With the Rio Olympics just around the corner, it makes sense to brush up on your Caipirinhas. But is there more to Brazil’s national spirit, cachaça, than the ‘little peasant’? Richard Woodard finds out
There’s an awful lot of cachaça in Brazil. Roughly 80 million nine-litre cases of the stuff are sold every year, which means that in terms of global consumption, cachaça is about three times the size of Tequila.
So it’s clear that cachaça has the scale, and with this year’s Olympic Games following hot on the heels of the 2014 World Cup, it has the shop window for the country and culture it calls home.But can it make the most of it?
Manoel Collares, Guanabara Bar
Garnish: Lime wedge
Method: Muddle the lime and sugar together in the glass, add some ice cubes and the cachaça, and mix well.
50-60ml unaged cachaça (eg Leblon)
1 whole lime cut into eight wedges
2-3 barspoons refined white sugar
‘There’s no secret here – it’s
a raw drink, so no fancy stirring like Martinis; be a Cachaçeiro! Taste it, add more ice cubes – that’s how we do it in Brazil – and sip slowly (if you can).’
One important caveat first: of those 80m cases, about 79m never leave Brazil – this remains a category almost wholly dependent on its home market. Beyond Rio and São Paulo, few consumers have even heard of it. There are niche spirits, and then there is cachaça.
‘Cachaça is such an unknown entity,’ says Tom Gamborg, marketing manager at Marblehead, the UK distributor of Ypióca. ‘Ask 90% of the people drinking Caipirinhas what the ingredients are and what cachaça actually is, and they’re not going to know the answer.’
Ah yes, the Caipirinha (see recipe, right). Cachaça’s signature drink is so all-pervasive that it has become better known than the spirit that forms its base, with many consumers convinced that it’s made with rum or vodka; a somewhat depressing fact for Brazilian native Manoel Collares, general manager at London’s Guanabara Bar, who admits that it ‘breaks my heart into little pieces’. ‘The main educational job at the moment is to explain to the UK consumer what the difference is between cachaça and rum, where it’s from, how it’s made and, of course, how to drink it,’ says Hal Stockley, director of Abelha.
That difference, by the way, is actually something of a moot point: while cachaça is made from raw sugar-cane juice rather than molasses, so are some rums, particularly rhums agricoles.
As the category slowly begins to gain a toehold in the bar sector, this new, educational approach is slowly becoming more nuanced, reports Steve Luttmann, founder and CEO of Leblon. ‘It depends on the particular account, the bartender and, ultimately, the consumer and where they stand on cachaça, which is down to previous experience,’ he says.
‘For some, the category is still new, so we want to begin with the basic info. For others, they’ve been drinking cachaça for years, and are now experimenting way beyond the Caipirinha, They are interested in tasting cachaça’s various aged expressions,’ he adds.
It should come as no surprise that, with a category the size of cachaça, there’s huge diversity in terms of quality and style. While some mainstream brands are content to ape white rum or vodka’s blank canvas of unaged neutrality, others are emphasising their artisanal roots and trying, albeit tentatively, to build awareness of aged variants.
‘We have to educate people on the quality element of the product and look to separate the artisanal, quality cachaça from the cheap, industrial alternative,’ says Guy Topping, brand development manager at Amathus Drinks, importer of Yaguara and Germana, who wants to emphasise ‘the benefits of a product made from sugar-cane juice rather than molasses, pot distilled, no added sugar, etc’.
Cachaça’s signature drink is better known than the spirit that forms its base
In the state of Minas Gerais in south-eastern Brazil, a multitude of small operators are producing pot-still cachaças with a rich palette of different styles, derived both from distillation and maturation, as Stockley explains.
‘Our aged cachaça, Abelha Gold, is made the same way as Abelha Silver, but the next step in the process is that the liquid is aged for three years in small, 250-litre wooden barrels made from garapeira – a type of Brazilian ash.
‘In Brazil, oak doesn’t have the same monopoly on ageing spirits as it does in most of the world. You can find cachaça aged in a huge variety of woods, which each give a totally different character.’
Whether the market is yet ready for such a diverse range of cachaças is another matter, however. ‘There are great aged cachaças out there, but the vast majority of production is unaged product intended for quick drinking,’ says Elliot Ball of The Cocktail Trading Co.
‘When the market is geared that way, many producers are less willing to accept the resultant break in cash flow when ageing takes place, resulting in substantially heightened costs to the consumer. Certainly, aged cachaça is not as good value as aged rum, for example,’ he adds.
The Caipirinha does appear to trap cachaça as a one-drink wonder
That said, some venues are starting to see an evolution in customer awareness, which is largely on the back of bartender recommendations. ‘Our customers mostly know unaged cachaça thanks to the famous Caipirinha cocktail, but a few of our customers are now aware of aged cachaça and its different flavour profile as well as its use in cocktails,’ says Florian Dubois, general manager at Experimental Cocktail Club Chinatown.
‘The nice thing about cachaça is that it can play in both spaces – in the cocktail arena, mainly (but not exclusively) with the unaged variants, as well as with the higher-end aged expressions,’ says Luttmann. ‘We don’t believe that there should be an exclusive focus, as they are both different need-states for the consumer and, in many cases, different consumers and on-premise account situations as well.’
A double-edged sword
For the moment, however, the idea of high-rolling customers sipping aged cachaça remains more of a long-term aspiration than an immediate reality. In 2016, cachaça in the UK is still mostly all about the Caipirinha – and that signature cocktail could simultaneously be the category’s blessing and its curse.
‘The Caipirinha is a bit of a double-edged sword for cachaça,’ says Stockley. ‘People know it and people love it, however it does appear to trap cachaça as a one-drink wonder. Cachaça is edging out, if not mounting the great escape, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the Caipirinha has infinite variations, is a fantastic drink, and there are still many ways to ruin it!’
Similarly, Luttmann says Leblon ‘definitely will not abandon the Caipirinha – it’s a classic cocktail to be celebrated and, as a platform, there’s tons of creativity to be had inside a Caipirinha’.
In this vein, expect to see ever more radical twists on the classic Caipirinha recipe, alongside a growing number of other classic Brazilian serves – especially the batida, a blend of cachaça, fresh fruit and, often, cream or condensed milk.
The trick in 2016 – beyond the simple raising of awareness among the bar-goers of the UK – will be for cachaça to expand beyond the dominant Caipirinha serve without sacrificing its Brazilian provenance in the process. Then it can truly capitalise on the country’s second summer sporting extravaganza in the space of two years.
Alternative cachaça serves
Florian Dubois, Experimental Cocktail Club Chinatown