It’s an odd-looking word. Most people’s first question is, How do you pronounce it? A common second question is, What is it?
The first question has an easy answer – it’s pronounced ka-SHA-sa.
The answer to the second question has long been a topic of contentious international debate that recently led to a modification of the U.S. government’s regulations concerning the import of this distilled spirit.
So what’s all the fuss about?
Cachaça is a liquor made from fermented sugar cane juice and produced exclusively in Brazil. It is best known as the key ingredient in a Caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil and a drink enjoyed around the globe.
It would be difficult to overstate the popularity of cachaça in Brazil; with 400 years of history, a National Cachaça Day (June 12), and upwards of 30,000 different producers of the spirit (many of whom are unlicensed), it’s safe to call cachaça the national liquor of South America’s most populous country.
Just don’t call it rum.
See, that’s where things get a little sticky. In accordance with a litany of complicated trade regulations, the U.S. government has long classified cachaça as rum; or more specifically, a “Brazilian rum.” It’s understandable, at least in the sense that both spirits are derived from sugar cane. But whereas rum is made from processed sugar cane – aka molasses – cachaça is made from fresh cane juice. The result is a spirit that might be considered a cousin of rum, but is less sweet, with a more herbal, grassy freshness.
For many years, though, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) refused to acknowledge such nuance. A spirit made with sugar cane? That’s rum. What has this meant for most of us? Honestly…not much – mainly, that bottles of cachaça had to have “rum” somewhere on the label and, in compliance with the TTB’s definition of rum, had to be at least 40% ABV (whereas cachaça is traditionally 38% ABV). But what was a low-level item of arcane federal bureaucracy for the majority of American consumers became a cause célèbre among cachaça purists.
And so in 2009, a grass-roots group launched a national campaign to persuade the TTB to amend its regulations…which, surprisingly, it did. As of February 2013, the U.S. government classifies cachaça as a unique Brazilian distilled spirit – still a subclass of rum, to the continued chagrin of the devout, but no longer requiring the word rum on the label (the same way cognac doesn’t have to identify itself as brandy). Of course it’s a little more complicated and political than all that, but you get the idea.
While cachaça’s never enjoyed widespread popularity here in the United States, it hasn’t exactly been obscure. If you’ve ever had a Caipirinha, of course, you’ve probably had it. Sometimes you’ll see it in a variation of mojito.
But one by-product of this formal shift in cachaça’s designation is that the spirit has enjoyed an uptick in publicity – and yes, the reclassification campaign was driven by a cachaça distiller that sponsored promotional events all over the country. And as its popularity continues to rise here in the U.S., so does the quality of the cachaça that reaches our shores. Despite widespread production in Brazil, very little cachaça gets exported (which is a whole other story), and the brands that do are typically industrial-produced in factory-like settings. But with our ever-growing taste for small-batch spirits, craft-made cachaça is making inroads into in the U.S. market. And with that, I give you Novo Fogo.
Novo Fogo (which translates to “new fire” in Portuguese) is a microdistillery in Morretes, Brazil, with a presence in Bellevue, Washington. Their focus is on making a small-batch, organic cachaça in an environmentally friendly manner. Every step of the production process in their zero-waste facility is done by hand – from the sugar cane that they cut with machetes to the unique, handcrafted bottles, made from recycled glass, that hold the final product.
The Novo Fogo folks recently stopped by Cambridge’s Moksa as part of its Bars on Fire tour to whip up cocktails and educate us on all things cachaça. I’ve had a few Caipirinhas in my day, but this was my first opportunity to get up close and personal with their key ingredient. Unlike most industrial-produced cachaça, Novo Fogo’s varieties – silver and barrel-aged – are clean, smooth, and can be easily enjoyed neat. Even with one sip of the darker, barrel-aged variety, I could see why purists would bristle at this being so crudely classified as rum. Yes, it did have a rum-like quality on account of the sugar cane, but warm notes of oak and vanilla were just as prominent. That makes sense, since it’s aged in small oak barrels, and the resulting elixir seems to have more in common with a good bourbon than rum.
Introductions aside, it was time to see how the spirit fared in cocktails.
First up, appropriately, was the standard – a Caipirinha. This was a traditional recipe made with silver cachaça, muddled limes, and sugar. Even with the mercury gradually falling outside, this tropical classic was refreshing. As a special bonus, it was “served in a mason jar so you can shake it yourself.” Wow. I mean…wow.
Next up was presumably a Novo Fogo original – the cleverly named Bossa Novo, combining silver cachaça, apricot, lime juice, and bitters. The scent of apricot was apparent even before the first sip, and it was prominent in the flavor as well. I have no doubt that my mason jar shaking added a customized dimension to this strong and fruity beverage.
I was excited about the Rio Punch because it gave me a chance to try barrel-aged cachaça in a drink, mixed with Sorel (a hibiscus-infused liqueur with hints of clove, cinnamon, and other spices), coconut water, and most intriguingly, grilled pineapple. This one didn’t quite live up to the exciting ingredients. The smoky sweetness from the grilled pineapples was pleasant, but the coconut water didn’t contribute much flavor, and even the cachaça didn’t stand out. And weirdly, there was an inexplicable bubble gum-like flavor. I didn’t see a Hubba Bubba “floater” or anything, but I’ll give them a mulligan on this one.
Things improved with the Maine Kimura, which boldly combined silver cachaça, brown butter and maple syrup, blueberry preserves, lemon juice, and “bubbles.” This one had a thick texture, almost like a smoothie. The maple and butter flavors were appropriately autumnal, and the preserves gave it a rich sweetness. It was smooth and satisfying, though I detected no bubbles.
Now what goes best with Brazilian cocktails? Why, Asian food, of course! As part of the event, Moksa was offering a menu of $1 and $2 appetizers.
First up was delicious, tender pork belly served in a soft, doughy steam bun.
I followed that with the baby back rib, which was superb. The juicy meat practically fell off the bone.
This tuna dumpling tasted as good as it looked.
My only prior visit to Moksa was for a bartender blood feud earlier this year; if this is representative of their food menu, I’ll be making a return trip.
My final drink of the night, the Prata Bolo, was also the most surprising. Made with barrel-aged cachaça, banana milk, lime juice, and nutmeg, this creamy concoction reminded me of eggnog, despite there being no egg. Maybe the dusting of nutmeg on the top was putting me in an early holiday mood. While the banana flavor was surprisingly mild, the lime added a tangy sweetness. It was one of the simplest yet most effective cocktails of the evening.
Overall, it was a fun, informative evening. It was cool to learn about cachaça’s interesting history and its versatility. But if I have one complaint, it’s that a night devoted to the national spirit of Brazil didn’t have enough…well…Brazilian spirit. Sure, a soundtrack of samba music lent a festive air, but when I think about the breadth and diversity of Brazilian culture, it seems that an event like this offers an opportunity for international cuisine, live performances, colorful costumes, that sort of thing. Maybe I’ve been spoiled byalcoholic spectacle lately, but I feel like the evening could have been infused with the Carnival-esque sounds, sights, and energy we associate with our neighbors to the south.
Granted, I don’t foot the bill for these things, I just show up and drink.
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