Don’t call it Brazilian rum. Although it’s often lumped into the rum category, cachaça — Brazil’s sugarcane-based spirit — has unique character and a protected status much like Tequila and Champagne.
“When describing cachaça to guests, we talk about how it is a fresh cane juice distillate from Brazil,” says John Fry, bar manager at Rumba in Seattle, which stocks several different expressions. “It is more grassy, vegetal, and drier than what most people think about rum or sugarcane distillates.”
Most cachaça is consumed in Brazil. Thanks to its huge popularity there and the country’s population, cachaça is one of the most consumed distilled spirits by volume, behind China’s Baiju and Korean Soju.
Thousands of cachaça brands exist but just a few are exported to the U.S. Among those are Avua, Germana, Leblon, Novo Fogo, Pirassununga, Pitu, Yaguara and Ypioca.
The spirit got a bump of interest in 2014 when Brazil hosted the World Cup, and again during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Cachaça is still relatively unknown by most American consumers and still needs hand-selling by bar staff.
“Our team enjoys educating guests on all the different varieties at our bar including the difference between cachaça and traditional rum,” says David Hersh, owner of Rooted Hospitality Group in Center Moriches, NY. “Our guests appreciate learning about the process of fermenting sugarcane vs. molasses and often choose to try cachaça in their go-to cocktail.”
At Mutiny Pirate Bar & Island Grille in Maryland (shown atop), “We carry a couple of cachaças,” says general manager Nate Hynson, “and we probably fought trimming down that category for far too long because two is really all you need, or at least, that’s been our experience.”
Mutiny carries Leblon and Avua Amburana. “The first is light and clean, and a popular and recognizable brand; it makes a great cocktail,” Hynson says. “The second is aged for two years in barrels coopered from Brazilian amburana wood.”
Cocktails are key. The popularity of the Caipirinha, traditionally made with cachaça, muddled limes, sugar and ice, has driven most of the trial in the U.S.
“Our guests usually drink cachaça in cocktails, particularly our Caipirinha,” says Fred Jason, general manager at Casta’s Rum Bar in Washington D.C. “Cachaça is not something we get a lot of ‘straight up’ requests for.”
“The easiest way to introduce cachaça to customers is to make a Caipirinha, but it can even be tricky to talk people into that,” says Hynson. “Fresh-pressed sugarcane juice makes an edgier spirit than molasses does, so it’s not as velvety and approachable as most rums. That being said, a good cachaça is every bit as nuanced and complex.”
One boost for the category is from cachaça-based ready-to-drink cocktails. Novo Fogo distributes its Caipirinha in a can to the U.S. market and recently introduced an RTD cachaça riff on an Old Fashioned. Maybe that will ignite American consumers’ interest.
“I love cachaça and think it’s about to have another comeback,” predicts Amanda Sasser, managing partner at The CanTiki, a new cantina/Tiki bar in Glendale, CA.
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based writer specializing in all things drinkable.