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Cachaça is essentially a rum distilled from fermented sugar cane juice - similar to that used to make rhum agricole. It is a creation of the Portuguese who brought sugar cane, a crop native to Asia which they had already introduced to Madeira and the Azores, to the Americas in the 16th century along with African slaves to harvest it. They also brought the technology of distillation to turn fermented sugar cane juice into spirit.

It’s now a massive industry, Brazil is the third largest rum producer in the world with approximately 3000 brands and production in the region of 1.2 billion litres per year. There are huge brands who make Cachaça on a mind-bogglingly large scale at distilleries that look like old refineries. But as with mezcal in Mexico and clairin in Haiti, there’s also a thriving cottage industry with many people having their own rudimentary distillation equipment. Between these two extremes of domestic and industrial production, there are also smaller producers making high quality spirits often from estate-grown sugar cane, wild yeast fermentation and pot or short column still to make a lower alcohol spirit with plenty of flavour. These stills may well be direct-fired and heated by burning sugar cane husks. Like the best rhum agricole or mezcal, Cachaça can be a terroir-driven spirit. Because sugar cane and sugar cane juice spoils so quickly, distillation usually happens as close as possible to where the harvest takes place.

Most cachaça is drunk unaged but Brazil has something special to offer for those who want wood-aged spirits, an amazing biodiversity. The Mata Atlântica (Atlantic forest) in the bulge between Brazil and Argentina contains over 20,000 species. Traditionally cachaça would be transported in tropical wood barrels to workers in the process picking up the taste of the wood. Now you can find expressions aged in different types of wood such as amburana, bálsamo, and tapinhoã. You do also see ex-bourbon casks and ex-wine barrels. To be classed as cachaça envelhecida (aged) - at least half the liquid has to have spent at least a year in a wooden barrel of no greater than 700 litres. Gold cachaça is usually aged for a minimum of three years. Aged or unaged cachaça is usually bottled at between 38 and 51% ABV. Producers can add up to six grams of sugar per litre.

The classic way to drink unaged cachaça is in a Caipirinha mashed with sugar and limes but any cocktail that calls for white rum like a Daiquiri or Mojito can also be made with cachaça. More premium examples can be enjoyed neat or on the rocks with a squeeze of lime while aged cachaça makes a great substitute for bourbon for dark rum in cocktails like a Palmetto or Old Fashioned.

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