Best known for its role in the Caipirinha, cachaça has been experiencing a new wave of popularity as its aged varieties expand the spirit’s repertoire beyond Brazil’s national cocktail.
As a spirit distilled from fermented sugarcane juice, unaged cachaça bears a close resemblance to Caribbean rhum agricole. But it’s the unique aging process, which often takes place in indigenous-wood barrels in both South and Latin America, that yields “a complete outlier spirit,” says Pietro Collina, former bar manager at New York’s The NoMad Bar. “Right now they’re counting over 28 different types of wood that cachaça is aged in,” explains Collina, “so you have a lot of variety [in flavor].”
While the Caipirinha is the most well-known cachaça cocktail around the world, the most consumed drink made with the spirit in its native home of Brazil is the Rabo de Galo. The stirred cocktail made with sweet vermouth and Cynar is a bracing foil to the sweet-sour Caiprinha. Also popular across the country is the Macunaíma, a crowd-pleasing combination of the spirit, fernet and lime, served down without ice. Even in classics born outside of Brazil, the spirit can shine, as in Cafe La Trova’s take on the Cuban Chancleta, where the funky spirit is used to approximate the flavor of Cuban aguardiente.
Despite the rise of these regional drinks, and the fact that cachaça is the third most consumed spirit in the world, only a select number of bottlings are available in the U.S., most notably from producers Yaguara, Leblon, Novo Fogo and Avuá. Of these, it’s the Avuá Amburana—aged in barrels made of amburana wood, which is native to Brazil—that stands out most to Collina. He describes the amburana-aged spirit as being full-bodied with “hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove”—all flavors imparted by the wood—and says it complements the malt quality of genever. The NoMad’s Sakura Maru cocktail, a green tea- and yogurt-inflected sour, employs the pairing. “We want to go away from the idea of cachaça in a Caipirinha or a Daiquiri variation,” explains Collina. “We’re trying to kind of explore what the next thing is going to be.”
Of course, Collina isn’t the only bartender intent on exploring the possibilities afforded by the unusual funkiness of this relatively new-to-market spirit. Bar consultant Rob Krueger, for example, finds an unlikely pairing of Avuá Amburana and bittersweet Amaro Montenegro, rounded out by a tropical note of banana liqueur, in his aptly named Iz Bananaz. Damon Boelte, of New York’s Grand Army, also makes the connection between cachaça and banana, pairing the spirit with Giffard Banane du Brésil, bianco vermouth and lime juice in the beach-ready Boardwalk Flyer. Jacob Grier, meanwhile, takes an entirely different approach in his Trigger Warning, which plays off both the grain character and spiced barrel notes of Novo Fogo Barrel Aged Cachaça by pairing it with wheat beer and habanero syrup.
The large degree to which bartenders are experimenting owes much to the diversity of the category; the lack of regulation dictating the types of wood that the spirit can be aged in has yielded a wide variety of expressions, even among the limited bottles available in the U.S.
“You can make so much more of an impact on a drink by using some of these spirits [rather] than just going back to your regular whiskey or your regular rum,” concludes Collina.