Cachaça: The Spirit of Brazil

F&W's Ray Isle attempts to turn his wine-educated palate into a cachaça-smart one on a tasting tour of Brazil that stops at great distilleries and restaurants.


I did not go to Rio for the mist. But as i walked along the curve of Ipanema beach my first morning there, the sky was the color of a nickel and was drizzling down a fine, weightless rain. It had sent the usual crowds indoors, leaving no one out but me and one crookbacked old coconut seller. I gave him money, and he whacked open a green coconut with a two-foot machete, poked a straw in it so I could sip the cool water and handed me a shard of the shell to scoop out the sweet flesh. He asked if I was staying for Carnival.

I wasn't. In fact, I said, I was here to do a story about cachaça. "Ah, cachaça!" He glanced up. "Muito bom! Muito bom!" Very good! Cachaça, the distilled spirit made from sugarcane juice, inspires in many Brazilians a deep national, even familial, pride. Cachaça is Brazilian in a way that few, if any, other spirits define their nations of origin (never put a Pole and a Russian in the same room and ask who invented vodka). Cachaça's cultural depth fascinated me, but I was also in Brazil because cachaça is being exported to America in greater quantities than ever before, thanks to a minor craze for caipirinhas (the sweet, lime-infused cocktails made with cachaça) and a major craze for all things Brazilian.

But to take my wine-educated palate and turn it into a cachaça-smart one, I was going to have to leave the beach. So, two hours later, I was sitting at a rickety table in Rio de Janeiro's Academia da Cachaça, which sounds like an institute of higher learning and is, instead, a bar.

Above me, green and yellow paper streamers formed the Brazilian flag; around me, Rio traffic honked and screeched; and across from me sat Olie Berlic, a lean, 46-year-old former sommelier—at Manhattan's Gotham Bar and Grill, among other places—who imports artisanal cachaças to the United States.

Berlic is also very likely the only full-time cachaça proselytizer in the U.S., and as I got out my notebook, he flagged down a waiter and quickly ordered us about 18 different small-production cachaças. "After tasting these, you'll definitely know what good cachaça should taste like," he said. This was inarguable—though it also occurred to me that after tasting 18 cachaças in one sitting, I'd be lucky if I didn't end up under the table.

As we sniffed and sipped, it became clear that, at its best, cachaça can be complex, varied and evocatively delicious. Technically, cachaça is similar to rum, but most rum is made from molasses, a byproduct of sugar processing, whereas cachaça is made with actual cane juice. Because of this, good cachaça has an intense aroma and flavor of fresh sugarcane. Like the vegetal-spicy scent of blue agave in good tequila, sugarcane takes some getting used to. But, also like agave, once your senses grow accustomed to the aroma, it becomes weirdly compelling. Berlic describes it as "a grassy, floral note—if you take a chunk of fresh sugarcane and bite down on it, that's what you should get from the bouquet of cachaça."

Sugarcane is the base of cachaça's character, and around it weave other herbal, vegetal, savory and spice notes. My scribbles from that afternoon's tasting read like those of a flavor scientist run amok: celery, dill, citrus, banana, fennel, pepper, clove, cola, mint. Mostly these nuances come from the barrels used for aging; even some white cachaças, which are typically unaged, spend a small amount of time in barrel. Cachaça distillers use various native Brazilian woods in addition to oak: jequitibá, umburana, balsam, ariribá, ipé and perhaps 25 others. (Balsam, for instance, gives a wildly aromatic fennel-resin-lily note that I could happily sit and sniff all day.) As a wine writer, the idea of all these exotic barrels gave me fever dreams of what one could do to, say, a few hundred gallons of California Chardonnay.

My plans were to visit some of the best small cachaça distilleries, find some of Brazil's top places to drink cachaça and caipirinhas, and generally figure out why the world's third-largest-production spirit (after vodka and rum) was only now attracting attention in the U.S.

What I soon determined, though, is that visiting cachaça producers is not remotely like driving down the wee byroads of Scotland and stopping off at quaint whiskey distilleries for a dram or two. The next day, when Berlic and I drove out to Fazenda Soledade, which produces Nêga Fûlo, a well-regarded cachaça not currently exported to the States, the trip took four hours each way. The initial leg ran past the bitter slums that surround Rio; then we drove far up into the semitropical mountain forests northeast of the city. Horses pulling carts plodded by the highway; ramshackle roadside markets sold pots, used tires and old clothes; stray dogs roamed here and there. There were odd bright moments—after a series of racy billboards, we drove through one town entirely dedicated to lingerie, passing window after window of scantily clad mannequins. Later, we pitched down muddy dirt roads for seven or eight miles. Berlic mentioned that drinks giant Diageo had bought Nêga Fûlo a little while back. "Bought it?" I asked. "How the hell did they ever find it?"

Not every distillery is quite so remote. The one that makes Rochinha, a brand Berlic imports, lies right off the main highway between Rio and São Paulo—easy to find (though not open to the public) and owned by the friendly and charming Rocha family.

Antonio Rocha, who at 36 runs the family company, was looking a little exhausted when we met—his first child had been born two weeks before. "I'm getting only two hours of sleep a night," he observed with the kind of shell-shocked manner that new fathers often have.

We were sitting with Antonio and his father, João, in the living room of their 18th-century house. The sun had emerged from the clouds to supply that remarkable Brazilian light, so intense that it feels as though it could stain you, and it refracted through the bottles in front of us, sending streams of color across the polished table. The Rochas produce three cachaças: a white version that Berlic doesn't sell in the U.S.; a smoky, complex five-year-old that's aged in cerejeira, a native Brazilian tree; and a subtle, spicy 12-year-old, oak-aged, that could easily go head-to-head against a great single-malt scotch.

As we tasted, Antonio explained the differences between his family's approach and that of the big distillers. "Our fermentation takes 25 hours. The big producers ferment in 40 minutes. They use catalysts like sulfuric acid or fuba [a kind of corn powder] to speed fermentation." When it comes to the cane itself, he added, the big producers harvest mechanically, crush the cane, steam it to extract the juice, then crush it again and steam it again, until there's effectively not the remotest dribble of sugary juice left. The Rochas cut their cane by hand to ensure that they get only the best parts and crush it just once in their waterwheel-powered crusher. João, following along, said something in Portuguese. Antonio translated: "He says it's the difference between tossing the whole orange in the blender and drinking that, or squeezing it by hand." The statement struck me as one of the better analogies I've ever heard for industrial-versus-artisanal production.

Oddly enough, for decades, high-end cachaças were almost nonexistent in Brazil itself. Cachaça was the drink of the people, the 50-cent shot in the corner bar after a long day's work in the cement factory. But that has changed. At the remarkable restaurant D.O.M. in São Paulo, for instance, Rochinha is the house pour.

D.O.M.'s ambitious young chef, Alex Atala—an ex-DJ who has also cooked with Michelin three-star chef Jean-Pierre Bruneau in Belgium—is dedicated to cooking with indigenous Amazonian ingredients, using French techniques and avant-garde experimentation. During my meal there—the best meal I've had in five years, at least—Atala served, among other things, braised zebu (a kind of cow) with mashed potatoes and pequi, a licoricey yellow fruit; filhote, an Amazon river fish, in a pool of tangy tucupi (made from manioc juice) along with a jambu bud (jambu, a jungle herb, makes the mouth tingle electrically in a pleasant but very odd way); and robalo, or snook, with pieces of jambo, a fruit with skin said to be "the color of the skin of a Rio woman."

After dinner, Atala and I chatted, over cachaça, about the Amazon, about the bizarre chloroform scent of the cupuaçu fruit (which he makes into sorbet), about cachaça and, finally, about where I could find Brazilian food—and cachaça—that wasn't fancy or international, but traditional, unadorned and delicious. That led me to São Paulo's Mocotó.

Mocotó and its young chef, Rodrigo Oliveira, specialize in traditional recipes from the interior of northeastern Brazil. At the restaurant, I devoured plates of torresmo (deep-fried, house-smoked bacon chunks, served with wedges of lime) and bowls of mocofava (a dense soup full of linguica sausage, fava beans, shredded beef, cilantro and mocotó—long-cooked, chopped-up cow hooves). My dining companions were Berlic and Wolfgang Schrader, co-owner of the cachaça distillery Armazem Vieira, and as we ate, Schrader told me a story about Brazil and cachaça. During the 1700s, he said, cachaça had come to symbolize Brazilians' desire for independence from Portugal. I responded with something clever like, "Ah," which seemed to make it clear that my knowledge of Brazilian revolutionary history was marginal at best.

"But do you know about Tiradentes?" Schrader asked. Since I didn't, he told me: Tiradentes ("teeth-puller") was an 18th-century Brazilian dentist; more importantly, he was also a member of a group of revolutionaries, the Inconfidência Mineira, that rose up in 1789 against the Portuguese colonial government. The Portuguese, unsurprisingly, were not sympathetic. The revolutionaries had an informer in their midst and, to make a long story short, Tiradentes was convicted of treason. The Portuguese governor, an easygoing, pleasant sort of fellow, had Tiradentes hung, drawn and quartered, then sent pieces of his body to nearby towns, confiscated all his belongings and ordered a document written in his blood declaring his memory and his children infamous.

"And then the governor burned down his house," Schrader added.

"Jesus," I said.

Schrader gave a what-can-you-do sort of shrug and reached across the table to pour me a generous sample of his Armazem Vieira Rubi, an olivey, herbal, eight-year-old cachaça aged in ariribá barrels. "But you know," Schrader said, taking a sip, "in the end, Brazil still won."

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