Brazil is responsible for a good number of cultural contributions to the world (see: Brazilian-cut bikinis), but maybe the greatest is cachaça, a rum-like spirit made from pure sugarcane. Until recently, 99% of cachaça has been consumed inside Brazilian borders, but thanks to some international diplomacy between the U.S. and Brazil, cachaça is becoming more available in the U.S. (we’re sending them some bourbon in return). And here’s the best part: we’re starting to see some really great cachaça wash up on our shores—small batch, thoughtfully made spirits that have been aged for years in oak and native Brazilian woods, that can give our beloved bourbon a run for its money.
If you’ve had cachaça before, you’ve probably had the un-aged stuff used as the base of a caipirinha. It’s a fine drink. I recommend you knocking back your share while watching the Olympics over the next several days. But stick with un-aged, silver cachaça for those mixed drinks. The aged cachaças that follow are built for sipping.
Yaguara’s silver cachaça has the spirit’s signature nutty, almost olive nose to it and a significant amount of heat on the back end. The Ouro, which is lightly aged, has a peppery spice to it, similar to what you find in certain ryes. You also get the warm, nuttiness found in the silver and an element of caramel underscoring the spice. Add a bit of ice and the caramel steps forward, but the spice disappears. It’s certainly easier to drink, but far less complex than when taken neat.
Avua’s un-aged Prata has the most pungent nose of all of the cachaças I’ve tasted, and honestly, it turned me off of the brand. But Amburana brought me back. There’s none of the funkiness in the nose of this aged spirit, which sits in casks of amburana, a local Brazilian wood, for two years. It smells like a citrusy tequila and has a warm, welcoming mouthfeel that carries some of that citrus with it. And there’s a hell of a lot of smoke, almost like what you’d find in mezcal. It’s enticing, and I could see pairing this with some well-smoked ribs. When you add ice, the sip becomes sweeter (I found some stone fruit, maybe from the wood) and the smoke moves up you’re your nose.
Leblon labels itself as a “Brazilian run,” which is odd since most purveyors of cachaça are dead set on drawing the difference between cachaça and rum. (Rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from pure sugar cane.) The un-aged Leblon has a soft, flowery and herbal nose, but there’s a meatiness to the sip, like the flesh of really good, green olives. It’s salty, in a way, and a bit hot on the end. The aged Leblon pours dark and has wine on the nose. It’s extremely pleasant to sip, and you’re left with all kinds of sweet notes: caramels, molasses, a little cherry. There’s some spice too, again, a bit like rye. Unlike the other cachaças, the character doesn’t disappear over ice. It mellows, yes, but the spice is still there. The sweet notes are still in play. This is one I could drink on ice all night.
Novo Fogo has a bunch of different expressions, from an un-aged silver to a well aged single barrel. I could do an entire article about the nuances of each bottle, but I’ll stick with my two favorites: the Single Barrel and the Tanager.
The Single Barrel is aged for seven years in oak barrels and is like drinking silk. Smoky, earthy, sweet silk There’s a little bit of fruit in the nose (banana, I think), and a mild sweetness dominates the entire sip. Mostly, it’s vanilla. Put it on ice and you might as well be pulling from a cup of ice cream. This hooch could give bourbon a run for its money.
The Tanager is completely different, but maybe even better. It’s aged in oak and zebra wood. I don’t know what zebra wood is, but I’m intrigued, because it has a powerful affect on this booze. The Tanager has more of an earthy nose than the Single Barrel, and more tannins on the sip. It’s less sweet, more astringent, with an enticing element of tobacco. It pours the darkest of them all. There’s a mild salinity to it as well. Overall, it’s a more serious booze. It’s just as tasty as the Single Barrel, but there’s no pandering. The sweetness isn’t given away. You have to work for it. It becomes more accommodating when you drop ice into the glass—sweeter and less complex. But I say drink this one neat and revel in its complexity.
Graham Averill is Paste’s Drink Editor. He’s been drinking cachaça since the opening ceremonies. You can follow him on twitter.