Most American drinkers are unfamiliar with cachaça, Brazil’s immensely popular national spirit, but that may be poised to change as several brands are now available in the U.S. and are pushing for greater name recognition. Cachaça is similar to rum but is distilled from 100 percent sugar cane juice as opposed to molasses. It’s sweet, although not overbearingly so, with a slightly earthy flavor that contains hints of grass and fruit that shine through in all of its forms. These range from clear, un-aged versions to darker expressions that have been aged in various types of barrels for anywhere from one to seven years, taking on a deeper, more complex flavor.
“Cachaça is to Brazil what tequila is to Mexico,” says Steve Luttmann, the founder of Leblon. But he feels that Brazilians have been taking the spirit for granted recently. “In the past 20 years, cachaça has lost a lot of ground to imported Western spirits, particularly vodka, which has invaded the national cocktail, the Caipirinha, with the Caipiroska.”
To counter this, there has been an explosion of small-batch cachaça distillers throughout Brazil, which is growing at a rate of 15 percent annually, according to Luttmann. Novo Fogo founder and CEO Dragos Axinte described the pride that his country takes in its indigenous spirit. “Brazil has embraced cachaça so much that the rest of the world is taking notice,” he says. “Cachaça, though not yet as popular in the U.S. as it has the potential to be, is one of the most consumed spirits in the world.”
The approaching summer should provide people with ample opportunity to explore the many ways the spirit can be enjoyed, from sipping it neat and making the classic Caipirinha to substituting it for a variety of other spirits for a tropical take on any cocktail.
Make a Caipirinha with Novo Fogo silver. This clear cachaça is, like all Novo Fogo expressions, made from organic sugar cane grown in the mountains of southern Brazil. After being distilled in copper pots, it’s aged for one year in stainless steel so it remains clear but its flavors are given ample time to muddle.
Make a coconut twist on the Batida, a Coco Batida, with Leblon. This white cachaça is made in Alambique copper pot stills in the Minas Gerais state of Brazil and is actually slightly blond since it has been aged for six months in used French XO cognac casks. This is bright, floral and extremely fruity, removing the comparisons to rum from the equation.
Make this cachaça version of a Moscow Mule, the Brazilian Buck, with Novo Fogo Chameleon. This expression, which is aged in used bourbon barrels for one year, is where things start to get really interesting. The cask aging imparts this cachaça with subtle hints of vanilla and oak, which accentuate instead of masking the citrusy character of the spirit.
Make a Bossa Manhattan with Leblon Reserva Especial. This is the premier cachaça from the Leblon family, aged for up to two years in new Limousin French oak barrels, known for their vanilla flavor, before being blended and bottled. The spirit is dark and sweet, with bold, caramel notes and a chocolate finish. This could replace bourbon in any cocktail.