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It was odd to read Seth Kugel's piece on cachaça in the NY Times today, given that my own story about Brazil's national spirit is also just out in our May issue—evidently the stars have aligned in a media-related way for this sugarcane distillate. Space limitations meant that I had to cut portions of my story, so I thought I'd run one here as an apéritif of sorts, if you haven't read the article yet, or a digestif if you have.
In the article I describe at some length what cachaça should taste like. What I left out was the part about what it shouldn't taste like, which is sugar. Sugar is essentially the balm that industrial distillers use to moderate cheap cachaça's alcoholic burn, and that's why inexpensive cachaça typically tastes sweet. Essentially, as you down your shot at the corner cachaçeria after your 14-hour shift at the cement factory outside São Paulo, the sugar helps convince your tongue that its taste buds weren't actually just burned right off.
Or, as Caio Gudman put it to me, "In cachaça, sugar is like mascara. The next morning you wake up to the reality."