Words by: Simon Difford
In Brazil, Cachaça is also marketed under the name caninha (‘little cane’) or as ‘aguardente de cana’, which means ‘distillate of cane’ but could be uncharitably translated as ‘cane firewater’. However, it has many other nicknames: garapa doida, pinga, parati, cana, imaculada, maria-branca, purinha and zuninga. The four million or so litres exported annually have to be called cachaça on the label.
Cachaça is made from sugar cane and so is a kind of rum (although as traditionally maze meal is used to start the fermentation, many brands of cachaça are not strictly rums according to EU regulations).
Sugar cane has been cultivated in Brazil since 1532 when the country came under Portuguese rule and the crop has played a major role in the socio-economic history of the country. Large estates growing only sugar cane were the basis of Brazil's economy until well into the 20th century. Cachaça production in Brazil quickly followed.
Unlike most rums which are produced from molasses, a by-product of sugar refining, the best cachaça is distilled from fermented sugar cane juice. However, this is not always the case and many brands are made from sugar syrup or molasses. The big brands tend to burn the sugar to accelerate the breakdown of sugars, while the smaller distillers tend to use cane syrup.
Cachaça is only distilled to a maximum of 75% alcoholic strength, unlike most light rums which are usually distilled to 96% strength. This lower distillation strength means cachaça is less refined with more impurities and consequently retains more of the aroma and flavour of the sugar cane.
Alcohol was one of the first things which colonists to the New World turned their minds to and cachaça seems to date back nearly 500 years. Some say that it originated when a slave who worked on a sugar cane crusher tasted the foam on the fermenting sugar cane liquid, called 'Cagaça'. According to others it was created by the Portuguese in Brazil. Apparently, they felt homesick for Bagaceira, the Portuguese drink made from the lees left in the grape press after wine making, so experimented with their main crop and created a drink made from fermented sugar cane juice. Whatever the truth of the matter, the manufacturing process used today is generally credited to a Swiss immigrant, Erasmus Scheltz, who in 1543 managed the first sugar cane mill in Brazil.
The legal definition of cachaça is laid down in the Regulated Drinks Laws of Brazil. According to these, aguardente, caninha or cachaça is a drink with an alcoholic strength ranging from 38%-54% at 20ºC, obtained from the distillation of alcohol from sugar cane or from the fermentation of sugar cane. Up to six grams of sugar may be added per litre. An alcoholic cane sugar drink to which more than six grams but less than 30 grams of sugar has been added per litre is known as 'cana adoçada' (sweetened cane), 'caninha adoçada' (sweetened little cane) or 'cachaça adoçada' (sweetened cachaça).
For a product to be sold as aged cachaça, at least 50% of the blend must be sugar cane spirit which has been aged for a minimum of one year. Caramel may be added to correct the colour. Aged cachaça may be known as 'cana envelhecida' (aged cane), 'caninha envelhecida' (aged little cane) or 'cachaça envelhecida' (aged cachaça). Sadly these indications of quality and origin rarely appear on exported cachaça.
Capucana Cachaça is distilled in Piracicaba, near Sao Paulo, using the fermented juice of three different varieties of sugar cane and is aged for three years prior to bottling. The name borrows from the old Brazilian Capu Cana meaning ‘sugar cane house’ (capu = house and cana = sugarcane). Light muscovado sugar, aloe vera, soft leather, peach and pear fruit, dried herbs, black pepper and faint mandarin orange zest.
The Matos family moved from Portugal to operate their sugar cane estate in Brazil’s Minas Gerais region in 1891 and soon after started making Zeca de Matos Cachaça. Zeca cachaça remains 100% owned by the Matos family and is distilled and matured on their estate. Pungent, brown sugar, cut grass, pastry and icing sugar.
BemBom Cachaça is produced on a family owned farm in Minas Gerais state, Brazil by maestro Nahor Gustavo from fresh sugar cane grown on the farm, fermented and then batch distilled in copper pot stills. He matures the cachaça for one year in American oak casks. Fragrant grass, straw, glue, cream-of-soda vanilla, faint zesty lime and cinnamon.
Yaguara Cachaça is made by 5th generation cachaça makers from organically grown Java sugar cane which is harvested by hand. The cane is crushed to release its juice, known as ‘garapa’, on the same day it is cut. Cultivated local yeast strains are used to ferment the garapa which has around 16% sugar Fragrant sugar cane and dried grass with ripe pear skin and faint honeysuckle floral scents.
Las Iguanas is a British chain Latin American restaurants and its owner, Eren Ali, is so passionate about cachaça that he rents a Brazilian sugar-cane plantation and has his own Magnífica brand made from the sugar cane grown on it. Pungent, estery, grassy, straw and yeasty fruitcake with sugar cane juice and white pepper.
Launched in 2011, Leblon-Reserva is distilled in copper pot stills and then aged up to two years in new Limousin French oak casks. Honeycomb (inside of a crunchy bar), butterscotch, saddle leather and rolling tobacco with muscovado sugar. Faint sweet raisons.
Avuá Cachaça is made at a family owned distillery established in 1923 in a small town in a valley four hours north of Rio de Janeiro. It is distilled from first pressed fermented sugar cane juice. Wonderfully aromatic and floral with dried grass, spirit overripe blackened banana and dried banana chips.
Avuá Amburana Cachaça is made at a family owned distillery established in 1923 in a small town in a valley four hours north of Rio de Janeiro. It is distilled from first pressed fermented sugar cane juice and then aged for up to 2 years in vats made from a rare Brazilian hardwood known as Amburana. Overripe banana and banana chips with creamy vanilla, passion fruit and faint nutmeg.
This artisanal cachaça is distilled in copper pot stills and aged in oak casks by Master Distiller, Luiz Fernando Galletti from sugar cane that is manually harvested without burning and fermented on the same day it is cut. The fermentation which lasts around 24 hours is without chemical additives. Buttery sugar cane with iced current bun and subtle dry woody scents.
Launched in the UK in 2007, Brasilla is a new brand with an established spirit inside the bottle. In its native Brazil the same product is known as “Jamel.” It was established in 1958 and sells some 35 million litres annually, making it the country’s third biggest cachaça. A hint of linseed oil emerges from a subdued nose with just a hint of dark sugar.
Água Luca is distilled from the fermented juice of hand cut sugar cane within 24 hours of harvesting, then filtered 12 times. So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that it is a cachaça developed for the American market rather than a spirit discovered in Brazil. Demerara sugar with nutty whiffs
Double distilled from fermented sugar cane juice and then aged in large oak vats for an undisclosed period. This popular brand cachaça was launched in 1975 by Indústrias Reunidas de Bebidas Tatuzinho. A black label, aged version is also available. Pungent. Sweetcorn, muscavado sugar and white pepper with ripe melon and pear.
The Ypióca brand of aged cachaça has been produced by four generations of the Telles family since 1846 when Dario Telles de Menezes became the owner of the distillery. Ypióca 150 is aged for 6 years in balsam wood casks.
Moleca (which roughly translates as 'Tomboy' in Brazilian Portuguese) is double distilled from fresh sugar cane juice in copper pot stills imported from the UK at the Fazenda Soledade Distillery in Rio State, Brazil. Moleca Gold is aged three years in ex-whisky casks.