With the World Cup kicking off Thursday, a cultural spotlight will shine on host country Brazil for the next month. The cameras might focus on the beautiful beaches and the bronzed, bikini- and Speedo-clad specimens inhabiting them. But true Brazilian culture can be found in a bottle.
Cachaça is to Brazil what tequila is to Mexico. And per happenstance, opening day of the worldwide football tourney coincides with international cachaça day. The rum-like liquor is the country’s national spirit, as endeared to Brazilians as a single-malt to a Scotsman.
“It was everywhere,” said Hola Arepa’s lead barman Dan Oskey, recalling his time in Brazil while traveling through South America years ago, “from the diviest bar to the family-kitchen-style restaurants, to the nicer places in Rio [de Janeiro].”
The exotic, earthy booze is ubiquitous in its native country, but Brazil may export more supermodels than cachaça cases. According to the Spirits Business, an international trade publication, 99 percent of all cachaça produced never leaves Pelé land. With limited availability, the U.S. market is dominated by a handful of larger producers. Boca Loca, Ypióca, Cachaça 51 and Leblon, which is rested in cognac casks, are some of the few brands found in Twin Cities stores, typically in the rum or liqueur sections.
Most people’s only experience with the centuries-old spirit comes via the caipirinha, an invigorating, summery mixture of the Brazilian hooch, lime juice and sugar —more or less a cachaça daiquiri on the rocks. While other cachaça cocktails exist — like the broadly interpreted batida, which blends the spirit with fruit juice or coconut milk and sugar or condensed milk — none have become a standard order stateside like the caipirinha has.
Because cachaça is still a relatively niche product, distributors have little incentive to import smaller, more boutique brands, said Marco Zappia of south Minneapolis cocktail bar Eat Street Social. “If they bring a quality aged, pot-stilled cachaça in, only a few spots around the Twin Cities are going to appreciate that,” he said. “The larger houses are not going down that road, but some of the smaller guys are starting to listen with more and more cocktail bars around. So, hopefully it’s changing.”
Long labeled as Brazilian rum, the U.S. government began recognizing cachaça as a uniquely Brazilian product last year (in return Brazil did the same for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey), meaning the word “rum” no longer has to appear on the label. Cachaça (pronounced kah-SHAH-sah) is akin to rhum agricole, another geographically linked category under the rum umbrella, as both are distilled from sugar cane juice. Many types of rum are instead made from sugar cane byproducts such as molasses.
Although rum has enjoyed a renewed interest among bartenders in recent years, cachaça has yet to become a mainstay on Twin Cities cocktail menus and back bars. At Eat Street Social’s Torpedo Room tiki bar, Zappia carries 60 different types of rum to just one cachaça. Oskey’s Latin-inflected menu at Hola Arepa features one drink with cachaça, though it’s used in more of a supporting role rather than the base spirit. “It’s the bottle that goes untouched a lot of times,” Oskey said.
But as our drinking culture evolves, bartenders see cachaça’s potential. As a sign of what could be, Zappia points to the mescal explosion of a few years ago when tequila’s smoky cousin caught fire in cocktail circles. Parlour’s cocktailer-in-chief Jesse Held uses a beet-infused cachaça as the base in a reshuffled Dark ’n’ Stormy he calls Red Skies at Night. The veteran barman said bartenders are increasingly following rum’s bloodlines and reaching for cachaça when desiring an alternative. “If you’re looking for something a little more complex than rum, I think it’s the perfect thing to grab,” he said.
Like its French West Indies brother rhum agricole, cachaça generally has a high funk character described as “hogo,” shorthand for haut goût, which translates as “high taste.” In medieval France the term was used in conjunction with charcuterie, Zappia explained. “It meant the slight taint of decay and rotting flesh — in a good way,” the rum guru noted.
Don’t expect to see “rotting flesh” in future marketing campaigns. But if cachaça gets enough attention — one caipirinha order or World Cup match at a time — maybe one day Brazil’s native spirit will nudge its way onto more back bars.
“I think cachaça not having the exposure that some of the other guys have, they’re just running a little bit behind in the race,” Oskey said. “It’s still so new to us in the grand scheme of things.”
Michael Rietmulder writes about beer, spirits and nightlife.