciting new taste experience. Let the good times flow with cachaça!