If you believe the Program for Brazilian Development of Sugar-Cane Alcohol (PBDAC), cachaça is the third most popular distilled beverage in the world, after vodka and soju. Wikipedia says it’s the fourth, adding rum ahead of it. Either way, it’s an extremely popular spirit made in Brazil as early as 1530. Over 30,000 small producers market over 5,000 brands and make about 350 million gallons a year – that’s about 2 gallons per person in Brazil, leaving just a little left over for the rest of us. Germany is the largest consumer of cachaça outside of Latin America.
Cachaça is made from sugar cane juice which is fermented for about 24 hours and then distilled to a product generally between 80- and 90-proof. Though this may sound similar to agricole, the two spirits should not be confused as the rest of the process – such as yeasts, distillation to 144 proof, maturation methods, cask woods, and so on – are quite different. As is the final product.
Given the number of producers of cachaça there are many, many variations. Much of it is drunk unaged, though some is aged a year or more in a variety of Brazilian woods, though American or European oaks are also used. Brazilian law states that cachaça must be aged at least one year in barrels no larger than 700 liters to be termed “aged” cachaça. Along with the unaged and aged cachaças, a third type is made by directly adding caramel or wood extracts. This variety is known as yellow cachaça, and is often sweeter because of the added ingredients.
Because of US laws cachaça must be labeled as “rum” when sold here, and is sometimes called “Brazilian Rum.” Knowledgeable liquors store owners realize this and often place cachaças away from the rum, so be sure to look around, or ask, if you’re shopping for cachaça. It took me a while to realize this, and I now have tendencies to roam the entire store looking for it. This is how I found my third bottle of cachaça which was over by the wine amongst 6 or 8 other cachaças. Discovering this third bottle finally allowed me to discover a true taste of cachaça and not one particular brand’s version of this spirit. It seemed silly to me to try a new style of cane spirit without knowing what the spirit itself was supposed to taste like, so I waited until I had 3 high quality cachaças before diving in.
Beleza Pura – $28 (750ml)
This cachaça, whose name means “pure beauty” in Brazil, is an artisinal cachaça brought to the US by Olie Berlic, a top sommelier in America. He moved to Brazil to find top wines, but instead turned his attention to cachaça. He spent 3 years tasting over 800 cachaças to find one that suited him and he brought it to the US as Beleza Pura.
This has a slight alcohol smell along with a bit of sweetness and a good amount of fruitiness, and thin but sticky legs that cling for quite some time. While I can detect hints of similarity with an unaged agricole it really is quite different – this is lighter and smells smoother, if that’s possible. An initial taste is very fruity, very nice, but with a bit of a burn that could be attributed to this being the first sip of the evening. Another larger sip show some hints of vanilla and the burn isn’t so bad. The finish is quick, but a very slight burn lingers a while before fading. A final sip has some more flavors and smells, one or two that I can’t place but are in that fruity/floral category.
Overall, this is quite nice. It’s not a sippable spirit, but it would certainly be very nice in the right cocktail – though it’s bold, assertive flavors might overtake many. I like it quite a bit, but I think it requires the right cocktail that would benefit from its assertive flavors.
Fazenda Mae De Ouro – $27 (1 liter)
This cachaça is an “artisinal” one, finely made by a small producer in the state of Minas Gerais. The sugar cane is grown in a sustainable way, and cut and processed by hand. The cane is cold-pressed, fermented using wild yeasts, and distillation in copper pot stills begins within 20 hours of cutting. Every 1000 liters of sugar cane juice end up producing only 120 liters of cachaça, and a mere 30 liters of this is aged for 1 to 2 years in 30-year-old Scotch barrels. After being filtered 3 times, it is bottled as Fazenda Mae De Ouro.
The smell is a bit more raw than the Beleza, not of alcohol but rather like fresher sugar cane. This has more similarity to an agricole smell, but again is milder. I really can’t detect any alcohol smell here. The legs are much thicker and slowly drip down. An initial taste is sweeter, less fruity, and much smoother than the Beleza. A larger sip shows more of the sweetness, fruit, and smoothness – though a mild burn hits after the swallow, and lingers a bit. But this finish has taste, unlike the Beleza’s simple burn for a finish. A larger final sip is very nice indeed – smooth and sweet. It lacks the assertive flavors of the Beleza but makes up for this in a gentler, subtler, smoother cachaça.
Overall, this is also quite nice but in a different way than the Beleza. It’s certainly much more sippable, and the subtler flavors are much nicer. I’m afraid that it might get lost in a bold cocktail, so this seems to belong in a simple cocktail with mild flavors that will let the tastes come through.
Leblon – $25 (750ml)
This cachaça is also made in the region of Minas Gerais, and the sugar cane is hand-cut and carefully milled. It is pressed within 3 hours of cutting, and fermentation begins using proprietary yeasts. After 15 hours the distillation process is started using copper pot stills. The resulting spirit is “rested” in XO Cognac casks for 3 to 6 months and then blended. It is triple-filtered and bottled.
The legs on this are somewhere between the other two – thicker than the Beleza but not as clingy as the Fazenda. The smell is similar to the Fazenda, but fruitier. A touch of alcohol is noticeable here, though it’s nowhere near the Beleza. An initial sip is a bit thick, and very sugary – like refined table sugar, not a smooth cane syrup taste. A larger sip shows some fruitiness, but not much at all, really. The long slow burn exists though, lasting far longer than it takes to type these two sentences. It’s a long slow fade. I’m wondering where the flavor is hiding, so I’ll give my mouth a few minutes to relax.
Finally, after a rest, I’m ready for another large sip of the Leblon. And… there’s some sweetness, and some fruit. I’m glad that I rested, even though I don’t miss that long fading burn. But another sip is bland, again. Is it only the first sip that has some taste here? Or is this the Bacardi of the cachaça world? OK, it’s not that bad, even though the burn is worse. A final sip, and I’m just left shaking my head and reaching for a sip of water to clear my mouth.
Just To Be Sure…
I wanted to go back and compare a small amount of the Fazenda to the Beleza, just to make sure that I’m thinking straight. I’ll do this in the reverse order this time, Fazenda then Beleza.
Fazenda… smell is mildly sweet and fruity, and refined – as in “clean” not as in “white table sugar.” A sip is raw/fresh, very smooth, some fruitiness but mellow with some sweetness. At this point of the night the burn is non-existent. This is good, but I am left wishing for a bit more taste.
Beleza… smell is mellower than I was expecting from memory. Still, it’s mostly alcohol, though some fruit and sweetness perk up. Taste is bold, fruity, with a burn. Nice, but not as nice as the Fazenda.
Cachaça is a different spirit than the molasses-based rums that I’m used to, but I like them for their sharp fruitiness and their taste of fresh sugar cane. They seem “livelier” than rums, more like a summer rum, and would kick some butt in the right cocktail. Yes, I’ll have to sample some caipirinhas and batidas. In fact I’m looking forward to it, before the summer ends.
As to the 3 cachaças sampled tonight, I’ll have to give my vote to the Fazenda Mae De Ouro. It’s certainly a cleaner cachaça, more delicate and suited to sipping. The finer, more subtle tastes were pleasant, not assertive or assaulting. I can’t wait until I can find some of the 5-year-old, though I understand it won’t be available in the US for a little while.
My second choice certainly goes to the Beleza Pura, though I will have to find the correct cocktail for it. The flavors were nice and bold – perhaps a little too bold – but the burn was not something I want to sip. In the correct cocktail this would probably be excellent, but I’ll have to wait until I find the right cocktail.
As to the Leblon, I’ll pass. The burn was almost as bad as the Beleza, but it had none of the tastes of either of the others. It was rather bland, really. Though it did have some sweet fruitiness it was no match for the clean and natural subtleties of the Fazenda.
Originally I had never mentioned the prices of these 3 since they were so close – only $1 off from each other. But a reader reminded me that the Fazenda is a 1 liter bottle compared to 750ml of the others. So not only is the Fazenda my favorite in this review, it’s the cheapest by a noticeable amount. Good deal!