Cachaça – The Spirit of Brazil
If cachaça had never been discovered, then Brazil would not exist!
That’s my theory. I’m probably wrong. Almost definitely. I mean obviously, there would still be a Brazil, but perhaps, just maybe, it would not resemble the Brazil that we know and love today.
I came up with the theory while sitting in on a cachaça tasting. Well, they called it ‘a tasting’, then they placed seven full shot glasses of the stuff in front of me. Where I come from seven shots isn’t a tasting, it’s a frat party! So, at this point, logic be damned! I’m just trying not to pass out.
Cachaça – The Spirit of Brazil
September 7, 1822. Just outside of São Paulo, on the shore of the sleepy Ipiranga Brook, a young prince, only 23 years old, stood in the center of a small gathering of farmers, merchants, and his Honor Guard. The doe eyed Prince Pedro has been described as handsome and charming. So picture Jared Leto, but instead of a beard, imagine him with a pair of bushy sideburns connecting to his mustache.
Now picture the young prince raising his sword and crying out, “For my blood, my honor, my God, I swear to give Brazil freedom. Independence or death!”
That moment is now known as the Cry of Ipiranga, and it was the declaration that ended 322 years of Portuguese colonial dominance over Brazil.
What does all of this have to do with cachaça? Well, legend has it that later that night Prince Pedro and some of his closest confidants gathered to plan out their path to independence. As they talked long into the night, sitting on the table between them were several bottles of cachaça. They often filled their cups, toasted each other and their new resolve, and drank deeply into the early hours of the following day, all the while the cachaça stoking their fervor.
A Heavenly Discovery
Brazilians are known to say that God loves their country. And considering that they have no natural disasters, other than occasional flooding, and one of the most agreeable climates in the world, they might be on to something. But, the true miracle was the discovery of cachaça.
Brazil has always been a huge producer of sugar. On the plantations, the farmers would save the fresh sugarcane juice for the slaves and livestock. Over time, if left out long enough, the sweet nectar would naturally ferment and then evaporate.
On a particularly hot day, early in the 16th century, fat droplets of the evaporated, fermented sugarcane juice began to collect on the ceiling of a mill house. It didn’t take long for the drops to begin dripping onto the slaves working below. Within a couple of decades, cachaça distilleries could be found far and wide.
Interesting fact: Another name from cachaça is pinga, which comes from the verb pingar, to drip.
I’ll leave it up to you whether it was a serendipitous event or an actual act of God. Either way you look at it, the discovery of cachaça eventually led to the very first Brazilian rebellion against the Portuguese.
A Rebellious Spark
By 1660, the national elixir had gained so much popularity that sales for port wine and other imported spirits were waning. This in turn prompted the Portuguese to levy heavy taxes on the production of the native drink. The sugar cane farmers, and indeed most of the populace, didn’t react well—to say the least! On November 8th, they stormed the Presidential Palace in Rio de Janeiro and forced the governor into hiding.
That was the very first rebellion ever staged by the Brazilian masses, proving that cachaça is much more than just a footnote to Brazilian independence. The fiery beverage was the spark that initiated the whole thing. And it was the fuel that continued to feed Prince Pedro’s impassioned pursuit for a liberated Brazil.
My theory might have a few holes, and to be honest most of my research involved drinking. So, if you prefer accuracy then maybe I should change my theory to this: Without cachaça…I never would have written this article.
A National Treasure
What was once considered a drink for slaves and vagrants, a poor man’s inebriant, is now a national treasure. Cachaça has gained international notoriety as well, thanks to the popularity of the Caipirinha.
Interesting fact: Caipirinha translated into English means ‘little redneck’ or ‘little hick’. A reference to its rural roots, as it was once considered the preferred drink for women living on farms.
For the longest time, cachaça had the misfortune of being confused with rum, and for a while was even classified as Brazilian Rum. Both spirits are distilled from sugarcane, but the differences are large enough that cachaça has finally received its own classification.
Whereas rum is actually made from molasses, a sugar processing byproduct, cachaça is brewed from the actual sugarcane liquid itself, giving the final product a floral and flavor profile that strongly resembles the freshly cut cane.
Thousands of distilleries, spread throughout the country, have created a vast variety of flavors, everything from a moonshine-like firewater that could double as petrol to a brew so subtle and layered with complexity that it easily rivals the best whiskies in the world. The freshest of cachaças smell like a freshly cut lawn and taste like biting into a fleshy piece of sugarcane. While the more complex cachaças are aged up to twenty-four months, and tend take on the flavors of the various woods used for barreling as well as whatever assortment of herbs and spices were used for flavoring.
A really great cachaça hits so many different notes on so many different levels that it can give a wine aficionado’s palate wet dreams for months!
Hitting the sauce in São Paulo
While cachaça can be found all over the city, only a few places carry a huge variety and have a knowledgeable staff that can also speak English. My favorite place is Sagarana. They have a mind boggling collection of cachaças and a friendly staff. If you go, try to get there early as they are limited on table space.
If you find yourself downtown on a Wednesday or Saturday afternoon, then checkout Bar da Dona Onça. Great cachaça and one of the best feijoadas in the city.
Also, if you’re interested in trying a more structured cachaça tasting, check out Hectic City, our Thursday tour.