Cachaça returns to the popular consciousness

A sampling of Brazil's 4,000 cachaça brands
I had almost forgotten about cachaça.

I was at a summer cookout the other day at a friend's house when I noticed a bottle of it nestled discreetly among the bottles of whiskey, rum, vodka, and so on sitting on his bar. It reminded me that I kind of liked the sugar cane-based distillation two decades ago when I was introduced to it while judging an international rum competition in Florida. But, as is the case when you're exposed to many, many possibilities, sometimes a few fall by the wayside over the years.

That's what happened with cachaça, perhaps best known as the base for the caipirinha cocktail that so enamored tourists to South America in this century that they demanded it when they returned home. That demand was answered over the years in many of the better cocktail lounges and bars throughout the U.S. And now, cachaça is back in the mainstream drinks scene because of the upcoming Olympic Games in Brazil where the vast majority of the spirit is manufactured.

There are as many as 2,000 different names for cachaça (pronounced kah-SHAW-sah) 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 back in the days when the spirit was banned, sort of like American moonshine's lineage. But, just as with our moonshine, that led to a lot of plonk -- in other words, garbage spirits, some of them even dangerous to the health of imbibers.

Luckily, in 2000 the U.S. and other countries convinced Brazil to label cachaça "Brazilian rum." That put it into a much more competitive market niche, because cachaça was not specifically recognized by the U.S. before that. (As part of a quid pro quo, in 2012 a U.S.-Brazil agreement pledged the U.S. to recognizing cachaça as a distinctive Brazilian product, and Brazil promised similar recognition for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, each of which has long been manufactured under specific regulations. Inherent in the agreement is that the Brazilian government will be monitoring the quality of the cachaça its distillers export.)

There are two types of cachaça, unaged (referred to as white) and aged (gold). White usually is bottled right after distillation, although some is aged for several months, and usually matures in wood barrels for at least three years. Unlike most rums, the spirit is distilled from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice; most rums are distilled from molasses, with only a small percentage using cane juice. The legal definition of cachaça requires sugar cane to be the main ingredient, a strength of 38% to 54% alcohol by volume (76 to 108 proof), and a maximum of 6g of sugar per litre.

To understand the scope of cachaça in the Brazilian economy, it helps to know that as recently as 2013 there were only 5,000 legally registered producers of cachaça in Brazil producing 4,000 brands, but the latest Brazilian census shows the number of producers actually could be higher than 40,000. Apparently, Brazilian moonshine lives.

Although most cachaça is consumed in-country, more than $1 billion worth is sold in the U.S. each year, with another $20 million sold in Germany, Portugal, and France.

If you're interested in trying out a variety of cachaças -- sort of your own Olympic Tasting Games event, here are the four leading legitimate Brazilian distillers:

• Companhia Müller de Bebidas, which owns Pirassununga 51 and has 18% of the market share. 

• Pitú has 15% of the market share, with 6% of it coming from the Caninha da Roça brand. 

• Indústrias Reunidas Tatuzinho Três Fazendas, which owns Velho Barreiro has 8% of the market share 

• Ypióca has 2% of the market share

As the say in Brazil, "Saúde" (pronounced "saw-ooh-de).

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