The Cachaça Samba
Posted: June 2, 2005
A) The national drink of the Brazilian peasantry;
B) Rum's coarse and fiery cousin;
C) The main ingredient in the trendy cocktail Caipirinha, which is basically a Daiquiri;
D) Hard to pronounce.
The easy answer is all of the above, but things can never be that simple.
The answer A is mainly true. What we know as cachaça was invented in Brazil in the sixteenth century, a spirit distilled from fermented sugar cane juice. Yes, for centuries it was made for consumption by natives and slaves; however, as good things tend to do, cachaça has defied gravity and begun to trickle up the social scale, helped not a little by the number of fine super-aged and purified examples that have recently been marketed.
The answer B is fairly close. On the face of it, cachaça would seem to be a cousin of rum or arguably more closely related, a subset. It's made from sugar and distilled, both of which is true of rum. The defining difference usually touted is that cachaça is made from the cane's first pressing, not from the derivative molasses. That would seem to separate them, except that while most rums are made from molasses, some come from pure cane, for example Ten Cane and Mount Gay Barbados Sugar Cane Brandy. The Brazilians don't really appreciate the comparison and are attempting to annex the name solely for sugar cane product of Brazil, much as Tequila designates agave liquor only from that Mexican district.
But the Portuguese word cachaça doesn't actually indicate sugar at all. Rather it is a catch-all term for brandy. In the mother country, cachaça is made from grapes. The cane type is also sometimes called aguardente de cana, or strong, coarse brandy of sugar cane (other slang terms are even less flattering, such as arrebenta peito, or chest smasher). But as for being coarse and fiery: again the Brazilian national spirit has made great strides towards connoisseurship and its previously volatile alcohol levels have been brought down precipitously.
And D, cachaça isn't really that hard to pronounce. It's just that it's often mispronounced as though it were a Latin ballroom dance consisting of two steps followed by a shuffle. Three 'C's appear in the word and they are all pronounced differently. The first is a hard 'C' as in "cat." The second is blended with H and creates the atypical 'sh' sound, as "chagrin." The third is not actually a C, but a C with cedilla (the squiggly diacritical mark that sometimes hangs from C). It makes a sort of mix of 'S' and 'Z', as in "façade". Now resist the temptation to say "One, two, cha-cha-cha" and repeat after me: ka-SHAH-sa.
Now that we can say it, we can drink it. The friendly folks at Excalibur Enterprise provided us with a number tastes from its own Beleza Pura through a selection of aged cachaças from small producers, which it also imports. Founder Olie Berlic is on a crusade to enlighten the public about the spirit, which he likens to Tequila in that it was a low-quality drink that has undergone a steep elevation of late.
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