THOUGHT PIECE the carling team

The ‘Next Big Thing’ In The World Of Spirits – Cachaça

As the old song goes, there is an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, there is also an awful lot of the national spirit – cachaça, distilled from sugar cane juice, yet outside the vast South American country, few have heard about it.

It has a reputation as being a rather aggressive spirit best suited as the alcoholic component of Brazil’s national cocktail caipirinha. Where lime, lemon and sugar hide a lot of the ‘roughness’.

Traditionally cachaça has been the tipple of poorer folk and cost of production was minimised at the expense of quality. Today the CBRC (Centro Brasileiro de Referência da Cachaça) is aiming to help premiumise the market and promote exports. Some 96% of the 1.5bn litre output is consumed at home with a tiny export market of some 12m litres. A lot goes to Paraguay to the south but there are increasing volumes to the States and Germany, Portugal and France in Europe where premiumisation presents key opportunities for growth. Per capita consumption at home is in the region of 11.5L. Some say that the vast home market means this spirit category is the third biggest in the entire world behind vodka and the Far East’s shochu/soju. Yet few have heard of it, let alone know what is made from.


For many years, cachaça was defined as ‘Brazilian rum’ by the Americans but they also called tequila ‘Mexican rum’ but now it has its own designation and is perhaps ready to burst on to the world stage just like its central American cousin.

Potential Brazilian exporters do acknowledge that the current buoyancy of the rum market is a great help in the promotion of a South American product.
Processing sugar cane in colonial times Cachaça is a spirit distilled from a sugar cane juice wash. It has been likened to rum but that is produced by fermenting molasses, a by-product of sugar refining. Molasses is a stable substrate which is easily stored and transported. In the hot sun, cane juice is readily spontaneously fermented. The use of cane juice is not unknown in the Caribbean where rhum agricole is produced on Martinique and other French speaking islands and Haiti has its own clairin. Cachaça may be sweetened with up to 6g/L of additional sugar and up to 30g/L can be added as long as it is labelled as sweetened cachaça.

The use of cane juice in the Caribbean dates from the early nineteenth century when Europe started to grow local sugar beet which depressed the cane sugar market and growers were forced to look for other uses for the crop. Fermenting cane juice in Brazil closely followed the introduction of sugar cane from Madeira by the Portuguese colonisers around the 1530s. Early explorers had imported plants from South East Asia where it had probably been domesticated for 10,000 years.

Sugar cane spirit was first obtained from borra which was a waste product of sugar production. The spirit was much traded by Portuguese entrepreneurs and was bartered for slaves across in Africa. Today cane produces some 80% of our global sugar needs of 180m tonnes and most is grown in Brazil which has twice the volume of next placed India. Each hectare will yield some 70 tonnes of cane. Its potential as a biomass and fuel ethanol source has been widely reported. Indeed some cachaça brands are trumpeting green credentials as the stalk residues can be burned for fuel after extraction.


51 is the leading brand with 30% market share

There are some 4100 cachaça brands registered in Brazil by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply (MAPA) and as much as 70% is made through column stills in huge manufactories.

There is a concentration of large units in the State of Sao Paulo, while alembic still production is concentrated in Minas Gerais where the perishable nature of the substrate means there are some 40,000 micro-entrepreneurs based on farms in the sugar cane producing areas. A lot of farmers have grouped themselves into cooperatives to sell the product.

These farmers utilise copper alembic pot stills and it is this sector which has just received recognition last year by the Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture as a specific category of cachaça de alambique with its own broad definitions despite the entreaties of the large scale producers. To qualify, a cachaça need only be batch distilled in copper pots, as yet with no further restrictions on esters, proof or acidity. The mainstream product has the usual specifications for maximum methanol and copper and a range of congeners (200-650mg per 100mL of ethanol). These rules only date from 1997. Before that regulations were not clear as production was relatively fragmented.

Column and alembic distillation

It is hoped that a well defined alembic product will allow the emergence of new super-premium brands for sipping neat competing on a par with other categories, such as single malt, cognac or tequila. Mainstream cachaca has a legal maximum %ABV of 54% but over proof alembic products perhaps give mixologists greater scope for cocktail development and move cachaça away from being only the base for caipirinha.

Hamilton Lowe, co-founder of Yaguara reckons you will get far better consumer retention if their first experience is an artisanal cachaça suggesting that industrial-style cachaça might have caused more damage than good for the category.

While cachaça sommelier and director of the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça (IBRAC), Milton Lima. suggests that the large brands have opened up the category but there is diversity provided by the alembic products, through the variety of colours, aromas and flavours of Brazilian terroirs.

IBRAC has teamed up with Brazilian trade‐and‐investment‐promotion agency Apex Brasil on a project entitled, ‘Cachaça: Taste the new, Taste Brasil’

Do not think for a moment that all large scale continuous /column still cachaca is poor quality. Like grain and malt whisky, both products can be equally acceptable but different. Most cachaça is bottled straight after distillation as new make is considered very potable with low levels of higher alcohols and esters (particularly ethyl acetate) but as with any spirit, it does benefit from a spell in a wooden cask.

Brazil boasts some 25 indigenous types wood, some of them rather spicy like amburana so that artisan producers are playing around with both casks and suspended spirals to mature the spirit and extract intriguing woody flavours. Maturation in pre-used Islay whisky casks is not unknown either! Such adventure extends to the much smaller market for falernum which is a spirit based sugar liqueur traditionally spicy from ginger, cloves and allspice where the wood adds further complexity.


The cane needs to be recently harvested and the crop should not be burned as is traditional prior to sugar extraction thus avoiding contamination with polyaromatic hydrocarbons. The juice is extracted by pressing the crushed cane often in a multi stage process to maximise sugar content.

Hygienic conditions will maximise the sugar yield for fermentation and minimise associated off flavours. The juice will be clarified before fermentation which will further reduce the microbiological loading.

Heating has also been employed. It should also be noted that there are far fewer inhibitory components compared to molasses and the low salt content means there is a lot less scale build up through the plant. The harvest period can also be constraining as it lasts for only six months but the seasons in the north and south of the country are largely complementary.

Cane, cut cane, crushing cane to extract the juice and fermenting it.

Juice can be up to 22% sucrose so water is added to dilute to around 15% to reduce the risk of osmotic shock. Citrus fruit may be added to adjust the pH. The larger producers will use a proprietary yeast strain and many smaller ones are finding greater product consistency is possible with an initial pitching of dried yeast and then topping the vessel up daily with more juice. Fermentation takes place over 18-30 hours at temperatures from 28 -32oC. Sugar cane is prone to yield cyanide precursors which lead to the carcinogen ethyl carbamate in the finished product but extensive work with different varieties of cane has concluded the temperature of wash fermentation and the amount of reflux in the stills have far greater contribution than cane variety.