Cachaça 101

Cachaça (ka-SHAH-sa) is not just difficult to pronounce. Up until recently, the Brazilian spirit was also difficult to find in U.S. liquor stores, which is strange considering cachaça is the world’s third-most produced spirit after Korean soju and vodka. Now, though, a plethora of new bottlings are being imported into the U.S. and cropping up on liquor store shelves—most likely right next to the rum. But don’t let cachaça’s shelf placement confuse you. While both rum and cachaça are made with sugar cane, rum is made from the byproducts of sugar refinement, such as molasses, while cachaça is distilled from unrefined sugar cane juice. Primarily known as the main spirit in the equally hard to say Caipirinha, cachaça is worth getting to know on its own.

The History of Cachaça

The story of cachaça’s beginnings is not a happy one. Production first began in the 1500s when the Portuguese arrived in Brazil, bringing sugarcane with them. The local peoples, whom the Portuguese enslaved and forced to work in sugar production, were probably the first to recognize sugarcane juice could be fermented to create alcohol that would make the work more bearable. Aside from slavery and sugarcane, the Portuguese invaders also imported stills, which the workers used to distill the fermented sugarcane juice. And so, cachaça was born.

Rather than try to curb drinking among their “employees,” sugar plantation owners encouraged it. In fact, they were known to provide slaves with cachaça rations in order to pacify them. The drink quickly became synonymous with the working class. Eventually, though, the Brazilian elite caught on, and the whole country embraced cachaça as the national spirit.

How Is Cachaça Made?

Cachaça is distilled from freshly pressed, raw sugarcane, which is fermented with yeast. The resulting “sugarcane wine” is then distilled just once. Mass-produced cachaças are distilled in column stills, but a recent, global interest in craft cachaça has led some distillers to opt for older, more artisanal devices, such as alembic copper pot stills. Occasionally, distillers age cachaça in wood barrels made not only from oak but also indigenous woods like aburana, balm and canarywood. Typically, cachaça is bottled and sold at 38-54% ABV.

Cachaça Styles

Prata/Silver: The majority of cachaças available right now fall into the unaged prata category. They resemble rhum agricole from the French Island of Martinique in style and taste—but there is a jungle sweat funkiness that is 100 percent uniquely Brazilian.

Ouro/Gold: Ouro cachaça is aged in oak barrels or barrels made with indigenous Brazilian woods. There are over two dozen types of wood used for cooperage, ranging from peanut to zebra to balsam to amburana. Each type of wood imparts a unique flavor to the spirit. Amburana wood, for example, is known for imparting a Cinnamon Toast Crunch (milk included)-esque bouquet and palate. Aged cachaça must contain over 50 percent of a spirit that is at least one year old.

Can I Drink Cachaça Straight?

More often than not, cachaça is served in a Caipirinha or used as a rum substitute in cocktails like Daiquiris. But good quality cachaça (especially aged cachaça) can and should be consumed neat or on the rocks.

If you’re looking for some cachaças to sip straight, Avuá and Novo Fogo both make great silver bottlings that taste earthy and grassy with notes of ripe tropical fruit. Another favorite, Leblon Cachaça, is great for beginner palates. It’s aged up to three months in ex-Cognac casks, which mellows the liquid and brings its vegetal pepperiness and ripe banana flavors to the forefront. Novo Fogo’s Tanager Cachaca is aged in two types of casks—American oak barrels and arariba, an indigenous Brazilian hardwood—to impart spice notes like cinnamon, clove and tobacco. Rum drinkers who want to get into cachaça should try the unaged bottlings, while those who enjoy whiskey could start with the aged spirits if they’re looking for familiar flavors.

Notable Cachaça Cocktails

Caipirinha: The name Caipirinha is a derivative of the Brazilian word caipira (kai-pa-REEN-yah), which translates to “bush cutter” and is a pejorative word used to describe the rural folk that live and work in the remote areas of Brazil. Made with muddled lime and sugar, it was originally created by South American hillbillies to make their version of moonshine-like cachaça more palatable.

Cachaça in Culture

  • When you think of John Travolta, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the white-panted, disco fiend in Saturday Night Fever, or the denim-clad, ten-gallon-hat-wearing Bud in Urban Cowboy. Soon, though, when you hear the name “Travolta,” you’ll think, “cachaça.” The actor recently appeared in a somewhat viral ad for Ypióca cachaça, which is equal parts fascinating and confusing. Watch the amazing ad and be forever changed.
  • “They make this drink in Brazil called cachaça. It’s sugar alcohol. Costs 35 cents a quart. One quart of that stuff and you see God. Two quarts and you grow a pair of tight pants and an electric guitar.” —David Lee Roth
  • “The Caipirinha, man. This indispensable icon of Brazilian beach culture is known to start with fresh lime, muddle and mash with more lime juice, sugar, ice, the magic ingredient, cachaça—that’s basically the distilled liquor of the sugarcane—shaken, not stirred, and you’ve got yourself one of the world’s truly great cocktails. The utility beverage good for any time of day or any social occasion. Very satisfying.” - Anthony Bourdain