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What is Cachaça?


Unknown to many outside Brazil, the cultural significance of cachaça, a distilled liquor, ranks among soccer, carnival, and samba. Although non-Brazilian’s compare cachaça to rum, their only similarity is that they both originate from sugarcane. Cachaça first gained popularity among slaves and peasants during Brazil’s colonial period but the spirit has recently become a favorite domestically and internationally regardless of the drinker’s class. Also, Brazilian cachaça exports to Europe and the United States have been aided by the trendy drink caipirinha. The cocktail’s global success has inspired other Caribbean and South American states to produce their own cachaça-like alcohols. Consequently, the Brazilian government has initiated protectionist measures at home and abroad to preserve cachaça’s foreign markets. These developments bring together cachaça’s trade, cultural, and environmental aspects.


No one knows for sure who began cachaça production, but everyone agrees that it began somewhere between 1530 and 1550. Around this time, sugarcane had been introduced to Brazil as a cash crop by their colonial motherland Portugal. Slaves, who planted and harvested the sugarcane, were given leftover cane juice from the milling process and let it ferment to produce an alcoholic beverage. As an incentive, plantation owners often promised slaves this fermented cane juice once they had completed their work. Eventually, someone realized that by boiling the fermented juice a more potent libation Cachaca Distillationwas produced, marking the birth of cachaça. At this point, wealthy Brazilians regarded cachaça as a poor man’s drink and thus preferred European alternatives. However, this did not stop cachaça from becoming an integral part of Brazilian culture. It is estimated Brazilians consume close to 350 million gallons of cachaça per year – about two gallons per person.

There are roughly 30,000 small producers along with a few handfuls of large cachaça producers in Brazil. Because the distillation process is relatively easy compared to other liquors and because sugarcane is so abundant in Brazil, the business can be is open to anyone. Sugarcane is first milled to extract its juice, then fermented for about 24 hours, and finally boiled until it an 80-proof substance emerges. Cachaça is usually bottled soon after distillation but some have tried to fashion new varieties by aging cachaça much like whiskey. The Brazilian legislation indicates that cachaça must be aged for at least one year in barrels no larger than 700 liters for the legitimate use of the “aged” appellation. Brazilians aging their cachaça use a variety of woods for their barrels, including Brazilian woods such as imburana, cedar, freijó, and jequitibá and American and European oak, which give the liquor a smoother, rounder taste. In addition, a third type of cachaça, called “yellow” cachaça, is made by merely adding caramel or wood extracts directly into the drink without aging causing the cachaça to have a much sweeter taste. Regardless of the variety, cachaça should not be confused with rum, which is distilled from the molasses left over after sugar refinement. However, the mistake is made; cachaça imports into the United States are taxed as rum and cachaça is sometimes referred to as Brazilian rum.

Cachaça’s export capability was uncertain until the caipirinha became a bestseller in bars across Europe, United States, and Japan. The cocktail combines crushed limes, sugar, ice, and cachaça to produce a sweet and zesty flavor packed with alcoholic intensity. But since cachaça and caipirinha were associated with drunkness and the lower classes, not until recently when the drinks began to be marketed as fun, exciting, and tropical have exports grown. Germany has become the largest consumer of cachaça outside Latin America, constituting about one forth of the foreign market. In addition, only beer exceeds caipirinha sales in Germany. The Brazilian government has also helped promote cachaça by providing caipirinhas at social functions and facilitating exports through technical consultation. Ambitious export programs aim to increase cachaça exports to 40 million liters per annum by end of this decade. In Caipirinhaaddition, Brazilians hope that cachaça and caipirinha will become what tequila and margaritas have become for Mexico: an internationally recognized image associated with the Brazilian lifestyle. Though popular all year round, Brazilians also enjoy sipping cachaça during Carnaval, a festival similar to Mardi Gras.

However, since sugarcane is such a homogenous good and since the distillation process does not impose geographic limitations outside the wood used to age cachaça, imitation cachaças have been increasingly manufactured in other parts of sugar-producing Latin America. Colombia and Martinique are among the few culprits trying to use cachaça’s name to sell their alcohol. This event has started to worry Brazilian cachaça producers because the imposters could crowd them out of foreign markets. Adding to this potential disaster, the quality or unique taste of a cachaça is barely noticeable once it is mixed into a sugar-rich caipirinha.

To protect its cachaça industry, the Brazilian government has imposed several regulatory measures in recent years. In 2001, President Fernando Enrique Cardoso signed a decree establishing cachaça as the official and exclusive name for cane alcohol in Brazil. However, while it tried to prohibit the use of the name elsewhere, the Brazilian government failed on several grounds due to lack of clarity and clear definition. In October 2003, the government, under President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, issued another decree with greater specifications on cachaça and the caipirinha. Brazil has also sent the issue to the World Trade Organization in hopes that cachaça will gain protection under the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPS). Moreover, Brazil is currently involved in bilateral negotiations with the European Union to ensure that the cachaça name will be used only with Brazilian products within member states.

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Monday, December 18, 6:12 pm

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