Strange Business and Re-Discoveries: Cachaça

Strange business, this whole drinks-reporting gig. I have the joy, most of the time, to experience clearly defined feelings with the senses of sight, smell and taste and then translate such experiences with words written for you, which only have connotations because you and I sort of, kind of, relatively agree to broad meanings.

To my good fortune, many of you breeze through these weekly meanderings and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it all very much. Given my stream-of-conscious style, which has driven my editors crazy from our first meeting years ago, I am happy that not too great a fuss is made over my conclusions, often arrived at from weird angles that defy logic.

Then there are those of you who do actually pay attention to what is happening here at Happy Hour and try to make sense of the scene. I have been asked, “When you say bouquet, are you referring to flowers or the overall sensation of the olfactory experience?” FYI, it’s the latter.

Or, “Am I supposed to like this stuff you raved about?” FYI, only like what you like. My tastes are for me only. Then I’ve been asked, “You noted that 2010 was a difficult weather year, but I don’t remember anything horrible.” FYI, you are not a grape, and, secondly, you are not in northern California.

This leads us to a question I was asked just a few weeks ago, “Do you want to taste a line-up of cachaças, some aged?”

On a surface level, I am always happy to taste beverages. Heck, it’s my whole raison d’être, and you can’t believe how hard it is to work that phrase into a column. Been wanting to do it for a long time. No desire to waste perfectly good Jesuit education.

Cachaças are a different animal. I have never tasted an aged one, and I was not aware there was that much difference among the lot of the ones we usually see on the shelves or behind better bars.

Let’s start with a definition. Cachaça (ka-SHA-sa) is a category of clear spirit, although they are sometimes more cloudy than clear, made from the fermented juice of sugar cane and they are indigenous to Brazil. It is, in essence, a Brazilian rum, usually around 80 proof, about 40 percent alcohol. It is distilled, which means that the heating of the raw product – sugar cane juice – yields a stable spirit.

Some purists take issue with the descriptor, Brazilian Rum, because rum is made from the molasses of sugar cane, and cachaça is distilled from the raw juice of sugar cane. Cachaça is the third most consumed spirit in the world, but only about 1 percent of production is exported. Translation: Brazilians love their cachaça so much, very little is left for the rest of us. 
In general, I had not considered cachaça a stand-alone, sipping beverage like fine bourbon, scotch whiskey or cognac. We have of late seen a rash of fine, premium tequilas being offered in better bars and retail establishments. Many of these upscale tequilas do make for excellent stand-alone refreshment. Cachaça has not made that journey from cocktail to savoring.

The prime vehicle for cachaça drinking is the caipirinha, a really refreshing and incredibly easy-to-make cocktail that is literally the national beverage of Brazil.

1/2 lime, quartered
1 teaspoon white sugar
2 1/2 fluid ounces cachaça
1 cup ice cubes

Squeeze lime into large rocks glass. Add sugar.  Crush ice and add. Pour in cachaça. Stir.

The Brazilians, who grow more sugar cane than anyone else in the world, have long wanted to achieve consumer recognition for cachaça as a quality beverage, providing diverse flavor experiences, and to gain respect for a Brazilian agricultural product. So far, not so much has happened.

The main impediment is that Brazil has relied on producers to carry the quality and educational messages to foreign markets. But it’s expensive to reach prime markets like the United States and Europe. With so much cachaça consumed in Brazil, there is only a bit left over for export. Pouring huge sums of advertising and promotional capital to the lowest level of product distribution is not a good business model.

Certain companies, like Leblon, have tried to expand the knowledge and appreciation for cachaça with demonstrations of product use, promotion, advertising and word of mouth among professionals. It’s been a slow process. Most consumers are ignorant of cachaça, and are not eager to adopt another clear spirit, particularly one that seems to fit into only one drink. This is a classic chicken-and-egg situation. In order to get the consumer interested in cachaça, they have to be curious about the beverage and all its application possibilities. But the consumer has no reason to pursue this because they have not been given a reason to be curious.

It’s going to be a hand sale. That means that in order for the consumer to be curious about cachaça, the cachaça manufacturers are literally going to have to hand you a glass with the spirit and guide you through a tasting experience. Slow going, and costly. As I said, why do that when you can sell all you want to an educated and appreciative consumer group at home?

The 12 cachaças of various labels and quality levels that I tasted were within a broad range of flavors and aromas. At the lower end, they were like cheap vodka: hot, very little flavor and pretty difficult to appreciate. I noted that these would be fine in mixed drinks as the addition of fruit juice, sugar or citrus would mask the savage qualities.

But in the better products, both younger and older in age, the cachaça took on a more interesting, complicated, layered quality. Notice I did not say “subtle.” Cachaças are not shy, and these higher-priced products were quite forward. Yet, they were darned interesting and really delightful. The discovery process was a fine journey.

The difference in tastes, which ranged all over the map from fresh tropical fruit to tobacco to cinnamon to white pepper, were due to two factors. The first factor was where the sugar cane was grown, and the second factor was because of the wood in which the cachaça was aged. Now we are on to turf that I really understand, given the qualities of fine wines that are often based on the same parameters.

Most cachaças are bottled immediately after the distillation process. But many cachaças are aged, many for more than one year, in woods from Brazil that we have not even heard of. Or maybe you have. Imburana, freijó, and jequitibá ring a bell? There’s also oak, cedar and balsam. Now those I know.

Here’s the point: Pick up a bottle of good cachaça. Spend about $20 on something decent. Try it straight. Make a caipirinha. Try cachaça in a drink, like a mojito, substituting it for a clear spirit that you enjoy. Use cachaça in a drink that lends itself to spirit and sugar, like a Mint Julep, instead of the bourbon.

I am suggesting that you get ahead of this curve. You are going to be hearing more about cachaça in the coming years. Wouldn’t it be nice to say, “Oh, that stuff? I’ve been drinking it since I don’t know when.”

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