Rum, in some quarters, is seeing a resurgence: a burgeoning interest in production methods and an appetite for consumption. But between the blurred lines of rum regulations and definitions hides an overlooked relative — Brazilian cachaça.

The conversation around the question “What is rum?” — or really, “What isn’t rum?” — focuses on ingredients and geography, but a cornerstone trait, most would agree, is that rum is the distillate of fermented sugarcane. It might be fair (although unpopular) to say that “all cachaça is rum, but not all rum is cachaça.”

Most rum is the product of a fermentation of sugarcane derivatives, mainly molasses, and is hardly ever geographically defined. Cachaça, since 1994, has a legally protected definition and to adhere, the distillate must be, amongst other things:

A product of Brazil, distilled from a fermented must of fresh sugarcane juice… between 38% and 48% ABV and have no more than 6 g per liter of added sugar.

You may not hear much about cachaça, but with an annual production of over 1.4 billion liters, it is the world’s third most-produced spirit. Dating back to 1516, it’s older than Caribbean rum and was the first spirit to be distilled in Latin America. Since the beginning, cachaça has been the domain of the artisan, the small farm producer, so Brazil, in a way, has been craft distilling since the 16th century.

The reason cachaça is so often overlooked has a lot to do with the structure of the industry. We hear lots about rum, and that’s because the industry is dominated by the large distillers, with a business model based on export sales and big marketing budgets. Cachaça is also dominated by large producers, who are responsible for over 70% of production, but their main market is domestic. The artisan producers with an appetite for export are geographically fragmented, so they can find marketing outside their state, let alone outside of Brazil, far more difficult.

Artisan cachaça production is quaint. If you happen to have visited the traditional cider producers of Britain, you will find that they and the alambique (artisan) cachaça producers of Brazil have a lot in common. Both process their own crop to add value and use little or no raw materials from outside of the farm. Both also harvest a ripe crop, low in starch and high in simple sugars, which is milled and pressed and then the juice fermented. Most (but not all) cidermakers stop here, but the cachaça producers take one more step in distilling the ferment.

To learn more, Belmiro Ribeiro Da Silva Neto can help, but to meet him, expect a six-hour drive northwest of Sao Paulo, to a region of Brazil known for its beautiful landscapes and wealthy ranchers, but not so much for tourists. Belmiro is a professor at FGV University in Sao Paulo while also owning and running Ribeiro Da Silva Cachaça from his farm in Sao Jose Do Rio Preto.

“Cachaça does have an export market,” Belmiro explains, “but it’s small, at around 1% of Brazil’s total production. Europe is the largest market, taking 61% of the exports, with Germany on its own accounting for 35%. The majority of these exports are the cheap commercial brands which are used to make caipirinha; they give people bad hangovers and ultimately undermine the reputation of alambique cachaca.”

Belmiro, like many of Brazil’s artisan producers, has no interest in producing industrial cachaça, but he certainly has nothing against the Caipirinha. (You should try the cocktail with a good “cachaça branca.”)  Belmiro’s interest is with premium sipping cachaça, usually cachaça that has been aged in wooden barrels to introduce color and flavor and, depending on the wood, a level of sweetness. This is sometimes an oak barrel, but Brazil has numerous hardwoods, some indigenous, which can also be used, including balsam, jequitiba, jatoba and amburana. These hardwoods give a completely unique character to the aged cachaça, and it’s these new flavors that are beginning to get noticed. The flavor of these hardwoods haven’t escaped the attention of craft brewers, with beers aged in the barrels beginning to appear in competitions. One example is 70K amburana, a 13% ABV imperial milk stout from Against the Grain Brewery in Louisville, which picked up a gold medal in the 2018 Wood and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout category at the Great American Beer Festival.

Many regions in Brazil can boast a large number of alambique cachaça producers, including the UNESCO world heritage site of Paraty, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. When the Brazilian gold rush erupted in 1696, Paraty was the main port supporting the extraction of gold from the neighboring landlocked state of Minas Gerais (meaning, imaginatively, “general mines”), and Paraty produced its “cane brandy” for the miners and merchants.

Minas Gerais is still an important mining area, though more for iron than gold these days, but it’s also the place to be for anybody interested in drinking alambique cachaça. Minas is a vast, hot, rolling landscape of mountains, cattle ranches, winding roads and, in November, heavy rain clouds. Its seemingly infinite forests are bright green, punctuated with the purple flowers of the occasional jacaranda tree. This region grows perfectly the varieties of sugarcane that yield the best cachaça.

Some cachaça distilleries welcome visitors, but to see the process unembellished, you need an introduction to a man like Jovelino Saldanha, one of the owners of D’Lourdes Cachaça. Traveling with Jovelino to his family farm in Congonhas do Norte, in the state of Minas Gerais, involves a four-hour drive into the interior, north of the state capital Belo Horizonte.

Five years ago, Jovelino’s family decided to diversify into cachaça production. With a plan ultimately to pursue an export market in Europe and the USA, they invested heavily in a new copper alambique (still) and constructed new buildings, hygienically finished and purpose-built for each stage of the process.

D’Lourdes hums with the rolling motors of the crusher and press and has the aroma of engines, green sugarcane, sweet distillate and smoke from the steam boiler. The intensity of each aroma changes as you move around the distillery but is always in your nose due to the close, warm and wet air.

As you approach the new buildings, you pass five water tanks, each containing 20,000 liters. This water is pumped from a natural spring on the farm and is a critical resource, used for washing equipment, adjusting the Brix of the pressed cane juice and also in huge quantities to chill the distillate as it leaves the still.

The site is built into a hill, so Jovelino can use gravity to move liquid for most of the process. From the unloading bay, where the cane is emptied from the tractors ready for milling and pressing there is a vantage point looking across the green and yellow cane fields. You might expect their cane varieties to have exotic names and romantic histories, but they have names like RB-8675515 and are the ones recommended by the federal university. It turns out that cane selection is taken very seriously.

After milling and pressing, the pure cane juice, at up to 23 Brix, runs through a series of rectangular troughs with alternate high and low gates designed to trap both sinking impurities and floating impurities. From here, the juice runs into cylindrical tanks where the Brix and temperature are adjusted to ensure optimum conditions for the yeast, which, in the case of D’Lourdes, is the yeast naturally living in the cane. The juice, now at 15 Brix, then flows under gravity into the 2,000-liter fermenting tanks, where the fermentation occurs at around 28° C, and when complete, usually in 24 hours, the wash is quickly distilled.

Steam powers the still and is produced using a solid-fuel boiler, which runs nearly entirely on bagasse, the dry fibrous solid waste material from the pressed sugarcane. The still is copper, which is important. Copper was originally the material of choice because it is easier to heat and shape than other metals. Its incredible heat-conducting properties also turned out to be useful. Recently, a distillate’s contact with copper has been linked with a reduction in sulfur compounds. The copper forms salts with the sulfur in the wash, some of which are soluble, and some of which form a precipitate, though neither make their way to the distillate.

The typical cachaça alambique has four bubble plates in a short column directly above the pot and a dephlegmator at the top of the column. The short column allows the spirit to be refined in just one distillation and the dephlegmator helps control the reflux. In the case of the D’Lourdes still, the vapor passes first through a coil in a large water bath before the final condenser. The water bath is designed to recover some of the heat used in distillation and to preheat the next batch, so like most of the cachaça making process, it is very efficient.

Each distiller will take cuts in their own way. Belmiro relies partly on intuition and partly on instrumentation:

We use our family experience to make the highest quality alambique cachaça we can. In the process, nose and taste are fundamental. But we also use the hydrometer to keep an eye on the alcohol levels and the dephlegmator to control whether we pull more or less alcohol.

Belmiro runs two 1,200-liter pot stills and from each run, which takes around three hours, around 168 liters of distillate per still are produced. The heads fraction is collected until 55% ABV and makes up 10% of the run, the hearts are taken from 55% to 40% (averaging 48%) and makes up 80% of the run and tails account for 10% of the run and are taken from 39% down to 10%. Heads and tails are redistilled to 95% ABV and used to run farm machinery.

Once distilled, the cachaça can be aged for 6 months in stainless steel (for white cachaça, or cachaça branca), or it can be aged in wooden barrels. D’Lourdes uses American oak for up to 3 years and blends the barrels for a consistent product.

The process at Ribeiro Da Silva, D’Lourdes and most small distilleries in Brazil is probably best described as “mechanically manual.” Machines are in use from the tractors to harvest the cane, to the mill and press to extract the juice, but most of the machinery relies on a degree of skilled manpower to make the process work. The mill, for example, needs to be fed by hand, and the operator needs to know a dud cane when they see one.

The term “alambique” cachaça refers to the pot still used in its production and is an important distinction between it and industrial cachaça produced in continuous column stills. Lots of the craft distilling equipment used in Brazil and South America is made by Alambiques Santa Efigenia and has been since it was founded in 1948 by Geraldo Pereira dos Santos. The factory is a four-hour drive south of Belo Horizonte, and if you visit, you will see that building copper pot stills is as artisan a practice as producing cachaça.

Alambiques Santa Efigenia continues to be a family-run business, managed by the sons of the founder, and the stills are made in much the same way they have always been. TIG welding has taken the place of brazing, but the copper sheets are still worked by hand and the factory, a symphony of hammer on metal, requires skills lost elsewhere to heat, beat and shape copper sheets into any geometry of pot or column that a craft distiller could want.

Cachaça stills are the most common type the factory produces and usually consist of a pot still with a column containing bubble plates and a dephlegmator directly above and fired by steam jacket or directly by an open fire below. Recently, the demand for whiskey, gin and universal distillation sets has increased and Santa Efigenia is proud to have built the still that produced Brazil’s first single malt, called 3 Lobos, and has recently built gin-making equipment for distilling giant Pernod Ricard. In 2019 Alambiques Santa Efigenia began a partnership with Vitikit Ltd. from the UK, making all of their distillation systems and knowledge available to craft distillers in Europe and the USA.

Santa Efigenia also runs, in partnership with the Federal University’s Biotechnology Department, a research and education center where they can test new systems, educate new distillers and run courses in cachaça and, more recently, in gin production. The center also offers courses in gin recipe development.

Cachaça has many idiosyncrasies, from the high-labor input that Brazil’s economic structure can tolerate to the availability of pure cane juice as a raw material, but there are lots of areas where American craft distillers can draw inspiration and perhaps even some education.

A handful of states in the US, including Hawaii and southern states such as Florida, Louisiana and Texas can and do produce sugarcane — more than 30 million tons were harvested in 2017 — and if some of this crop can be diverted to craft distillers, exciting things will happen. For the northerly states, fresh cane juice does not travel well, and any attempt to use heat to stabilize it will drive off volatile flavor components. But even processed cane juice presents some opportunities. At Ribeiro Da Silva, Belmiro also produces an unrefined sugar by slowly evaporating the water from the cane juice. He claims:

This sugar lacks the natural green aromas of fresh juice, but so long as we are careful not to burn the sugar, it also lacks the heavy, cooked notes of molasses, so once rehydrated and fermented, it makes an interesting distillate. Even if not directly comparable to cachaça.

The wild ferment is also significant. It’s well known that whiskey distillers have a renewed interest in yeast selection as a technique to manipulate esters and other volatile flavor molecules, meaning the organisms responsible for the sugarcane ferment must also contribute to final flavor. The spontaneous fermentation of cane juice isn’t exactly precise and will be the product of many species of yeast and bacteria, but as with a lambic beer, the inconsistencies can be intriguing.

Brazilian hardwood barrels are rare, even in Brazil, but if craft brewers are beginning to make use of them, it’s only a matter of time before they make their way into the cellars of craft distillers, too. Hardwoods usually dominate the more subtle flavors of distillation, so these hardwoods will likely be what make the craft distilling world take notice of Brazilian cachaça.

The Brazilian craft distilling scene is ancient, shrouded with romanticism and enriched by a tropical terroir. With their insatiable appetite for discovery, it is only a matter of time before US craft distillers take an interest in cachaça. The only question is who will be first.