The World's Most Tree-Friendly Spirit Is Also Delicious
Since his inauguration in 2019, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has accelerated the destruction of environmentally sensitive areas like the Amazon. Like many other environmentalists, I've wondered what I can do to help curb the biodiversity-ravaging agenda of a leader in a country that is not my own.
As it turns out, one thing I can do is drink. Through their Un-Endangered Forest project, the folks at Novo Fogo, a brand of cachaça, the Brazilian national spirit, are on a mission to protect and replenish the country's endangered trees and vital habitats. While making myself a cocktail with unaged Novo Fogo, or sipping a barrel-aged expression, I'm supporting one of the world's most sustainable spirit brands and aiding in the reseeding of the native Brazilian rainforest.
The project is the brainchild of Novo Fogo founder, Dragos Axinte. Born in Romania, Axinte emigrated to the United States two decades ago, when he was 18. His family settled in Seattle, where they turned the ColdHeat soldering gun, a garage invention of Axinte's father, into a global business. When work brought him to Brazil in 2005, Axinte fell for the country whose soccer stars he had idolized as a kid.
More to the point, he fell in love with cachaça, a sugar cane distillate with the sweet, grassy flavor of its base ingredient. Brazilians blend unaged cachaça into the caipirinha, a transcendent muddling of lime, sugar, and spirit that is Brazil's national drink. Aged cachaça, turned amber with time in wood barrels, is enjoyed neat. Thousands of producers make the spirit, many of them small, farmstead operations. Few cachaças are imported, so in 2010, Axinte started his own brand with an eye on bringing more of the spirit to the States.
Axinte's Novo Fogo distillery is located near the colonial town of Morretes within a protected zone of Brazil's Atlantic Forest. Once twice the size of Texas, the Atlantic Forest has been shrunk by 88 percent by logging and clearing for farms and ranches. It is, nevertheless, the world's second-largest UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, home to more than 20,000 plant and animal species, many of them endangered.
Novo Fogo relies on the terroir of this forest for the floral, tropical, earthy notes in its cachaça, so the environment dictates its production methods. As Axinte puts it, "Novo Fogo's commitment to sustainability and environmentally sound practices has been quite literally embedded in the earth that grows our sugarcane."
Novo Fogo's cane is farmed organically, without the use of chemicals that would harm the forest's delicate ecology. Instead of burning the fields or machine harvesting, workers hand-cut the cane with machetes. Staff is salaried with benefits, rather than paid by quantity harvested (as is common), so the operation favors quality over quantity. In a zero-waste process, workers press cane juice, ferment it with indigenous yeast, and gravity-feed downslope into the distillery. Spent pulp is reserved for fertilizer for the fields, or it is burned for the steam that fuels the copper-pot stills.
The resulting cachaça is rich in the flavor of the Morretes terroir. Rested a year in stainless steel tanks, the silver cachaça tastes of tropical fruits and citrus, sea spray, and sweet, green grass. Aged expressions smack of mocha and spice. Most intriguing are the cachaças of the Two-Woods Series. Aged both in used American oak and reused or sustainably harvested Brazilian hardwood, they reveal the flavors of specific trees. Brazilian zebra wood reclaimed from a deconstructed house gives the Novo Fogo Tanager a deep amber color and flavors of caramel, cherrywood, and bitter amaro. Graciosa, finished in castanheira do Pará, a Brazilian nut tree, offers the rich, woody spice of a rye combined with tropical fruit flavors. Transferred back and forth between oak and Brazilian amburana barrels, Colibri, my favorite, is redolent of coconut, bright pineapple, and vanilla. It's delicious in a highball as well as all sorts of tiki-style drinks.
All the expressions are part of a robust tradition of aged cachaça that began centuries ago, with the transport of the spirit in woods casks as Brazil spread westward, says Novo Fogo marketing director Luke McKinley. Today, 90 percent of cachaça is barrel-aged. That's been part of the industry's environmental problems. With the clearing of land for cane fields and the felling of old-growth hardwoods for barrels, the production of cachaça, the world's fifth largest spirit category, has helped lead more than 300 Brazilian tree species toward extinction.
But Novo Fogo's Two-Woods Series is different. The company painstakingly verifies all the Brazilian wood it employs. More than that, the series is a way of highlighting Novo Fogo's Un-Endangered Forests project. Working with sustainable forestry expert Dr. Silvia R. Ziller, Novo Fogo is on mission to repopulate more than 30 species of endangered trees in the Atlantic Forest. Project biologists trek into the jungle, mapping the location of "mother trees," whose seeds are collected, raised to seedlings, and then planted at the distillery and neighboring properties.
Ziller reports that 1,444 seedlings of more than 20 species have been planted on 20 properties since 2018. The aim is to produce about 500 seedlings per year for distribution. "While most forest restoration projects focus on reestablishing trees on deforested areas, using fast-growing, pioneer species, the Un-Endangered Forest is working on the next step," she says. "The idea is not to produce large numbers of seedlings, but to produce a significant amount of seedlings of threatened and rare species that need to be broadly distributed in the landscape to help with the recovery of populations in the long term."
The team plans to expand the plantings to other municipalities in the future, tracking the progress of each new tree with a unique digital thumbprint. Brazilian hardwoods are slow growing. "It might take 10 or 20 years for some of these trees to start producing their own fruit, but there will certainly be many more of them in the forest by then," says Ziller.
With $3 of every case of Novo Fogo sold supporting the Un-Endangered Forest project, Axinte's ambitions are big. "We believe that, within a few years, our project can reach national levels and eventually increase the numbers of these species by millions of specimens, eventually removing them from the threatened list," he says.
Glass of Novo Fogo Colibri in hand, that's a future I can toast to.