July 2015 – Mrs. Wonk and I are seeking respite from the stifling New Orleans heat and humidity at Arnaud’s French 75 bar. Tales of the Cocktail hasn’t flown into full swing yet, so it’s just the two of us at the bar. I spy a bottle on the backbar unlike anything I’ve ever seen – downright architectural, with angles, lines, and curves all about. What is this mystery bottle? Some new high-concept vodka? I casually ask the bartender, and the bottle appears before me, alongside a small sample in a glass. The aroma hits me before my fingers touch the glass. I smile. Oh yes, this is cachaça.
In the simplest terms, cachaça is made in Brazil from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice. If this sounds like rum, you’re on the right track. More specifically, it very similar to rhum agricole, a style of rum made in the French Caribbean from sugar cane juice rather than molasses. So what’s the difference? In terms of the production process as the average person understands it, not a whole lot. Sugar cane is crushed to extract the juice, which is then fermented and distilled, followed by an optional aging step. Per regulations, cachaça is bottled between 38 percent and 54 percent ABV, and up to six grams of added sugar per liter is allowed.
For the most part, the difference between rum and cachaça is simply a matter of naming, which is a double-edged sword. By calling it cachaça rather than rum, Brazilian producers have a unique product to sell, but it also creates the need to educate potential consumers about yet another spirit.
Rum is distilled in either pot or column stills, with pot-stilled rums tending to have more flavor and body then their column still siblings. However, it’s worth noting that the sub-category of rhum agricole is almost always distilled using columns. Cachaça may also be made in either pot or column stills, but artisanal cachaças are most likely pot stilled. Advantage: cachaça.
Cachaça may be unaged or aged, and aged cachaça provides one of the primary distinctions between itself and rum: While rum is typically aged in oak barrels (mostly used bourbon barrels), cachaça producers hold a tradition of aging in barrels made from many different woods indigenous to Brazil, including zebrawood and amburana. I have firsthand experience with non-oak aged cachaça, and I can attest that the type of wood has a huge impact on the final flavor.
In Brazil, cachaça is a massive enterprise with producers numbering in the tens of thousands, big and small. It’s the base spirit in the Caipirinha, the beloved Brazilian drink, which is essentially a daiquiri with the lime and sugar muddled together. Despite cachaça being 80 percent of Brazil’s spirit production, here in the U.S. it has struggled for formal recognition. It was only in 2013 that the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) recognized cachaça as its own spirit category, rather than just rum from Brazil. This recognition is part of an agreement that also requires Brazil to recognize bourbon and Tennessee whiskey as distinct types of spirits. Oh yes, the spirits industry holds many peculiarities.
In the U.S., cachaça brands you may recognize include Pitu, Novo Fogo, Leblon, and Cachaça 51. Joining this scramble for name recognition and market share is Avuá, launched in 2013—it of the architecturally distinct bottle. Avuá is the result of a collaboration between New Yorkers Nate Whitehouse and Pete Nevenglosky. Like many small importers, Avuá’s story begins with a big-company beverage industry professional discovering their passion for a distilled spirit, then going out on their own to launch a new brand. In Avuá’s case, that would be Pete, who was formerly a brand manager for Red Bull; his business partner, Nate, is a high-powered lawyer and entrepreneur. Having tried many cachaças from different many Brazilian distilleries, Nate and Pete finally settled on one distillery to make the cachaça that launched the Avuá brand.
Avuá is created at Fazenda da Quinta Agronegócios, a distillery in the municipality of Carmo, about four hours northeast of Rio de Janeiro. The distillery dates back to 1923 and produces three main cachaças for sale in Brazil. These same expressions are imported to the U.S. as the Avuá lineup. Quoting Avuá’s literature, the production process is thus:
Avuá is a single-estate cachaça – all the cane is grown on the farm property and fermented and distilled within site of the cane fields. Three types of cane are hand-milled, ground using a waterwheel, and the juice is extracted into vats, exposed to wild yeast in the air, and is fermented less than 24 hours. The garapa, or fermented juice is then immediately removed and pot-distilled one time.
The Avuá bottles are worthy of serious contemplation before enjoying their contents. The base of the bottle is swooping, ribbed glass, like contour lines on a topographic map, which begs to be touched. On the lower left is the raised outline of “1923,” the founding date of the distillery, and a Sabiá bird, the national bird of Brazil.
The bottle’s top half is a narrow cone, completely covered by an asymmetric angled label. (True to my wonky nature, I immediately think of conical sections every time I see it, the result of my math and physics background.) The cork stopper continues the conical section theme, mirroring the label below it. Look closely at the strip label applied over the cork and you’ll find a hand-written batch and bottle number. The bottle (and brand itself) are inspired by the Rio of the 1950s, in particular the modernist architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, as seen here:
Let’s look at the unaged Prata expression first. It’s bottled at 84 proof, and although it’s not aged, it does spend time resting in stainless steel tanks before bottling. Simply removing the cork treats your nose to the funk about to unfold. In the glass, the Prata is brilliantly clear. The nose is intense and grassy, very similar to unaged rhum agricole, as you’d expect. Taste-wise, it enters with a bit of sweetness before transitioning to the grassy notes first experienced with the nose. It finishes somewhat quickly, leaving a bit of spice and mild burn at the end. By only distilling it once, more of the enticing esters that make distilled spirits so flavorful make it into the final product.
The Prata begs to be used in cocktails that need strong, assertive rum or cachaça flavors. On a recent trip to California, I spotted the Prata being used on the cocktail menu at Benjamin Cooper, and bartender Mo Hodges graciously shared his recipe with me:
- 1 oz Avuá Prata cachaça
- 0.5 oz dark rum
- 0.75 oz Petal and Thorn vermouth (or other Italian-style vermouth)
- 0.25 oz Banane de Brazil (banana liqueur)
Stir with ice, strain into chilled coupe. Garnish with a tea slice of lime.
The Amburana expression is a very different beast. It’s aged up to two years in amburana wood casks and bottled at 80 proof. The aging process imparts just a hint of coloring. The nose is more subtle than the Prata, but a delightful, unexpected surprise: Real, honest to goodness spice notes. While clearly bringing to mind bark-based spices like cassia and cinnamon, it is unlike anything else I’ve experienced before. The warm and spicy notes are there on the palate as well–not at all subtle, but not overwhelming. The grassiness of the Prata expression is substantially diminished in the Amburana. A hint of sweetness blends with the spice to make this a pleasing sipper for the adventurous. It also functions well as an interesting changeup in cocktails calling for savory, spicy brown spirits such as rye. That said, it would be ideal if the Amburana had a bit higher proof, say 90 proof, to help it stand up more to other bold flavors.
My favorite recipe for using the Amburana is the the Rabo de Gallo (Tale of the Rooster), a Manhattan-like cocktail which originated at the Caña Rum Bar in Los Angeles:
Rabo de Gallo
- 2 oz Avuá Amburana
- 0.5 oz sweet Italian vermouth
- 0.5 oz Cynar
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Garnish with orange peel.
The Avuá brand currently has distribution in all the usual beachheads: New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Florida, and Nevada. Price wise, the Avuá Prata is around $28 US and the Amburana is around $40 US. This puts the brand in the premium range of cachaças, though the exceptional flavors and exquisite packaging make it a compelling purchase in my book.