Ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, exports of cachaça—the country’s national spirit—notably increased, according to Campari America vice president of marketing Umberto Luchini. The company owns Sagatiba cachaça, which features the unaged Pura, the aged Velha and the extra-aged Presiosa expressions. “In 2013, total export volumes for cachaça increased by just over 13 percent compared to 2012, with $16.6 million worth of cachaça exported from Brazil to other countries,” Luchini says. “The United States is Brazil’s second-largest cachaça market after Germany, with about 78,000 cases imported in 2013.”
The World Cup certainly helped expand exposure of cachaça, and as more brands become available in the U.S. market, this awareness will only continue to grow. “Cachaça used to be available only in specific pockets of the country, but now it’s expanding,” says Steve Luttman, founder of Leblon cachaça. And with the 2016 Summer Olympics set to take place in Rio de Janeiro, Luttman expects the cane sugar spirit’s recognition to increase significantly. “There are so many cachaça brands in Brazil, and I expect many of them to appear in the United States, especially as the Rio Olympics promote more interest in the country,” he adds.
Luke McKinley, digital marketing manager for Novo Fogo cachaça, concurs, noting that U.S. consumers are taking more note of Brazilian culture. “With the World Cup and the upcoming Olympics, the country has ascended to become a major global player in recent years, and people are learning more about the Brazilian way of life,” he says. “Cachaça is an important cultural link to Brazil, and sipping a well-made cachaça drink transports you to that beautiful, tropical country.”
The most common way that cachaça is enjoyed—and what serves as consumers’ primary introduction to the spirit—is in the Caipirinha, which blends cachaça with muddled lime and sugar. “When offering even a classic Caipirinha, guests are excited,” says Mitch Einhorn, owner of the Chicago shop and bar Lush Wine & Spirits. “Imbibers are always looking for something new and different, and they also love rediscovering classic cocktails. The Caipirinha offers a traditional drink that many haven’t tried before. The cocktail boom has been great for popularizing so many unique spirits like cachaça.”
As Brazil gains increasing attention at a global level and the country’s national spirit has become more recognizable, mixologists are exploring cachaça’s cocktail possibilities, using the Caipirinha as a starting point to experiment and explore new drink combinations. “In recent years, the fame of Brazil’s national cocktail has spread beyond the borders of the country, and these days Caipirinhas are available in bars and restaurants from Miami and Montreal to Mumbai and Munich,” says Vivian Viana, manager at Boteco in Miami. The Brazilian restaurant and bar’s house Caipirinha ($7) is made with Tatuzinho cachaça, muddled lime and sugar.
James Watkins, beverage director for Houston-based Cordúa Restaurants, points to the Caipirinha as the cocktail that best exhibits cachaça’s unique flavors. The company operates eight Latin American venues in the Houston area. “Cachaça shows a lot of character compared to traditional rums,” Watkins says. “It’s far more intense in nature and pairs really well with high-toned citrus like lime.” The Caipirinha ($9.95) at Cordúa’s Artista restaurant features Barsol cachaça, muddled lime and sugar.
While the Caipirinha and cachaça go hand-in-hand, Leblon’s Luttman is excited to see mixologists experimenting with this simple recipe to make creative variations with seasonal, fresh flavor profiles. “The Caipirinha is usually the gateway to cachaça for many consumers, but we’re finding that mixologists use the drink as a starting point to make more elaborate fruit Caipirinhas and include unique additions like herbs,” he says. Leblon’s cocktail book, “The Art of Cachaça: Crafting Cocktails with Brazil’s Artisanal Spirit,” offers numerous variations on the classic cachaça drink: The Kumquat Ginger Caipirinha comprises Leblon, sugar, and fresh kumquats and ginger; the Cucumber Jalapeño Caipirinha blends Leblon with agave nectar and fresh English cucumber, lime and jalapeño; and the Tangerine Honey Caipirinha features Leblon, fresh tangerines, tangerine juice and honey.
Oficina Latina in New York City has a section of its cocktail menu devoted to Caipirinhas. The Classic Caipirinha ($12) features Pitú cachaça, muddled fresh lime and sugar; the Banana Ginger Jalapeño Caipirinha ($14) comprises jalapeño-infused Pitú, fresh banana purée, house-made ginger syrup, fresh lime and sugar; and the Kumquat Rosemary Caipirinha ($14) blends Avuá Amburana aged cachaça, house-made rosemary syrup, sugar, and fresh kumquats and lime.
“The current sophistication of bartenders has made a simple Caipirinha a great foundation for experimentation,” says Josh Hafer, corporate communications manager for Água Luca cachaça owner Heaven Hill Brands. “Modifying a base Caipirinha with unexpected flavors and ingredients presents a mix of the exotic with a simple, recognizable and delicious cocktail.” At The Broken Shaker in Miami, the Parcha Caipirinha ($11) features Leblon, passion fruit juice and house-made pink peppercorn reduction, while Einhorn’s Japanese Caipirinha ($10) at Lush Wine & Spirits blends Velho Barreiro aged cachaça with muddled lime, sugar and a float of Mito No Kairakuen 5-year-old plum liqueur. “Many consumers are familiar with the Caipirinha, and we love working with cachaça to teach guests how good the spirit is and help them discover new ways to enjoy it,” Einhorn says.
As a spirit distilled from cane sugar, cachaça is often compared to rum and even called “Brazilian rum,” but as Campari’s Luchini notes, the process for making cachaça is actually quite distinct. “Cachaça is unique because it’s distilled from the juice of fresh-pressed sugarcane. Most rum is made from sugarcane juice that has been cooked and caramelized prior to fermentation and distillation,” he explains. “The pure sugarcane gives cachaça a distinct herbaceous flavor with underlying grassy, vegetal notes that can change depending on where the sugarcane is grown.”
In Brazil, there are more than 40,000 cachaça distilleries, according to Novo Fogo’s McKinley, who adds that diversity within the category is vast. “All cachaças must be distilled from raw sugarcane juice, giving them a distinctly funky and fresh flavor, but regional differences in climate, terroir and production methods have a tremendous impact on how each cachaça tastes.” Novo Fogo markets four different expressions: the unaged Silver and the aged Chameleon, Tanager and Barrel-Aged variants, each exhibiting different flavor characteristics due to the barrels used and the time spent in them.
“The Caipirinha will likely continue to be the main driver of the cachaça category, but we’re beginning to see more creativity and unique combinations,” Leblon’s Luttman says. In New York City, the Lost in Bangkok ($14) at Louie and Chan restaurant comprises Leblon, Cedilla açai liqueur, homemade spicy ginger syrup, Angostura bitters, lemon and orange juices, and cilantro leaves. And at Forrest Point bar in Brooklyn, New York, bartender Dustin Olson’s Pencil Thin Mustache ($11) features Leblon, Fernet-Branca amaro, fresh pineapple and lime juices, and a house-made mint syrup. Tiki-inspired cocktails are a natural fit for cachaça due to both the spirit’s sugarcane base—a natural partner for fresh fruits and citrus—and its earthiness, which pairs well with herbs and spices. “Cachaça adds Brazilian flair to any cocktail, especially those calling for fresh and simple ingredients, such as fruit juices and herbs,” Luchini notes. Sagatiba’s Maroon Swizzle features the Velha expression, Demerara simple syrup, fresh lime juice and homemade allspice dram.
While cachaça is commonly featured in fruity, Caipirinha-like drinks, the spirit is complex enough to stand up to bolder flavors and other spirits, as many mixologists are beginning to discover. “Cachaça definitely screams to be part of a refreshing cocktail, but recently I’ve started to see it being used in more aromatic cocktails,” says Brian Klemm, bartender at Copa d’Oro in Santa Monica, California. “This trend definitely speaks to the true vegetal and earthy characteristics of the spirit and what makes it so beautiful. The Caipirinha got cachaça through the door, so now the spirit just has to turn the corner and show that it can do more.” For Cuca Fresca cachaça, Klemm created a number of cocktails ranging from tall and refreshing to bold and bitter. His Porto Velho features Cuca Fresca with fresh lime juice, raw agave nectar, Original Combier orange liqueur and egg white, while his Rabo de Gallo blends Cuca Fresca with Cynar amaro.
“Consumers are starting to appreciate artisanal cachaças that make for great craft cocktails,” Novo Fogo’s McKinley says. “They are learning that cachaça goes far beyond the Caipirinha.” The brand’s mixology team created numerous unique craft cocktails using each of Novo Fogo’s expressions. The Wisdom in Waitsburg, inspired by mixologist Jim German, features Novo Fogo Silver, Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth, Cynar and fresh ginger juice; the Visible Edulis blends Novo Fogo Chameleon with B.G. Reynolds’ Passion Fruit syrup and Original Orgeat syrups, and lime and pineapple juices; the Barbosa Cocktail comprises Novo Fogo Tanager, Aperol aperitif, Combier Rouge cherry liqueur and Scrappy’s Aromatic bitters; and the Cornerstone is made with Novo Fogo Barrel-Aged cachaça, Fernet-Branca, B.G. Reynolds’ Lush Grenadine syrup and Scrappy’s Orange bitters. “In Southern Brazil, barrel-aged cachaça is the runaway favorite type of cachaça to enjoy,” McKinley explains. “We use repurposed American oak Bourbon barrels to age our cachaças, and American bartenders love using these barrel-aged expressions in classic stirred drinks.”
As craft cocktails continue to reign at the bar, mixologists are on the lookout for new ingredients, unique flavor combinations and chances to experiment. As a lesser-known spirit, cachaça offers mixologists a way to introduce cocktail enthusiasts to new, unexpected possibilities, even by simply taking a tried-and-true recipe and using cachaça instead of the traditional spirit.
“Swapping out cachaça for the base spirit in a range of beloved cocktails creates an entirely new flavor profile, which is what today’s bartenders and drinkers are constantly looking for,” McKinley says, adding that due to the diverse range of flavors from one brand to the next, cachaça can be used in place of most spirits. “It’s funky, fresh, vegetal, bright and earthy. Cachaça cocktails create a space where people who appreciate agave spirits, cane spirits and even whiskies can all find common ground.”
Indeed, there’s now an abundance of cocktail recipes that feature cachaça swapped for the expected base spirit. Replacing the usual white rum, Sagatiba Pura cachaça is the star of the brand’s Brazilian Mojito, which also features fresh mint, sugar, lime and club soda. Leblon’s cocktail book includes a section devoted to “Twists on the Classics,” including the Brazilian Margarita, made with Leblon, Cointreau orange liqueur, lime juice and simple syrup, and the São Paulo Cosmo, comprising Leblon, Cointreau, cranberry juice and lime juice. At Lush, Einhorn’s Brazilian Bloody ($10) is made with Velho Barreiro cachaça and Twisted Spoke Bloody Mary mix.
While these cocktails all use cachaça—both unaged and aged—to replace white spirits, cachaça can also stand in the place of dark spirits like whiskies. “Spirits are not necessarily bound to long-held, rigid cocktail formulas,” McKinley says. “For example, the classic Old Fashioned is a drink blueprint that transcends the conventionally used Bourbon or rye—it can be equally enjoyed with spirits like mezcal, Pisco and certainly cachaça.” Sagatiba’s Brazilian Old Fashioned features the Velha expression, maple syrup, Angostura Orange bitters and Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel–Aged bitters. Leblon’s Bossa Manhattan blends Maison Leblon Reserva Especial aged cachaça with Cedilla açai liqueur, agave nectar and Angostura bitters, and the brand’s Brazilian Julep features Leblon cachaça, Southern Comfort liqueur, lime juice, simple syrup and mint.
The Caipirinha will likely continue to lead as most consumers’ introduction to cachaça, but as the category grows in the U.S. market, there’s plenty of room for the spirit to find its way onto more bar menus and into more experimental cocktails. “I think you have to believe in the future of cachaça,” Heaven Hill’s Hafer says. “There is a great amount of exploration still available for bartenders. As variety within the category begins to expand here in the United States, we’ll start to see a real burst of cocktail experimentation.”