As a spirits geek, virtual masterclasses and seminars have become an increasingly regular feature in my life.
Zavvy.co has been one of the most consistent, informative and entertaining alcoholic beverage streaming sites. One of the more recent and memorable videos was the introduction to the International Sugarcane Spirits Awards (ISSA). The competition is headed by the Global Rum Ambassador, Ian Burrell, Cyrille Hugon and Cyrille Mald. Aside from two Cyrilles being French and part of the rum industry, I don’t know the specifics about them. Ian, on the other hand, is one of the best-known global rum personalities. Americans may know of him as being a regular part of Tales of the Cocktails rum seminars. Europeans will recognize him as the founder of the UK Rum Fest. The premise behind ISSA is to make other sugarcane spirits better recognized.
One might think rum is the over encompassing term for all sugarcane spirits, but there have been ongoing discussions to correct this. Just a disclaimer, I’m not saying the ISSA founders are the ones who started the conversation. I’ve heard of this being discussed by industry icons in the past. If you’re wondering which sugarcane spirits aren’t called rum; Cachaca, Clairin, Batavia Arrack, Kokuto (sugarcane shochu) and Charanda (Mexican cane spirit) are some examples. I will get into more details about each of these in the future, but for now, I want to focus on Cachaca.
Cachaca, for the longest time, has been wrongly called Brazilian rum. I’ve never been to Brazil and I’ve never met a Brazilian. But the industry people who have discussed Cachaca say the Brazilians are very proud of their native spirit. So, what exactly is Cachaca? Why is Cachaca not classified as a rum?
For one, Cachaca is an older sibling to rum. The Brazilians, who were under the Portuguese, were already distilling Cachaca in the 1550s. The first drops of Caribbean rum were only distilled in Barbados in the 1600s. To further enforce the idea that Cachaca is not rum, I’ve heard it be pointed out that Caribbean rum and Cachaca were created independently from each other.
As for its regulations, the biggest point is Cachaca must be sugarcane juice-based. It must also be made in Brazil. This leads to one of the more frequent questions: If both are sugarcane juice-based, what makes Rhum Agricole different from Cachaca? Aside from Cachaca predating Caribbean rum, the most common answer I’ve heard of is Rhum Agricole was created in Martinique by the French. Also, unlike the Martinique AOC, Cachaca regulations do not have any restrictions on the type of cane, yeast and still used. Cachaca must be bottled at a minimum of 38% and a maximum of 48%. Aside from these, Cachaca can be sweetened. Between 6g/l to 30g/l can be added.
Another difference between Cachaca and Caribbean rum is the wood used for aging. Oak is not native to Brazil. So, until more recent times they’ve had to use lesser-known wood such as Amendoim-bravo, Araruva or canarywood, Cabrèuva or Bálsam and Amburana. I’ve never had any aged Cachaca so I’m not going to bother pretending what they’re like. But A Mountain of Crushed Ice mentions what these woods are like. It doesn’t mean that Cachaca aren’t aged in oak though.
The lack of restrictions on stills used should explain the low-quality reputation Cachaca has. Industrial and blander tasting brands like Pitu and Cachaca 51, which are most likely multi-column distilled, taste very different from the artisanal brands like Maracatu, Novo Fogo and Leblon. What’s the difference between industrial and artisanal Cachaca?
Industrial Cachaca is produced in the millions of liters yearly. Their fermentation times range from 8 to 16 hours. Turbo yeast maybe? Chemicals such as ammonium sulphate and antibiotics are also apparently used (I’m guessing during fermentation). Then these are continuously distilled in stainless steel tanks with no separation of heads, hearts and tails. (Yikes).
Artisanal Cachaca is produced in much smaller amounts. The sugarcane is manually selected and harvested. Fermentation times last for 24 to 36 hours using wild or selected yeast. Copper pot stills are also used.
Maracatu Cachaca is the first artisanal Cachaca brand I encountered. Oddly, the HQ is based in Singapore and was founded there in 2013 by three aficionados. It was my first time to attend the Singapore Cocktail Festival in 2017 when I saw their booth. According to their website, this is single distilled in copper pot stills in the hills of coastal Brazil. They only produce 10,000 bottles a year to maintain quality. The figure on the label is a Maracatu. Maracatu is the name for a folkloristic music and dance performance originating from the North-East of Brazil.
Aside from A Mt. of Crushed Ice, I’d like to also thank The Cocktail Wonk’s article on Cachaca regulations for making this easier.
Maracatu Cachaca – review
On the nose: Lots of tropical fruits and grass at the front. A strong welcome of grass, mangoes and mango peel. Which reveal hints of lychee, lemongrass, dried ginger and a floral pepperiness. Undertones of strawberries, melons and lanzones appear at the end.
In the mouth: Peppery, thin and short but it’s not surprising considering the ABV. Where did all that complex tropical fruit on the nose go? I get short bursts of floral pepperiness coated by a mixed mess of melons, apricot, strawberries, lychee and mangoes. Lemongrass, ginger and grassiness make a shorter appearance at the end.
I initially thought the brand was skimping on quality by bottling this at 38%. But it made more sense to me after learning this is only single distilled. I don’t have much experience with single pot-distilled spirits but I quite like this. I’m curious what this will be like after being double distilled or after using pot stills with retorts. My thinking is this is definitely something that will benefit from being bottled at a higher abv. I’m no distiller though. So, what do I know?
This has a pretty good mouthfeel and gives off pretty good flavors for something with a low abv. I also see no faults in this. This is an extremely pleasant and different experience.
Comparing this to industrial Cachaca is like comparing the heavens to the earth. This blows the industrial Cachaca brands away. But comparing this to other sugarcane spirits left this lacking. I’d love to try an aged variety and a higher abv version of this.