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Cachaça: Brazil’s Megaspirit

Here’s a fact that many American spirits pros would find almost inconceivable: last year, Brazil produced more than 1.3 billion liters of its national spirit—cachaça—making it the world’s third most distilled spirit behind vodka and shochu, the Asian distillate. Cachaça has a long and fascinating history that dates back to the sixteenth century, and its popularity has expanded over the years. With Brazil now one of the most desirable destinations on the planet, cachaça is in very good shape for future growth.

Rough but Ready

Cachaça is categorized as a rum, although the ratio of good rums to good cachaças is so vast that the two are virtually incomparable. Ironically, cachaça has much stricter production laws than rum, and its distillers are working hard to have the spirit’s defined appellation recognized by the World Trade Organization. (By contrast, rum is not appellation based; it can be produced anywhere.)

But let’s not get too excited just yet. Most cachaça has always been—and remains—pretty rough stuff, an image it is still trying to shake even in Brazil, despite the astoundingly robust production figures mentioned above. Although the production laws for cachaça continue to become tighter, its distillation is still largely a cottage industry; in fact, it is perfectly legal to produce cachaça at home. In Minas Gerais alone (the state in southeastern Brazil widely recognized for producing the best sugarcane), there are over 8,500 different brands of cachaça! Cachaça production, like rum, was borne out of the sugar plantations, which thrived after the arrival of the Portuguese and Spanish and which were cultivated for centuries by the estimated four million slaves brought by the Portuguese from Africa shortly after Brazil’s founding in 1502. Slavery was officially abolished in 1888, making Brazil the last country in the New World to end the practice, and cachaça consumption has always been associated with slaves and poor Brazilians.

As a consequence of its history, cachaça has never shaken its image as a crude drink for the poor. That impression has begun to change, however, with the release of several refined brands that are being exported around the world. And at home those marketing these brands are hoping these new impressive cachaças will attract the country’s emerging wealthy elite. One such premium brand is Leblon, launched in the US market in 2005 and now slowly trickling into other countries. The brand takes its name from a beach adjacent to Rio’s famous Ipanema, and this cachaça is unique in that after being pot distilled in Brazil, it is sent to France and aged in ex-Cognac casks for about six months—a regimen that smoothes and softens the distillate.

Sagatiba is also making some noise here in the States, pushing hard with a big budget and a mixology angle. Their Velha, a complex aged cachaça, has been well received. The venerable Ypioca brand, founded in 1846, has four bottlings, from Crystal, aged one year in barrel, to 150, a “sugarcane bandy” that is aged six years (three in balsam and three in freijó). Other names that are now popular in bars include Agua Luca, Beleza Pura, Ypióca, Rocinha, and Cabana. Cachaça may have once been considered nothing more than harsh firewater, but thanks to new and improved production techniques, stricter government laws, and smoother, quality brands, the spirit is now highly sought after by top bartenders and their clientele. Cachaça is a very versatile spirit, in much the same vein as white rum, Tequila, and pisco, all of which add complexity to mixed drinks. Brazil’s spirit has a very distinct character that allows its rustic, earthy complexities to come through in a cocktail as opposed to, say, vodka, which simply gets lost when mixed with, well, anything.
No doubt spurred on by the global popularity of the caipirinha, cachaça is quickly becoming a mainstream spirit in the US. Many delicious, original cocktails using Brazil’s spirit are sure to follow.

What Is Cachaça?
Throughout Latin America, the general term for cachaça is aguardente de cana (or simply aguardente), literally meaning sugarcane water. These distilled spirits are produced all over South and Central America under these and various other names, and while they essentially all describe the same spirit, only cachaça may be produced in Brazil.
People often compare it to firewater, and it’s easy to see why. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, Brazil was virtually bankrupt, but its citizens still needed something to run their cars. So they turned to their greatest resource—sugarcane—and converted it into pure ethanol, which was extremely cheap and is still widely used today as car fuel. It’s basically high strength, awfully crude cachaça.
The very basics of cachaça production result in a much more volatile spirit than rum. First, it is made from raw sugarcane juice, which is not as sweet or refined as molasses, the base ingredient of many rums. In addition, most cachaça is distilled only once in industrial column stills, it is rarely aged, and the methods of filtration are rather primitive compared with other spirits.
The production process results in a flavor profile that can be quite hard to pinpoint, sitting somewhere among Tequila, white rum, and clear grape brandy. The best cachaças often show pronounced hints of spice, oak, honey, pepper, cinnamon, citrus, and even tropical fruit. But all still have a rustic edge that is unmistakably cachaça. Many people in Brazil sip it, but cachaça is a very long way from becoming known as a drink that is appreciated this way, no matter how refined it becomes.

Rio Lei

By Ethan Kelley, beverage director and head spirit sommelier, Brandy Library, New York City
“Cachaça . . . is by its very nature a rough and ready spirit. It does have some heat on it, and the rustic personality lends itself well to being smoothed out with other flavors. Sagatiba, in particular, has the traditional vegetal components and . . . natural sweetness. The elderflower [enhances] some of the more floral notes, while the pineapple offers enough sweetness to take away the sharpness. The little touch of bitters enhances the still character of the base spirit and adds enough pop to remind people that they are drinking a stiff cocktail. The garnish of just a little mint spikes up the vegetal quality just enough.”

2 oz Sagatiba Cachaça
1 oz pineapple juice
½ oz elderflower liqueur
¼ oz pure grape sugar
Dash Angostura bitters
Mint-leaf garnish

Combine cachaça, pineapple juice, elderflower liqueur, grape sugar, and bitters in an ice-filled shaker. Shake vigorously, and strain into stemless wine glass. Garnish with a mint leaf.

Apple & Ginger Caipirinha
By Cristiano Taluzzi, night manager, Van Dyke Upstairs, Van Dyke Café, Miami

“Using better quality cachaça allows me toplay around with more flavors and use less sugar in the cocktails. Over the past few years, Cachaça has gotten better, and the sugarcane taste, as opposed to molasses (like most rums), is lighter and therefore can play better with various fruits.”

½ lime, chopped
¾ oz ginger syrup
2 oz Leblon Cachaça
2 oz green apple puree
1 oz agave nectar
3 mint leaves
3 basil leaves

Muddle lime and syrup in mixing glass. Add cachaça, green apple puree, agave nectar, mint and basil leaves, and ice to glass. Shake and pour into tumbler.

Pisco: Peru’s Special Spirit

Like many of the world’s venerable spirits, pisco has weathered its fair share of hardships. Those who have tried it probably would not put this rather misunderstood spirit in the category of “great,” but pisco has a fascinating and turbulent history, including times that threatened its very existence. There are many spirits professionals across America who are unsure of exactly what pisco is, and for bartenders who have had the pleasure of working with pisco, another point of confusion lies with its origins.

Origins Debate

To this day, debate still rages as to which country, Peru or Chile, first produced pisco. There is overwhelming evidence that points to Peru, the most obvious being that the town of Pisco and its eponymous port are located in Peru. Pisco was first produced during the time of the Spanish viceroyalty in the sixteenth century. At that time, both Peru and Chile were part of this Spanish reign, with borders that were not defined as they are today. As the spirit developed, there was no hindrance to transporting vines and cultivating new vineyards in what is now Chile and to undertaking the inevitable production of pisco. Inhabitants in both areas thought of pisco as their own.

The first pisco grapes were brought to Peru from the Canary Islands in the sixteenth century by Francisco Caravantes. They thrived in the region, and the quality of the wines produced from these grapes was so high that they began to be exported to Spain. This trade was banned in 1641; the loss led local farmers to distill their surplus grape must into a spirit that eventually became pisco.
The popularity of pisco in North America and Europe intensified in the late 1700s as shipping traffic increased from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via Cape Horn. Traders stopped at the port of Pisco to pick up supplies, including the Peruvian brandy, and continued on their journeys up the coast to North America and back to Europe.

When the Gold Rush hit the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1850s, thousands of miners from Peru and Chile headed north, hoping to make their fortune and taking their national spirit with them. The steady stream of boats heading to San Francisco also meant a steady stream of pisco. Within a short time, Americans, too, had developed a liking for the spirit, especially mixed in the most popular drink of the time, pisco punch, and in what later became the classic pisco sour.
Peru’s spirit became the most popular spirit on America’s West Coast between the Gold Rush era and Prohibition. After Repeal, it regained its popularity, with pisco houses opening up in San Francisco, but now it shared its success with the rums of the new Tiki movement, led by pioneers Trader Vic and Don Beach. If Peru’s military coup d’etat of 1968 had not put a swift end to pisco’s golden age, pisco could well have been in the same position as Tequila is currently. Today, though, under a more favorable political climate, pisco is fighting its way back to popularity, led by curious, passionate, and creative bartenders.

Image Upgrade

Like cachaça, pisco is trying to shake an image problem. Historically, pisco has been a drink favored by sailors, the working class, and the poor—certainly not a spirit produced for refined enjoyment. But over the past decade, several entrepreneurs have been buying back and improving Peruvian vineyards and are producing some wonderful artisanal expressions of the spirit.
The global cocktail renaissance also has come at a perfect time for pisco to experience its own revival. As an increasing number of Peru’s 235 brands are marketed abroad, bartenders around the world are finally getting a taste of what has until now been considered quite exotic and extremely difficult to find. There are some wonderful brands now available in the US, including Barsol, Don Cesar, Macchu Pisco, Mendiola, Huarangal, La Caravedo,and Biondi.
Diego Loret de Mola, a Peruvian native and the brand ambassador for the excellent Barsol brand, is extremely enthusiastic about promoting the entire category. He travels across the States educating bartenders on the virtues of his country’s national drink, viewing cocktails as the catalyst for pisco’s return. “We are witnessing a cocktail revolution, and the old classics are being rediscovered and promoted with a contemporary twist,” notes Loret de Mola. “Now is the time when the next great spirit category will be launched through a signature cocktail. Just like the margarita made Tequila popular, pisco will be known again through the pisco sour. Furthermore, at a time when the world is in a love affair with all things Latin, pisco has the potential of bringing another level of differentiation to any bar.”

What Is Pisco?

Essentially, pisco is a clear grape brandy, which in the best brands has a somewhat fruity and floral nose; a round, often buttery palate; and, generally, a dry finish.
Even though both Peru and Chile produce the spirit, there are marked differences between the two. The first distinction is the raw materials. Peruvian piscos are more aromatic than their Chilean counterparts because they use completely different grapes. In Peru, eight grape varieties can be used (four aromatic and four not aromatic), while in Chile they tend to use only three grapes, all of which lack pronounced aromas. Peruvian-style piscos, therefore, are more complex and fragrant on the nose.
Second, the brandy is made using traditional copper alembic (pot) stills in Peru; as a consequence, more flavor is retained. In Chile, pisco is made in a vertical column still. A third key difference between the two countries’ piscos is that following column distillation, Chilean pisco is diluted with water to reduce the alcohol percentage to between 30 and 55. Alembic-processed Peruvian pisco is distilled to final proof—one of the few spirits in the world to be made this way. Without dilution, more character and flavor remain in the finished product.
Chile produces over 90 percent of the world’s pisco, mostly on an industrial scale. Volume, not necessarily quality, is the Chilean pursuit. As a result, Chilean brands have a much greater presence in overseas markets than those from Peru. Pisco in Peru is mostly made by small artisan distillers, who exercise much tighter control over every stage of production.
The Concejo Regulador del Pisco, a government entity set up in 2006 by Peru’s pisco producers, oversees the production process of individual distillers much like the Consejo Regulador del Tequila stringently monitors Tequila in Mexico. This new regulatory body will help improve the overall quality of Peruvian Pisco.

By Vincenzo Marianella, bar manager and head bartender, Providence, Los Angeles, and cocktail consultant (

 “Caravante was the first person to bring grapes to Peru. I love pisco’s flexibility; it is very easy to mix and brings so many subtle flavors to cocktails.”

2 oz Barsol Pisco
½ oz Veev Açai Liqueur
¾ oz fresh lemon juice
¾ oz Bossa Nova passionfruit juice
½ oz simple syrup
2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters
1 egg white

Combine pisco, liqueur, juices, simple syrup,bitters, and egg white in ice-filled shaker. Shake very hard, and strain into wine glass.

Count Chocula
By Tad Carducci, principal tippler, Tippling Bros., LLC, a metropolitan New York–based beverage-consulting company

“A good pisco has a rich mouth-feel, lending body to the drink. Peruvian piscos are generally spicy and somewhat floral, adding more layers to a cocktail. In this case, the spiciness plays off that of the vermouth, and the floral quality provides a bit of top note, enhanced by the lemon twist. Because they are aged in porous clay pots, even the most neutral versions exhibit a baked-earth and baked-fruit quality, which can add further complexity to a cocktail. In good pisco, much like with grappa, I usually get a very deep cocoa flavor, like a grand cru chocolate. I wanted to experiment and try to pull that element out, without it being overbearing or too sweet. Enter the crème de cacao. I used the dark stuff to add a bit more color. Finally the Aperol lends a bitter orange-peel component, which brightens up the cocoa flavor and also works with the earthiness. The bitterness also ensures that the cocktail will finish dry and work as an aperitif. The pisco’s the star, and everything else works in combination to make sure it shines brightly.”

1 oz Macchu Pisco
1 oz Aperol liqueur
½ oz Cinzano Vermouth
½ oz Marie Brizard Crème de Cacao
Flamed lemon-zest garnish

Combine pisco, Aperol, vermouth, and crème de cacao in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with flamed lemon zest.

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