Sippin’ on Sugarcane
If you’re at all familiar with cachaça, it’s likely because of the caipirinha, cachaça’s signature cocktail, which is as much about lime juice and sugar as it is about the spirit. Cachaça has long been burdened with a reputation for being rough-hewn and hard to swallow, a spirit distilled from sugarcane juice and similar to rhum agricole but only in a white-rum-meets-firewater kind of way. Common wisdom held that the only way one could sensibly drink it was to temper it with generous amounts of citrus and sugar.
Thousands of different cachaças are available throughout Brazil, but until recently, only a few were available on U.S. and European bar backs and retail shelves. International palates have grown more sophisticated in recent years, however, and the thirst for something new has intensified. What once was only a trickle of cachaça labels seeping out to markets beyond Brazil’s borders is fast becoming a flood, and it includes artisanal aged cachaças that can stand proudly alongside the world’s finest sipping spirits. The following five examples are all proof of that.
If your local watering hole stocks only one brand of cachaça, Leblon is probably it—Leblon is the best-known brand outside of Brazil. The Reserva Especial is aged for 2 years in new French Limousin oak casks, which gives the liquid a deep amber color. The funky earthiness of un-aged cachaça remains and serves as a reminder of the spirit’s origin, but the fire is tempered by sweet vanilla and dry grassy notes.
Distilled in 1982, this cachaça was left to age in 19th-century Cognac barrels for more than 20 years. As one might expect, the resulting liquid features raisin and oak notes reminiscent of a brandy, and they’re combined with hints of tobacco that bring to mind a men’s club of yore.
After Yaguara distills its cachaça, some of it rests in stainless-steel vats for 8 months while the rest is aged in carvalho oak for 5 to 6 years. The two batches are then married and filtered three times, which creates a seamless blend of aged and un-aged cachaça. The stunning blue-and-white stained-glass bottle, designed by the UK artist Brian Clarke, is as noteworthy as the liquid inside.
This small-batch cachaça is the result of a partnership between three New Yorkers and one of Brazil’s few female distillers. The spirit is aged for 2 years in Brazilian amburana hardwood casks, which is noteworthy since laws in the U.S. prohibit the aging of spirits in certain tropical woods. Fortunately, amburana made the cut. The wood imparts a pale yellow hue and a distinctive cinnamon spiciness, but the real surprise is the spirit’s wood notes, which are unexpected, given the cachaça’s faint color.
If you order a caipirinha at one of the many Copacabana beach stands, there’s a good chance it will be made with Ypioca, one of Brazil’s best-selling cachaças. The 160 is a fascinating variation, distilled using a combination of sugarcane and malt and aged in oak barrels for 6 years. Not only is it unlike any other cachaça, it’s unique among most other spirits, period. A very tasty experiment.