By Pedro Souza
November 26th, 2016
Most foreigners have only come to know cachaça as a component of caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail that has become popular worldwide. Yet, it is a drink widely appreciated in Brazil, most often drank pure. The cachaça is a distilled spirit made with sugarcane juice, with an alcohol content usually around 40% of its total volume. Currently, it is the most popular distilled drink in Brazil, and it has become embedded in Brazilian culture.
No-one knows for sure how exactly did cachaça originate, and many conflicting versions exist. What is agreed on is that it was created after the Portuguese brought sugar cane from the Madeira Island. According to one version of the story, cachaça was accidentaly created when a slave from Pernambuco that was storing “cagaça”, a liquid formed when sugar cane juice is boiled. This would have caused it to ferment naturally and create the first cachaça of all. Another version is presented by Brazilian historian Luís da Câmara Cascudo in his book “Preludes of the Cachaça”. According to him, cachaça was first distilled around 1532 in the city of São Vicente, where the production of sugar in Brazil originated. In his version of the story, it was the Portuguese who distilled it at first, after learning techniques from the Arabs.
Regardless of how it originated, it has been a part of Brazil through the vast majority of the country’s history since it was found by the Portuguese in 1500. At first it was consumed by slaves, but other people soon began to appreciate it. The drink spread quickly through the coast, becoming an important part of the emerging economy. Through merchants, it also spread outside of Brazil, being well received in some parts of Africa and Europe. In Portugal, cachaça became so popular that the Portuguese crown decided to heavily tax the cachaça that was coming from Brazil and out-competing the nationally produced “bagaceira”. This led cachaça producers to rise up against Portugal in 1660 in what is now known as the “Revolta da Cachaça” (The Cachaça’s Revolt).
Later, cachaça spread to the states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, which is a state that is nowadays notorious for its cachaça production. In Minas, cachaça arrived with the gold rush. Stories tell that white cachaça was transported in barrels to Minas, arriving there with a brown color and a flavor acquired from the barrel. Supposedly, it is because of this that cachaça started to be produced inside oak barrels. Whether this is true or not, the cachaça production in Minas tends to favor the brown cachaça produced inside oak barrels.
In the 19th century, cachaça started to be devalued by the new Brazilian elite that was born from the ascension of coffee. The new coffee barons copied their manners and culture from Europe, and the elitists that they were, they despised cachaça as a drink for poor, uneducated black people. Despite the elite’s rejection of cachaça, it remained a popular drink for the majority of the population, and it was also celebrated by intellectuals who mocked the Brazilian elites and their aversion for national customs.
Nowadays, it is celebrated through the whole country, and produced by more than 4 thousand “alambiques”. It is interesting to note that while the production of sugar cane has always been associated with powerful land-owners in Brazil, the production of cachaça has always been and still is made in an artisanal manner. And through the country, one can enjoy an incredible array of cachaças, varying in flavor, color and strength. Many foreigners do not like their first taste of pure cachaça, but many say it is a drink that grows on you. If you enjoy a good drink, do not miss an opportunity to have a taste of cachaça. And if you ever find yourself in Brazil, this is just the right place to do it.