You Know Rum—But What Is Cachaça? | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
Mixing caipirinhas, the popular Brazilian cocktail made with cachaça, on Ipanema Beach. (© Jon Hicks/Corbis)

You Know Rum—But What Is Cachaça?

Get to know Brazil's most popular alcohol

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The elimination rounds of the World Cup have begun, meaning that every match will be fought until one team emerges victorious and another defeated. For the losing team, it is a sobering journey home, while the winning team earns the right to continue on in the tournament. And for fans, along for the emotional ride, looking to celebrate a team victory—or to drown out the sorrow of a team defeat—I suggest a sip of Brazil's national spirit: cachaça. 

Like rum, cachaça (pronounced kə-ˈshä-sə) comes from the sugarcane plant. The Brazilian government (and cachaça aficionados) define the spirit as a liquor distilled from fermented sugarcane juice that contains between 38 and 54 percent alcohol by volume. Distillers can choose to sweeten the liquor by adding sugar, but only in amounts less than 6 grams per liter—any more than that, and they have to start labeling it "sweetened cachaça." To be considered "aged cachaça," at least 50 percent of the liquor must be aged for a year or more. Most cachaça is clear, but sometimes distillers add a caramel color to darken it.

The spirit has a storied—and somewhat unfortunate—history. It's been around for over 400 years, and was first consumed by Brazilian slaves, to both dull their pain and give them energy during their arduous work days. In 1663, sugar producer João Fernando Vieira told the administator of his mill that his slaves were only to begin a day's work after they had drunk their daily ration of cachaça. In 1780, the governor of the Brazilian state Minas Gerais called cachaça a "drink of basic foodstuffs" for the slaves, arguing that it should not be restricted. The word "cachaça" comes from African captives who worked in sugarcane mills—they gave the name to the foam that collected at the top of cauldrons where sugarcane was boiled (the first step in producing sugar). Slaves took the foam and fermented it, naming the froth "cachaça."

Eventually, Brazil's wealthy came to appreciate the spirit as well, and cachaça became one of the country's most popular products—so popular, in fact, that the Portuguese, feeling threatened, banned consumption of the spirit on June 12, 1744 (a date that is now International Cachaça Day and marked the opening day of the 2014 World Cup). Far from dampening the spirit's popularity, Portugal's moratorium on cachaça made it a symbol of national pride within Brazil's lower classes. In the early 1800s, during the promise of colonial revolution, even Brazil's elite drank the spirit as a symbol of national solidarity. But it wasn't reserved for human consumption only: according to a 1959 James Beard article, turkeys in Brazil were force-fed large amounts of cachaça before slaughter, the thought process being that a drunk turkey was a relaxed turkey—and a relaxed turkey was a tender turkey.

Today, cachaça is still consumed mainly in Brazil (and mostly by humans, not poultry), but the country is beginning to export the spirit around the world—and the market is growing. Around 85 million cases of cachaça are consumed worldwide each year, and while 99 percent of those stay in Brazil, the United States imported one thousand nine-liter cases in 2007. Recently, the United States and Brazilian governments entered into an agreement to make liquor trade easier between the two countries, meaning that Americans might be seeing even more cachaça in the near future. This would probably make John Travolta very happy, as he—for some reason—starred in a commercial for Ypióca cachaça.

Cachaça is often called Brazilian rum, a nickname that isn't entirely wrong: both rum and cachaça are made from sugar, but rum is made from sugarcane by-products, like molasses, whereas cachaça is made straight from the sugarcane itself. Because cachaça is distilled from raw sugarcane, it retains a grassy, sulfurous, earthy quality that rum lacks—rum, by turn, is sweeter with more notes of vanilla. That's because distilling from molasses brings out notes of the cooked sugarcane that either aren't present in raw sugarcane or are overshadowed by its herbacious nature. As Ed Hamilton, rum expert and author of the Ministry of Rum website, explains, "In today’s world, cachaça is a much more rudimentary spirit. It’s less refined, by law, than rum. I look at it as a wine that someone would make in their back room in college, versus a wine someone would make from a winery."

So why did Brazilians begin distilling their sugar-based spirit from raw sugarcane, instead of from molasses like other sugar-producing countries? It's a complicated answer that finds roots in colonial economies, navigation routes and a royal sweet tooth. According to Hamilton, the first rums were produced in Brazil—Portuguese and Spanish colonists brought sugar to Brazil in the early 1500s, and ramped up large-scale production near the country's coastal cities. By the mid-1500s, a combination of colonial taxes and overproduction of sugar meant that it was simply easier—more efficient in both time and product—to distill a spirit, which colonists wanted (they were used to drinking wine and brandy in their home countries) from straight sugarcane juice rather than any kind of sugar by-product. Plus, in the early days of sugar production, most people wouldn't have been interested in a spirit made from molasses—the sugar making process was crude, and anything made from early molasses might well have been undrinkable. Sugarcane juice is also a volatile product; it has to be turned into something stable, such as a syrup or spirit or sugar quickly before it spoils. Brazil is a massive country, and in some cases, it might just not have been feasible to transport the sugarcane juice from small sugar farms to market. "Sugar making is a big enterprise and needs a market, and Brazil just has so much cane and it's so inaccessible. It’s days to get [the sugarcane] to the coast over bad roads and tiny winding rivers," explains cocktail historian Dave Wondrich. Instead of wasting a product, small farmers might have turned to creating a spirit from the raw sugarcane, something they could sell immediately. 

For more than a century, Brazil was the world's first and largest sugar producer. But the colonists had trouble maintaining a labor force to work the plantations, as many slaves would escape to freedom in the mountains. Moreover, getting to Brazil wasn't easy—ships were forced to cross from the Northern Hemisphere into the Southern Hemisphere, where they encountered a 600-nautical-mile stretch of sea with little wind and rain, placing their journey at the mercy of the weather.

By the 1600s, European demand for sugar was at an all-time high, thanks to the royal influence of Louis XIV, who loved the substance. European countries looked to the Caribbean islands as a new place for sugar manufacturing, and by the 1660s, sugar production shifted from Brazil to Barbados. By this time, the sugar making process was slightly improved, as were distilling techniques, so it made sense to start distilling the molasses by-product into a spirit. In the late 1600s, the British Navy entered into an alliance with sugar planters, agreeing to make rum a part of its sailor's daily rations. This arrangement is at the root of rum's connection with the sea, and made rum an ubiquitous spirit around the world. Not so for cachaça, which found no real overseas market, though it enjoys mild popularity in Western Europe, a throwback to the spirit's colonial roots. 

"Brazil has been very poor at marketing it," Wondrich says. "They don’t have a big cachaça marketing board."

Unlike tequila, which could be easily sampled by American tourists heading south to Mexico, cachaça remains largely isolated—and it's never been brought to America by an influx of Brazilian immigrants.

"Traditionally America has been very affected in its taste by what the population is made of," explains Noah Rothbaum, author of The Business of Spirits: How Savvy Marketers, Innovative Distillers, and Entrepreneurs Changed How We Drink. "The first immigrants were Puritans, and then after that you have all these waves from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, the UK bringing their love and thirst for beer and whiskey. Then later you have a lot of Russians coming around the turn of the century, who were bringing their love of vodka." 

If you can't make it to Brazil to sip on cachaça in its birthplace, consider toasting the event from the comfort of your couch with a caipirinha, Brazil's national cocktail, which is traditionally made with cachaça. Or do as the Brazilians do and sip cachaça (a nice, small-batch version) on the rocks—but use caution. In Brazil, cachaça also goes by the nickname aquela-que-matou-o-guarda, meaning "that which killed the cop."

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