Cachaça (Ka-SHA-Sa) we are constantly asked: what is it? How do you say it? How do you use it? And most often: is it a Rum or not? As the fastest growing spirit in the United States, more and more Americans are discovering Cachaça, the national spirit of Brazil. Cachaça grew from a mere 261k liters in 2005 to 450k liters in 2006 and 720k liters in 2007, and is expected to surpass over 900k liters this year, growing 50% versus 2007. That's nearly 20 million Caipirinhas and growing! Unique only to Brazil, Cachaça is pronounced ka-SHA-sa, with the emphasis on the ‘SHA.' Like Hefeweizen, Fahrvergnugen, and Pinot Grigio, Cachaça is a foreign word easy to mispronounce - at least initially. As a newly adopted discovery, Cachaça is quickly becoming part of our ‘social currency' lexicon. The same is happening for Cachaça's cocktail sidekick, the Caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil popping up on cocktail menus across the country (pronounced kai-pur-EEN-ya, with the emphasis on the third syllable).
So what is Cachaça anyways? And is it a rum or not? Cachaça is a Brazilian spirit distilled from sugar cane juice. It is the third most consumed spirit in the world behind only vodka and soju/shochu, the asian distillates made predominantly from rice. Historians date the initial creation of Cachaça between 1532 and 1550 in Brazil, predating the date of creation of rum (1651 in Barbados) by more than one hundred years. Unlike Rum, which is usually made from molasses, Cachaça can only be made from fresh cane juice, and can only be made in Brazil. 99% of Cachaça is consumed in Brazil - over 1.3 billion liters per year. Brazilian law requires that Cachaça be distilled no higher than 54% alcohol by volume, and bottled between 38% and 48% alcohol by volume. That being said, most export Cachaça has an alcohol content similar to vodka, tequila, rum, or gin - 40% alcohol by volume (or 80 proof).
So why then the rum question? According to U.S. law, any spirit derived from sugar cane must be labeled as a rum - in Cachaça's case, ‘Brazilian Rum.' This nomenclature has been in dispute for some time, with discussion and consideration of separating Cachaça into its own ‘class,' like tequila, or an ‘appellation' within a broader class, like cognac and champagne. With the increasing popularity of Cachaça, more and more people are asking for the distinction, especially since the cultural and sensorial differences between rum and Cachaça are so significant. So what are those sensorial differences? Since Cachaça is made from fresh cane juice, and not molasses (a derivative of sugar cane), it has a fruitier, fresher nose than rum. Its taste is subtly sweet and fresh, and since it comes directly from the crop, Cachaça has distinctive vegetal notes reminiscent of tequila (in fact, many mixologists and sommeliers liken Cachaça more to a tequila than a rum because of the unique vegetal notes in the nose).
How do you use Cachaça? In Brazil, Cachaça is consumed predominantly pure or in a Caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil. Made with muddled lime, the Caipirinha is now becoming a standard cocktail on menus across the country and the world. In addition, as a white spirit, Cachaça has amazing versatility, and is being used by bartenders and mixologists in their own creative concoctions, from twists on the classics (i.e. Brazilian Cosmos and Margarita Sambas) to frozen drinks (‘batidas') and bar chef cocktails (think muddled strawberries with basil…). With the growing popularity of Cachaça, the Caipirinha, and ‘everything Brazilian,' there are many Cachaças to choose from. New brands are arriving daily from Brazil, each with its own taste and approach. Generally speaking, Cachaças are made using two approaches: column stills or alambique copper pot stills. Column still Cachaças tend to be cheaper since they are made in a more efficient ‘continuous' process. Cachaça made from Alambique copper pot stills are typically more expensive, as they are made in small batches and have more delicate, refined taste profiles (and are referred to by Brazilian connoisseurs as ‘Artisanal' Cachaças). Although most Cachaças are ‘white' Cachaças, there are also many aged Cachaças that use various types of indigenous Brazilian woods.
Cachaça the next Tequila? Is the Caipirinha the new Margarita? We have no idea - but we do know this: it's a wonderful thing.