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 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro 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.
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.
- 2 oz Novo Fogo silver cachaça
- 1 1/4 tbsp sugar
- 1/2 lime
Remove the pith from the lime and discard it. Cut the remaining lime into slices, and toss them into a double Old Fashioned glass. Muddle the slices with sugar in the glass, and fill the glass with ice. Add the cachaça and pour everything into a shaker. Shake vigorously, and pour everything back into the glass.
This white cachaça, made in Alambique copper pot stills in the Minas Gerais state of Brazil, is actually slightly blond since it’s 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.
- 2 oz Leblon cachaça
- 2 oz coconut cream
- 2 oz condensed milk
- 1/2 oz simple syrup
- 1 cup cracked ice
- Shredded toasted coconut, for garnish
Combine all of the ingredients in a blender, and blend until smooth. Pour into a highball glass, and garnish with toasted coconut.
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.
- 1 1/2 oz Novo Fogo Chameleon cachaça
- 4 oz ginger beer
- 2 dashes aromatic bitters
- Squeeze of fresh lime
- 1 lime slice, for garnish
Build this cachaça Moscow Mule over ice in a highball glass, and stir to combine. Garnish with a lime slice.
Novo Fogo Barrel Aged Cachaça
Like Novo Fogo’s Chameleon, this cachaça is aged in former bourbon barrels, only this time for two years instead of one. This really amplifies the tannin and oak elements, and pronounced hints of cinnamon and toffee pervade the palate. This expression should definitely be enjoyed on its own as well as in cocktails.
- 2 oz Novo Fogo barrel-aged cachaça
- 1/2 oz cinnamon syrup
- 2 dashes chocolate bitters
- 1 orange peel, for garnish
For this Brazilian Old Fashioned, place cinnamon at the bottom of a rocks glass. Nearly fill the glass with ice, then add the cachaça and bitters. Stir and fill the glass with ice. Zest an orange peel over the rim of the glass, and drop it in.
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.
- 1 1/2 oz Leblon Reserva Especial cachaça
- 1 oz Cedilla Acai liqueur
- 1/2 oz agave nectar
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1 orange twist, for garnish
Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir well, strain into a coupe glass, and garnish with an orange twist.