The spirit of Brazil: the phrase summons thoughts of lively music, crazed soccer fans, scantily clad beachgoers and Brazilian rodizo restaurants full of leggy fashionistas. Another Brazilian spirit worth considering is cachaça: the cane-based liquor that is making a big impact right now. This Carnival season, aficionados of the country's original spirit have three new brands to put them in the festive mood. Leblon, Agua Luca and Cabana have made it their mission to elevate the social status of the drink by differentiating themselves from their astringent ancestors.
Perhaps the most mispronounced and misunderstood spirit to occupy the top shelf, cachaça (kah-SHAH-sah) is similar to rum as they both come from sugar cane. But the two diverge because most rum is made from molasses (the byproduct of refining sugar) and cachaça is made from sugarcane juice. Born a peasant-class drink in the 1500s, it was deemed refined enough for aristocratic tastes once the distillation processes improved. Now, cachaça is the third most distilled spirit in the world, although less than 2 percent of the annual production is exported. (Germany is its largest importer.)
For many years in the United States, cachaça was relegated mostly to Brazilian restaurants in Brazilian neighborhoods, and even then, the quality available was marginal. As the national curiosity for exotica Braziliana grew, one could find an occasional trend-setting lounge brave enough to offer a cocktail called the Caipirinha -- a sweet and sour concoction that consists of muddled lime, sugar, ice and cachaça. The cocktail has proved to be cachaça's gateway drink here in the United States, much the way the Margarita was for Tequila.
In the past few years the drink has picked up enormous momentum for a number of reasons. First, the creation process has evolved. Smaller, artisanal-production batches and increased filtration can turn the once crude and harsh drink into something more elegant and smooth. Second, the packaging has changed. Chic, fashion-conscious bottle designs are looking to echo the sultry and festive sentiments associated with Brazil. While this is probably not enough to get the old-school Brazilian gauchos to abandon their trusted brands, newer cachaças have enticed a younger generation of spirit sophisticates. Furthermore, the haute price tags that those haute images bring would make many a gaucho spit up his cachaça in disbelief. Nevertheless, artisanal cachaça is priced in accordance with other spirits of its quality. It's no longer uncommon to find a cachaça bottle or two posturing on the top tiers of dusky, backlit bars with aloof confidence. Posh lounges and cigar bars across the United States are starting to join the cachaça party, as are upscale restaurants, and not just the ones that skewer meat.
Particularly cutting-edge brands like Agua Luca, Leblon and Cabana are prime examples of where cachaça is going, both in image and in taste. All three have procured the services of professional mixologists to create signature cocktails and Caipirinha hybrids in an effort to distinguish themselves among the cachaça cognoscenti.
If you won't be traveling abroad for Carnival this year, grab a cigar and sip a suitable cachaça for a quiet celebration. If you are, then don't let the smoothness of these cachaças fool you. Although they don't taste as if they're 80 proof, drink enough and you just might find footage of yourself on the Internet doing a striptease with nothing but a string of Brazilian sausage links in the streets of Ipanema.
Agua Luca ($30, 750 ml) owes its flavor characteristics to a 12-step filtration process and the use of neutral steel vats. It has a bright, honey-suckle and zesty nose. I found its solid core of sugarcane flavors to be underscored by a sweet smokiness and slightly spicy finish. This Cachaça will pair well with sweet to spicy, medium-bodied cigars such as Cameroons, milder maduros, or Connecticut-shade-wrapped cigars.
Named after a beach community in Rio de Janeiro, the Leblon brand ($30, 750 ml) is distilled in copper alembics (stills) in Minas Gerais, Brazil, and then shipped to France to be aged in Cognac barrels. A bit more aggressive but also quite complex, it has a pear, honey and citrus nose with hints of berries. The mouthfeel is lush and substantial. There is a slightly jammy undercurrent and it closes with a citrus and earth finish. Some of the earthier-tasting Cubans, Criollo cigars, and cigars with darker Ecuadoran wrappers will complement Leblon well.
The newest of the three, Cabana ($35, 750 ml), is crafted by the Cestari family in Jaguariuna, Brazil, just outside of São Paulo. Cabana's fermented cane juice is distilled twice in copper pot stills and then aged in oak barrels for a few months before bottling. This rum has a floral nose and velvety mouthfeel. Maple, tangerine and vanilla flavors blossom on the palate very nicely, leaving behind a long, resonant and fresh sugarcane finish. This will require a complex cigar pairing like a Corojo cigar, a Sumatra, some of the darker Cuban Edición Limitadas, or cigars with significant age.
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