Straight Up: What Is Cachaca?

published Jul 18, 2008
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

A certain South American cocktail has been taking North America by storm. And suddenly a whole new market for a once little-known spirit has sprung up.

The cocktail? The Caipirinha.

The spirit? Cachaça.

Of course, back in their birthplace of Brazil, cachaça (kah-SHAH-sa) – and Caipirinhas (kai-pee-REEN-yuhs) – are nothing new. Production of the country’s national spirit dates back some 400 years, and while only a handful of labels have made their way out for export, over 5,000 brands (yes, 5,000!) are currently available in Brazil, ranging from the artisanal to the industrial.

Those sampling cachaça for the very first time will no doubt find it uncannily familiar: a cane-sugar-based spirit, cachaça is actually a very close cousin of white rum. But the key difference between the two spirits lies in the way the base ingredient is handled: while rum is traditionally made from processed cane (molasses), cachaça is made from fresh-pressed, unprocessed cane juice, lending it a distinctively clean, grassy flavor and a subtly herbaceous nose.

Some (American) Options

On the lower end of things is Pitu. This old stalwart is instantly recognizable by the red lobster on its label. With a somewhat harsh, rough-and-ready taste (but an attractively low price of $13 or so for a litre bottle), this is by no means a sipping cachaça, but is perfectly servicable when tempered by the sugar and lime of a Caipirinha.

Among the options on the middle-to-upper end of things are Leblon (above, left), Sagatiba Pura (above, right), Cabana, and Agua Luca (priced at the $20-$30 range for a 750 ml bottle). These brands are distinguished by a cleaner, smoother taste, making them beautifully versatile for mixing – or even for sipping on their own. Backed by sophisticated marketing campaigns, these relative newcomers to the American market have, of late, been making quite a splash.

The super-premiums. Smooth, mellow, and seductively sippable, these barrel-aged, amber-tinted spirits are the single-malt scotches of the cachaça world. Ranging anywhere from the $40-$500+ range these small-batch, artisanal labels are some of the newest arrivals on the American market. We recently attended a preview tasting of Sagatiba Velha (a smooth, mid-range-priced sipper) and Sagatiba Preciosa (limited edition, barrel-aged over 23 years, recently fetching over $1200 at a Christie’s auction in the UK!). Sublimely smooth and sophisticated. Both Velha and Preciosa will be released in the U.S. this fall.

Classic Caipirinha
makes one cocktail

2 ounces cachaça
4-6 lime wedges
2 teaspoons granulated sugar (*While raw sugar is sometimes used here, it tends to muddy the pure cane taste of the cachaça. Most mixologists prefer granulated (white) sugar or simple syrup instead.)

Muddle the lime with the sugar in an old-fashioned glass. Add ice and cachaça and stir well.

Caipirinhas are a simple, classic drink, but by no means the only cocktailian use for the national spirit of Brazil. We thought this recipe looked especially tasty:

Maça Martini (via Sagatiba)
makes one cocktail

2 ounces Sagatiba Pura (or other unaged cachaça)
1/2 ounce elderflower cordial
1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
2 1/2 ounces apple cider

Shake all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an apple slice and mint sprig.

Have you tried cachaça yet?

Related: Cocktail Recommendation: Plum Caipirinha

(Image: Nora Maynard)