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.
This deluxe cachaça is aged for 12 years: two years in casks made from Brazilian Grápia wood and ten years in casks made from Brazilian Aribá wood. Waxy lime blossom nose with delicate honey, physalis and bamboo-like woody aromas.
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.
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.
This cachaça is aged for eight years in casks made from Brazilian Aribá wood sourced from the Santa Catarina coast. Grassy, honey, buttery croissant nose with crystallised ginger, almond, barky wood, subtle orange aromas.
From the makers of the familiar leaf-covered Germana brand of cachaça comes this Characterised by its crown cap and brown glass bottle, this cachaça is matured in Umburana cherry wood barrels for two years and is made north of Minas Gerais in the south east of the country. Jasmine, soft bamboo cane centre, perfumed nose and a touch of baker's flour and strawberry flavoured fluffy Angel Delight.
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.
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.
Leblon is made from fresh cane juice obtained within three hours of harvesting by pressing only the middle and best part of the sugar cane. This fresh sweet juice is fermented and then distilled using an alembic copper still. The cachaça is then aged in ex-cognac casks for one month. Hints of unsalted butter and creamy, tinned sweetcorn.
Cabana is fermented from the first pressing of purpose grown, hand cut sugar cane from the Sao Paolo area. It is double distilled in copper pot stills before being aged for nine months in large vats made from Brazilian Jequitibá wood. It is packaged in a modern cylindrical screen printed bottle. A sweet nose with icing sugar and hints of the yeasty Christmas cake beneath.
Ypióca Empalhada is aged two years in balsam wood casks. Empalhada which confusingly translates from Portuguese as stuffed is distinguished from Ypióca’s ‘standard’ cachaça by having extra year of aging and Empalhada bottles being wrapped in hand-woven straw. Brown bread, buttery oak, green grapes, green apple and white pepper.
Ypióca Empalhada is aged two years in Freijo wood casks. Empalhada which confusingly translates from Portuguese as stuffed is distinguished from Ypióca’s ‘standard’ cachaça by having an extra year of aging and hand-woven straw wrapped bottles. Tutti frutti, underripe banana, brown bread, pastry, green grapes and green apple skin with nutmeg spice.
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.
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.