On Cachaça – what is it, how is it made, which is the best…for what.

“I think cachaça, when it’s well made, is one of the most interesting spirits in the world.”

David Wondrich

I’m just back from Brazil where I discovered heaven, behind most of north America and a host of others, in the shape of the caipirinha cocktail.

The caipirinha uses cachaça (also known as pinga), a spirit made from sugar cane. After Rio, we went south to the old colonial town of Paraty, an area which boasts a number of cachaça manufacturers – and naturally, I had to go and see how it was made.

Visiting the Pedra Branca cachaça distillery

The distillery we went to, the Pedra Branca,  was in a truly stunning location, up in the hills looking over the Mata Atlântica and the valley of Pedra Branca (white stone) after which it’s named. The whole cachaça-making process happens here from the planting of the sugar cane to the bottling and labelling. We had a delightful, and knowledgeable guide, named Bruno.

This is broadly how it is made there.

what is cachaca
Spectacular view from the distillery.

The head, the heart, and the tail

The distilled liquid comes out in three stages known as the head, the heart, and the tail. The head is dangerous to drink (it kills) and can’t be used for drinking (it can be recycled with the tail, and used for fuel). The tail doesn’t kill, but it gives a horrible hangover – its exclusion is the mark of a good quality cachaça.

what is cachaca
Cachaca distillery

What types are produced?

Of course, every distillery produces its own selection of differently treated and flavoured cachaça. This was the selection on offer at Pedra Branca:

Basic white cachaça – great for cocktails, especially of course the caipirinha. No more expensive or special cachaça is necessary we were advised.

A survey carried out in 2011 by a very serious-looking team at VIP magazine listed the following brands (in order) as producing the best, unaged, white cachaça:

1. Serra das Almas
2. João Mendes
3. Mato Dentro Prata e Fulô Jequitibá
4. Armazém Vieira Porto Nossa Senhora do Desterro
5. Serra Limpa
6. Leblon
7. Jacuba Prata
8. Mercedes Branca
9. Tabúa Flor de Prata

guide to cachaca
The standard range

Cachaça Plata (silver) – matured in barrels of peanut wood (other distilleries may use other neutral tasting wood) which gives it a delicate, woody taste. It’s a clear, clean, lightly herby spirit which goes well with seafood, lemon-anointed oysters, the famous Brazilian crackling, and the delicious sausage-chorizo hybrids they serve with drinks.

Cachaça Ouro (gold) – this spirit is aged in oak barrels imported from France. “Where in France?”,one of the Frenchmen with us wanted to know…. there’s always one in every group! Bruno didn’t know, but thought Burgundy maybe…. It’s aged for different lengths of time, a little like whisky, and broadly the rule is the older the better and the more expensive. We bought a four-year-old which drank very enjoyably, neat, after dinner.

To be classified as ‘aged’ 50% must have been matured for at least a year. Be warned, just because the liquid in the bottle is caramel-coloured doesn’t mean it’s aged.

guide to cachaca
Our favourite – the gold

The alcohol content of cachaça

All the above were 44% proof (the legal ABV range for cachaça is 38%–54% as opposed to the range for rum which is 37.5%–80%). Then there were two sweeter, slightly less alcoholic (38%) types:

Cachaça caramelada, with ginger and molasses, described by Bruno, and corroborated by a Brazilian friend, as being excellent for sore throats.

Cachaça gabriela, with molasses, cloves and cinnamon, which Bruno described as ‘tasting like Christmas’

And then there is a whole range of flavoured cachaças – some better than others. Some four of us agreed that the chocolate version was unexpectedly wonderful.

guide to cachaca
The chocolate – unexpectedly good

Is it rum? What distinguishes it from rum?

White rum and cachaça are not dissimilar – they are both made from sugar cane – but cachaça is made from first press sugar cane juice (see my post on a Rio market) and it’s distilled to a lower strength which gives it a clean, grassy, herby, sugar cany sort of taste – as described in the cachaça plata, above.

The freshly pressed sugar cane juice is volatile – it needs to be fermented quickly, so the cachaça cane field is often very close (or on-site, as in the case of Pedra Branca) to the distillery.

Rum, on the other hand, is more usually made with molasses, a by-product of the sugar cane refining process, or, as Bruno describes it, ‘the remaining mush’ – clearly he considers cachaça to be a superior drink to rum.

Most countries insist rum must be aged, whereas the basic white cachaça is notl

In any case, although sold in the States until 2013 as ‘Brazilian rum’, the Brazilian spirit is now legally sold there under its own name, as cachaça. But it’s a moot point as to whether technically it should be defined as a type of rum, or whether it’s a completely different drink, and it currently isn’t legally defined in any world-recognised way.

Whatever it is – it’s a damn good drink!

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