The lowdown on the lovely spirit of cachaça

The iconic Caipirinha cocktail.
The iconic caipirinha cocktail.
Today is International Cachaça Day.

Big deal, you say? Every day is designated as something or other?

Well, true, but cachaça -- pronounced kah / SHAW / sah -- is a very special, and generally under-appreciated, distilled spirit.

I'm especially mindful of it after spending much of yesterday with a delegation of five young Brazilian business people on a month-long visit to New York's Capital Region as part of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange.

One of Brazil's major exports besides beef (Intermission factoid: There are more beef cattle than people in Brazil, according to our visitors) is cachaça. Although often misidentified as rum, it actually is a distinctive spirit distilled from raw sugar cane juice, whereas rum is made from sugar cane byproducts, primarily molasses. Curiously under Brazil-U.S. trade agreement, it nevertheless is labeled "Brazilian rum."

Much of the familar "heat" rum supplies is not present in cachaça, which at least in the higher priced versions is very smooth, with a long finish, and stands up beautifully to all sorts of herbs and fruits in mixed cocktails.

Cachaça is the base for the caipirinha cocktail that has so enamored tourists to South America in recent years that they demanded it when they returned home. That demand has been answered in many of the better cocktail lounges and bars throughout the U.S.

In my view, that means those consumers should be able to know the source of the cachaça is held to certain standards in purity and safety rather than being just anything tossed together and put in a pretty bottle. After judging several cane spirit competitions, I can attest to the fact that the latter has been the case too often and that quality has often been wildly erratic.

There are as many as 2,000 different names for cachaça in the vernacular, according to one authoritative Brazilian publication. Many cropped up over the years as illicit distillers sought to call their distilled sugar cane something that would not attract the attention of government tax collectors and regulators or even back in the days when the spirit was banned.

Now, the matter of quality seems to be addressed by an exchange of trade letters between the two nations meant to increase trade in cachaça -- the bulk of which is made in Brazil -- and bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. Brazil is a potentially huge market for U.S. distillers since it is South America's largest nation (Intermission factoid: If you subtract Alaska from the U.S. land mass, Brazil is larger) and has more than 200 million inhabitants with a booming economy.

Here's a recipe for the iconic, and easy to make, caipirinha:


½ lime, quartered
1 teaspoon white sugar
2½ ounces cachaça
1 cup ice cubes


Squeeze, then drop two slivers of the lime in a large rocks glass.
Add the sugar, crush the lime and sugar and mix with a spoon.
Pour in the cachaça and plenty of ice. Stir well, serve with a lime garnish.

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