What Is Cachaça?

Production, Types, and Recipes

Caipirinha
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Cachaça (pronounced kah-SHAH-sah) is a distilled spirit made from sugar cane juice. It is produced exclusively in Brazil and is often erroneously thought of as a style of rum. The country's national spirit, cachaça—and its most famous cocktail, the caipirinha—were mostly enjoyed in Brazil for the longest time. While cachaça often outsells gin and tequila, 99 percent of that is drunk by Brazilians. Today, it is receiving global attention in the U.S., Portugal, and other markets and now makes a regular appearance in well-stocked bars and liquor stores.

Cachaça vs. Rum

It's easy to refer to cachaça as Brazillian rum and when it was first imported into the U.S., cachaça was—out of convenience—listed as a category of rum. However, cachaça was most likely created before rum and is credited by many historians as Latin America's first distilled beverage. It's more appropriate to consider cachaça a separate category of liquor that's related to rum because they share a sugar-based distillate.

The primary difference is that cachaça is made from freshly-pressed sugar cane juice. Rum, on the other hand, is most often distilled from sugar by-products like molasses (rhum agricole is made with sugar cane). It's a technicality, but an important one because cachaça tends to have a raw, vegetal, fruity taste with a more subtle sweetness. Additionally, aged rums often spend time in used bourbon or sherry barrels while aged cachaça may rest in native woods, which impart a unique and exotic flavor profile.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredients: Sugar cane
  • Proof: 80-100
  • ABV: 40-50%
  • Calories in a shot: 64
  • Origin: Brazil
  • Taste: Sweet, vegetal, fruity
  • Aged: Unaged or up to 3 years or more
  • Serve: Straight, on the rocks, cocktails, shots

What Is Cachaça Made From?

Cachaça is made exclusively in Brazil and is the national spirit of the South American country. It had long been known as a poor man's drink though this has changed and some brilliant artisan cachaças are produced today. There are over 3,000 legal distilleries in Brazil and nearly that same number producing cachaça illegally. Just like any other distiller, those who make cachaça can experiment with the sugar cane, distillation process, and barrel aging to bring out particular flavor nuances in the spirit.

It is a requirement that cachaça is fermented from freshly-pressed sugar cane juice. The cane must be grown in Brazil, though distillers use different varietals to impart subtle variations in the cachaça they produce. The juice is fermented with yeast to convert the sugar into alcohol and then distilled. Typically, it undergoes a single distillation and premium cachaças tend to use copper pot stills. Some styles of cachaça are bottled directly after distillation or a period of resting in stainless steel tanks while others are aged.

Aging is where cachaça is truly unique. Distillers may use American or French oak barrels, either new or used (previously housing spirits like bourbon or brandy). They may also use any variety of indigenous woods to create their barrels and each adds to the uniqueness of the cachaça. A cachaça aged in Brazil nut barrels will have a completely different flavor profile than one aged in zebrawood, for instance. Brazillian amburana, balsam, cabreúva, tapinhoã, and teak are among the many types of wood employed.

The majority of cachaça is 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof). Some producers choose to bottle their specialty cachaças at a higher proof. As is the case with whiskey, this means you're getting a liquor with a fuller flavor.

What Does It Taste Like?

The flavor of cachaça can vary greatly though it often has a subtle sweetness (much less than rum). It's often vegetal and has a few fruity notes. Many of the more industrial brands can have a chemical alcohol taste while top-shelf brands will have a more pronounced fruitiness and delicious undertones of sweets.

Types

Similar to rum and tequila, the different types of cachaça are classified by color which is determined by how they're stored after distillation.

  • Branca: Meaning "white" in Portuguese, branca cachaças may also be labeled as prata (silver), clássica (classic), or tradicional (traditional). These are either unaged, rested in stainless steel vats, or stored in wood that does not affect the spirit's color for less than one year.
  • Amarela: Amarela means "yellow" and this type might be labeled ouro (gold) or envelhecida (aged). In order to qualify as an aged cachaça, a bottle must be comprised of at least 50 percent cachaça that spent a minimum of one year in barrels that hold no more than 700 liters. "Premium" aged cachaça needs to be entirely made up of 1-year or older spirit while "extra premium" notes that all of the cachaça is at least three years old.

Where to Buy Cachaça

Cachaça is getting easier to find, though it's still not widely distributed. Look for it at well-stocked liquor stores with a diverse selection of imports. You can also shop online. Regulations on shipping alcohol vary by state and country, so that's not an option for everyone.

How to Drink Cachaça

Cachaça can be drunk anyway you like. Top-shelf cachaças are the best for sipping straight or enjoying on the rocks. Some people like it as a shot as well. It's also a very versatile liquor for cocktails and is quickly finding a home in the modern bar. However, cachaça is so ingrained in Brazillian culture that it is best appreciated in the country's national drink, the caipirinha. It is to cachaça what the old-fashioned is to bourbon and it's made in the same manner but with lime and sugar.

If you need an excuse to drink cachaça, it even has its own holidays:

  • September 13 is National Cachaça Day.
  • June 12 has been designated as International Cachaça Day.
  • May 21 marks a regional cachaça celebration within the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.

Cocktail Recipes

The caipirinha and batida are two essential cachaça cocktails from Brazil. New recipes featuring it are continually being developed, pairing it with both common and exotic flavors. It can be used in many rum cocktails as well.

Popular Brands

Exporting cachaça has not been a priority for Brazil's distillers until recent years. Even now, the brands available in the U.S. and other countries are limited. The good news is that the majority of the cachaça you will find outside of Brazil is premium quality. While you might enjoy one more than another, the chances are slim of finding a bad cachaça.

  • Avuá
  • Bossa
  • Cabana
  • Leblon
  • Novo Fogo
  • Yaguara
  • Ypióca