First things first – cachaça is pronounced “ka-sha-sa”, the Brazilian Portuguese word for rum.
Technically, it is a type of rum, as it is also a spirit made from sugar cane by-products. However, you can only make cachaça in Brazil, and it is made exclusively from sugar cane juice (most rums are made from molasses instead).
While cachaça is best known as the main base spirit in Brazil’s “national cocktail”, the caipirinha (made with cachaça, brown sugar and lime), there is a lot more to the spirit than that.
According to acclaimed British bartender Richard Hunt, who was in town recently to conduct a cachaça masterclass with co-founder of Yaguara Cachaça Hamilton Lowe, cachaça is actually more versatile than rum in general.
“Cachaça in a way is a form of rum – it’s a sugarcane product, and you can legally call it rum, in the EU at least. But I think it’s the most versatile derivative (of rum),” said Hunt, a three-time International Bartender of the Year award winner who is currently the head bartender of the Mint Gun Club in London.
“Think about the rest of the rum category – you’ve got some really dark ones, and some really light and fresh ones. As a category as a whole, rum is really diverse. But as an individual spirit, I’ve never worked with anything as versatile as cachaça.”
Tale Of The Jaguar
The story of Yaguara began with the friendship between an Englishman, Hamilton Lowe, and a Brazilian, Thyrso Camargo. After becoming good friends in school, Lowe used to travel to Brazil to visit Neto, where he got to know Neto’s grandfather, who produced his own cachaça in the town of Paraná.
One thing led to another, and the two friends later decided to bring the family recipe to the world by creating Yaguara (which means jaguar). Yaguara’s master blender is Erwin Weimann, one of Brazil’s leading experts in the field of cachaça.
Blender? Why does cachaça need blending? Well, there is a lot more to the spirit than just distilling sugarcane juice. Like rum and whisky, it also undergoes maturation in wooden barrels.
To be able to be sold as cachaça, at least 50% of a blend needs to be aged for a minimum of one year. For instance, Yaguara’s flagship expression, the Yaguara Blue, is a blend of spirit aged for five to six years in carvalho oak barrels, as well as spirit that has been rested for 10 months.
Currently, cachaça can be matured in 27 different types of wood, but according to Lowe, that could go up to 46 types in the near future. However, he says that the regulations for cachaça-maturing wood is not just down to what tastes good.
“When you make a certain wood to be available for ageing, it’s got to be sustainable and a lot of other stuff goes into the consideration,” he said.
Unlike rum which tends to have different rules in different countries or regions, cachaça is very strictly regulated in Brazil. According to Lowe, there are more than 40,000 cachaça distilleries in Brazil, though not all the cachaça they produce are available commercially.
“Many of these distilleries are literally just a tap in the centre of town and the whole town would come over and drink the cachaça,” he said. “Obviously you can’t regulate all of them, but once you start getting more commercial about it, once you start selling it in bars and retail, then you’re not going to get away with anything.”
After the success of their flagship Blue, Yaguara went on to produce its first expression of aged cachaça, the Ouro, which is a blend of two native woods Cabreuva and Amburana together with American Oak.
During the masterclass, we got to taste the three different single wood cachaça on their own. While the one matured in American oak had the expected sweet, vanilla notes from the wood, the other two were true eye (and taste buds) openers, the Cabrueva especially had a quite funky flavour, reminding me of tree sap, almost.
However, when I tasted the Ouro, there is such a remarkable balance in the spirit that I could scarcely believe that it contained the cachaça aged in Cabreuva.
“With the Ouro, we wanted something more approachable, something that represented the potential of the two woods and didn’t want it to be too wacky and off the wall,” Lowe added.
“So we balanced out the richness and the heaviness of the Amburana by a bit of Cabreuva to make it a bit softer and minerally, then put some American Oak in there as well to give it a certain familiarity.”
Beyond The Caipirinha
Imported locally by boutique spirits distributors Wholly Spirits, Yaguara also has a third expression in its core range, the Branca, which is its classic small batch white cachaça, rested for eight months to produce a cachaça perfect for making, you guessed it, caipirinhas.
Speaking of caipirinhas, Hunt reckons that with more artisanal cachaças in the market and more bartenders embracing the spirit, the category is poised to grow even bigger outside of Brazil in the future.
“It’s been a one drink category for so long. You can make as many fruit caipirinhas as you like, but it’s still the same drink!” he said. “For me, if a spirit is not versatile and can’t be used in a variety of different drinks and situations, then it’s not going to grow.
However, Hunt says that’s not the case for cachaça, which he says also makes for a really good martini.
Lowe certainly sees a bright future in cachaça. “I see it going the tequila way, where the quality of the liquid got better, and slowly, through education, trial and error, and with the help of bartenders, people start going away from the preconception of it being the thing you drank as a teenager which gave you a bad headache!” he said.