Cachaca - Brazil's Answer to Rum

Sep 30, 2002 (Updated Oct 30, 2005)

The Bottom Line Rum is a great liquor but if you get the chance, you must try its Brazilian cousin, CACHACA!

What You Should Know About that Brazil's version of it can be delightful.

It is common knowledge that rum is distilled from molasses. Ages ago, the Brazilians didn't feel like waiting around to make molasses to distill so they decided to create a distillate from straight sugar cane. Distilled sugar cane results in an 80-proof "cousin" of rum known as cachaca (I pronounce it ka-SHAH-sa).

I discovered cachaca this summer while vacationing on Cape Cod. There is an active vibrant Brazilian community on the Cape and one of its most splendid contributions is opening restaurants that serve authentic Brazilian fare. I dined at one of these establishments and was introduced to cachaca via the Caipirinha (I pronounce it ki-pee-whee-nah).

I tried the Caipirinha at the suggestion of my lovely waitress. After sipping this wonderful drink, I had to find out more about it. I went to the bar area to ask about it but the Brazilian bartender only spoke Portuguese...thankfully, a nice gentleman who spoke both English and Portuguese acted as interpreter and this is what I learned about cachaca.

1) No one "ever" drinks cachaca straight (I would think some people must but the bartender insisted) rather it is mixed with some sort of fruit and or fruit juice when consumed.

2) The Caipirinha is the most popular cachaca-based drink in Brazil.

3) How to pronounce both "cachaca" and "Caipirinha"; actually I can't do it exactly like the bartender did and the two free Caipirinhas he gave me didn't help.

4) How to properly make one; one of the two freebies, he had ME make with him.

5) Cachaca has a "tequila"-like reputation in that it supposedly can cause odd behavior and hallucinations if you drink a lot of it. Was my benevolent interpreter joshing with me? Perhaps. However, I think any 80 proof liquor will cause your vision to be "altered" if you have too much.

The cachaca used by the bartender was labeled "51 Pirassununga" which he insisted was really good stuff. The "51" was the ONLY brand of cachaca I could find after searching MANY larger Massachusetts package stores so this review is based on the "51". If you can find any other brands in a store, please let me know. I do know other brands are available via the Net.

Despite what the bartender said, I have tried this cachaca straight. This is what I found:

Appearance: Cachaca is a "white liquor"; it is clear but not as clear as vodka. It has a tiny bit of cloudiness in it that is only noticeable when poured into a glass. Ever put top-notch vodka in the freezer and then pour it? When super cold, vodka thickens to a consistency that is almost oil-like (not motor oil, more like light vegetable oil)...cachaca has that sort of thickness at room temperature.

Aroma: My mom used to cook certain ethnic dishes with raw sugar cane. She used to give me some to chew. Cachaca smells like that. If you've never smelled raw sugar cane, I've always thought it smelled like...bananas only not as strong.

Taste: At first, the cachaca tastes like water (I tried it at room temperature). It is very neutral until the finish. There is a good bit of fire when it goes down the throat. The fire is NOT like black pepper or any chile...rather it reminds me of those "red hot" candies that I ate as a kid only minus the sweetness.

Now, remember when I said that I was told cachaca was "never" consumed straight and that the Caipirinha was the popular choice used to enjoy cachaca?

I don't feel it is right for me to introduce cachaca without including its consumption in the proper context - how it is in a Caipirinha.

The Caipirinha (the review within the review)

The Caipirinha is a mixture of lime wedges, sugar, ice, cachaca and a bit of effort (email me for recipe and instructions, if interested). The result is an amazing mix of tartness with a understated sweetness that finishes with a small spicy kick. Think of it as a raw, earthy CLASSIC daiquiri (not the blended fruity kind!). The unrefined, natural character makes it so refreshing. It is perfect for chasing away the residual heat and humidity of a summer's evening.

If you ever find yourself in a Brazilian restaurant (in the U.S. or in Rio de Janeiro), you must treat yourself to this beverage made by an experienced Brazilian hand.

I highly recommend cachaca under these conditions:

1) You learn (and practice) how to properly make a Caipirinha; or

2) You allow a Brazilian "master" to make one for you.

You will not be disappointed.

UPDATE 10/2005: I hope that someday cachaca will make the "mainstream" Liquor section of Restaurants & Gourmet; the Internet is an international forum and a liquor making such headway in the U.S.A. deserves a category.

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