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.
Cachaça Me If You Can
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, bar manager at New York’s The NoMad Bar. There, the menu typically boasts at least one aged-cachaça drink per season. “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].”
Despite cachaça being the third most consumed spirit in the world, only a select number of bottlings of aged cachaça 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 to Collina. “For someone who’s been drinking spirits for a while, from whiskies to aged tequilas and so forth…you already know what oak does,” explains Collina. “[But] these types of wood are completely out there.”
More specifically, Collina describes the amburana-aged spirit as being full-bodied with “hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove”—all flavors imparted by the wood—and often deploys it to complement the malt quality of genever, as seen in The NoMad’s Sakura Maru cocktail, a green tea- and yogurt-inflected sour. “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.”
For Collina, this often means incorporating aged cachaça into stirred drinks. In his Cameo, for example, he demonstrates the pan-seasonal appeal of the aged spirit, complementing the flavor of Laird’s apple brandy with the cinnamon and clove notes of Avuá Amburana. “[By] aging in amburana…you’re giving it kind of that bright barrel spice that has affinities with fall and winter,” explains Collina.
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. Rob Krueger of Extra Fancy, 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. 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. “It’s just super, super fun.”