U.S. nod to help Brazil boost sales of distilled cane spirit cachaca

AFP-JIJI

Cachaca — a national treasure in Brazil and the world’s fourth-most-produced distilled spirit — is little known abroad, except as an ingredient in popular cocktails like caipirinhas.

But that could soon change now that the United States recognizes the sugar-cane liquor as a distinctive Brazilian product, a move that has raised hopes of a major increase in sales to the world’s biggest spirits market.

The U.S. seal of approval, which means producers can drop the ill-fitting “Brazilian rum” label, brought cheers from the Brazilian Cachaca Institute (Ibrac), which said the move puts the spirit on a par with Champagne and tequila.

Top cachaca producers and the government plan to pool their resources to fund slick advertising campaigns, particularly ahead of the World Cup, and model them on Colombia’s successful coffee promotion drive.

Last year, cachaca sales to the United States totaled a paltry $2 million, roughly 10 percent of total worldwide exports, Ibrac said.

President Dilma Rousseff lobbied during her visit to Washington a year ago to secure U.S. recognition. In exchange, Brazil offered recognition of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.

Industry experts agree that boosting cachaca’s appeal abroad now depends on rigorous quality control.

That task is handled by Brazil’s Agriculture Ministry and several research centers, including the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture in Piracicaba, a two-hour drive from Sao Paulo.

“We look at the production process — from fermentation, to distillation, filtering, blending and aging,” said Andre Alcarde, a professor at the college and a cachaca expert. “We focus on eliminating the contaminants.”

Also in the works is a private-sector initiative to set up a regulatory body, including producers, to enhance quality norms.

Produced shortly after sugar cane was introduced to Brazil by Portuguese explorers around 1532, cachaca was initially considered a “poor man’s drink” before it was later adopted by the upper classes.

It is now known and used abroad mainly to make caipirinhas — a staple on many Western cocktail menus with muddled lime and sugar.

But the liquor, also known as pinga or caninha, is drunk straight in Brazil and is extremely popular in cachacaria bars.

Brazil, the world’s top sugar-cane producer, has some 5,000 cachaca brands — and the strong liquor is definitely nothing like rum, Alcarde explained.

“It is made from fresh sugarcane juice that is fermented and distilled,” he said. “It is in the same class as cognac, whisky or grappa. Same process: fermentation followed by distillation and aging in wood barrels.

“Rum, by contrast, is made by distilling fermented molasses, a sugar-cane by-product.”

Brazil produces around 1.5 billion liters of cachaca a year, making it the fourth-most-produced distilled liquor in the world, behind China’s baijiu, Russian vodka and Korea’s soju.

“We export less than 1 percent of this volume,” he added — a sign of the potential growth in the market.

Aged in wood barrels, cachaca typically has between 38 percent and 48 percent alcohol content.

“The problem with cachaca is not that it is strong, but that it is acidic. That’s why people add ice, sugar and lime — to mask the acidity,” Alcarde explained.

The quality “depends on how the cachaca is aged, what type of wood is used, whether it is blended,” said Aline Marques Bortoletto, a doctoral student at Luiz de Queiroz. “The wood used completely changes the aroma, the color,” she added. “It also depends on how long it has been aged, from three to 15 years.”