The Serious Eats Guide to Cachaça
Cachaça—Is it rum, or is it not rum? Last week's encyclopedic guide to rum sparked some discussion in the comments about whether or not cachaça counts as rum. I made a decision, in part out of expediency, to treat it as a separate spirit category. After all, last week's piece was already turning into a monster. Adding a section just for cachaça might have killed me.
Before we tackle the question, I'll explore what cachaça is, how it's made and aged, and what it generally tastes like.
Cachaça is defined in Brazilian law as a beverage with an alcohol content of 38-54% by volume, made from the distillation of fermented sugarcane juice. Distillers may add sugar to the product, at a rate of up to 6 grams per liter. Beverages containing more than 6 grams of sugar per liter must be labeled "sweet cachaça."
To be sold as aged cachaça, a beverage must, by law, consist of at least 50% of distillate that's at least 1 year old. (So in other words, an "aged cachaça" might consist in part of unaged cachaça. Caveat emptor, as they say.) Caramel color may be added to adjust the hue.
Last week, while describing rhum agricole, I noted that freshly pressed sugarcane juice is volatile, and therefore it needs to be fermented both quickly and close to its source of origin. The same is true in making cachaça, and as with rhum agricole, the location of a field of sugarcane can affect the flavors of a finished cachaça.
For many years, the only cachaças available in the U.S. market were so-called industrial cachaças, and even today, they make up the bulk of Brazil's cachaça exports. These are products run on vast column stills in tremendous quantity. Their flavors are often rough and unrefined, and they sometimes kick off aromas of petroleum or grease. Brazilian stores sell them for cheap, cheap, cheap, often for just a few dollars a bottle; they're certainly not worth much more than that.
Lately, though, artisinal cachaças are increasingly available. These products are made by hand and sometimes crafted in pot stills. They are smooth, rich, and full of complex flavors.
Now, most aged liquors—rum, scotch, bourbon, cognac, and tequila, for example—are aged in oak barrels. (In some cases—bourbon and scotch, for example—there are strict laws defining what exact type of oak barrel may be used.) Some aged cachaças also spend time in oak, but not all. Other woods used include such Brazilian varieties as umburana, ipê, cedar, balsam, jatobá, freijó, and jequitibá.
Different woods impart different flavors to the final product, so if your palate is used to the flavors of oak-aged spirits, you may find surprising aromatic and flavor notes in a aged cachaça.
Flavors of Cachaça
Cachaça, like most spirits, can run through a range of flavors, depending on how it's manufactured and aged. Industrial cachaças are rough, chemical-tasting, and sometimes even oily. Smaller-batch unaged cachaças often tasty grassy or funky, like a rhum agricole or a bianco tequila. Aged cachaças take on flavor notes from their barrels, and can taste like Christmas spices, baked or dried fruits, coffee, and/or grass (in a good way).
The Rum Question
So now that we know what cachaça is, we can start to discuss whether it's rum or not rum. The Brazilian government says it's not rum—to understand why, think of the word protectionism. Cachaça and the caipirinha cocktail have both risen dramatically in global popularity over the last 10 years, causing sugarcane producers in the Caribbean and in Central and South America to produce and market cachaça-like products.
Brazil has been making cachaça since the mid-1500s, shortly after becoming a Portuguese colony, and so cachaça is definitively intertwined with Brazil's history and culture. (Cachaça is actually older than rum, which dates back to the mid-1600s.) The government of Brazil is arguing that cachaça's links to the country's history and culture mean that cachaça is a uniquely Brazilian product, and deserves international legal protection as a Brazilian product.
What this means, however, is that cachaça needs to be legally defined and classified as a unique product to gain this protection from the World Trade Organization and other international bodies. It needs to be unique compared to knock-offs from other nations. Simply originating in Brazil solves that problem. But it also needs to be unique compared to rum, and this is trickier.
What I said last week was this: [W]e will not consider Brazilian cachaça to be a form of rum, since it is unaged. That, I admit, was a little overly simple. The distinction is more nuanced than that: Brazilian law defines rum as a spirit distilled from sugarcane juice, molasses, or a mixture of both, and then totally or partially aged. As noted above, Brazilian law allows cachaça to be sold unaged. So the distinction isn't that cachaça is unaged, it's that it can be unaged, whereas rum must be aged.
Cachaça differs from in another way—the strains of yeast used in fermentation. As I noted last week, yeast strains can affect the flavors of a distilled spirit in complex and subtle ways.
This might seem like an unnecessarily hairsplitting discussion—and perhaps it is—but I think it's important when learning about spirits to understand the distinctions between products. This knowledge helps you make better cocktails; the more you know about differences in flavor and character, the better you know your ingredients. And frankly, it can make for fun storytelling, the next time someone asks you, "What is cachaça, anyway?"