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.
As for C: yes, cachaça is the main ingredient in the Caipirinha; yes, that drink is a very trendy international cocktail, appearing in bars in places as far-flung as Croatia; and, yes, it does seem suspiciously like a Daiquiri. Both drinks are made with lime, sugar and a distillate of sugar. But consider this: a Caipirinha is made with lots of granular sugar, not a sparing dose of simple syrup as in Daiquiri; when making a Caipirinha, chunks of lime are muddled right in the glass, instead of being strained as a juice; and for that purpose there is a pestle made specifically for the drink. (Look below for a Caipirinha recipe, and, for a study of the Daiquiri when mixed using superpremium rums, see the Good Life Guide in the upcoming August 2005 issue of Cigar Aficionado.)
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.
Our impressions follow:
Beleza Pura, or pure beauty, is a clear cachaça with essentially no aging (it rests in stainless steel tanks for two months as the selected spirits marry). On the nose, it is grassy with a hint of fusel oil. On the palate, it's fiery and essentially clean and bright, except for a wisp of smoke. Drink in a Caipirinha. (80 proof, $27.99, 750 ml)
GRM Small-Batch Artesian is a two-year-old made in a copper pot still and aged local wood (tropical oak, umburana and jequitiba-rose trees). The color is yellow with slight olive. The nose is floral and sugary nose, turning to ginger, honey, tea leaves and graham cracker on the palate. The finish is slightly bitter. Sip it or mix. (82 proof, $69.99, 750 ml)
Armazem Vieira Rubi Solera Aged is pot stilled and aged in local aririba wood for eight years. The color is light yellow with slight lime. On the nose it shows honey, citrus, green olives and some fusel oil. The palate is fresh with salad greens and lime. The finish is very sweet. Excellent partner to a cigar. (80 proof, $47.99, 750 ml)
Rochinha Single Barrel is a little schizophrenic in its labeling -- calling itself both an "aged artesian cachaça" and a "Brazilian rum" -- but what's in the bottle is simply good. Again pot stilled, it is aged in oak. We tasted the 12-year-old (there's also a five). The nose is intensely sweet like cake frosting with eggnog, spices, and vanilla, bordering on maple. The palate is honey, spices, flowers and perfume. The finish is long, sweet and sparkling. Brings out nutty flavors on a cigar. Sip. (80 proof, $79.99, 750 ml)
2 ounces of cachaça
Granular sugar to taste
Wash the lime and slice it into eight pieces. Place slices in large rocks glass. Add sugar and muddle the pieces (pulp side up) with a pestle. Add cachaça and ice. Shake or stir.