The gastronomic history of cachaça, Brazil's national distilled drink, in many ways resembles that of Italy's grappa. Both were originally made from the left-over scraps of the production of another product - in the case of grappa, it was made from the left over seeds, stems and skins of wine production, in in the case of cachaça, it was a by-product of the production of sugar from sugar cane. Both products were, at least in their original incarnations, cheap and relatively nasty. They were harsh, strongly alcoholic, and were considered the drink of the laboring classes. Aristocratic 19th-century Italians wouldn't even think of drinking grappa and the colonels who ran Brazilian sugar plantations like miniature dukedoms preferred a glass of imported Port after dinner to a shot of cachaça.
In recent years, though, both drinks have undergone a Hans Christian Anderson change from ugly duckling to majestic swan. As part of the world-wide trend to appreciating local and traditional products, and valorizing artisanal production, distillers in Italy and Brazil have dramatically improved the quality of the product they make, have begun to employ skillful marketing techniques to inform and educate the public about their liquors, and have successfully increased both the price they are able to charge for their product and the size of their markets enormously. In both cases, there have been dramatic increases in the export market for their products, a market that simply didn't exist in earlier days. Today high-end, artisanally-produced Italian grappas in elegant ultra-modern crystal bottles sell for hundreds of euros and are appreciated by connaisseurs around the world. Brazilian cachaça is undergoing a similar metamorphosis and every year there are better, more interesting and more expensive cachaças entering the market.
Recently, in a seminar at one of the world's largest and most prestigious food congresses, Semana Mesa SP, held in São Paulo, Leandro Batista, barman at São Paulo's well-known Mocotó restaurant, introduced the audience to some artisanal Brazilian cachaças that he thought worthy of respect as high-quality, truly local distillations. They were his choices for cachaças to be sipped after dinner, as one might do with a fine Armagnac or Eau de Vie. These are not the cachaça one would use to make a caipirinha. They are to be savored and contemplated carefully to fully appreciate their unique qualities.
Here is Sr. Batista's list:
Mato Dentro Cachaça - São Luíz de Paraitinga, São Paulo
Aged for six months in amendoim (Peltophorum dubium) wood
Serra Limpa Organic Cachaça - Duas Estradas, Paraíba
Aged for six months in Ecuador laurel (Cordia alliodora) wood
Weber Haus Cachaça - Ivoti, Rio Grande do Sul
Aged for one year in amburana (Amburana cearensis) wood
Canarinha Cachaça - Salinas, Minas Gerais
Aged for three years in cabriúva-do-campo (Myrocarpus fastigiatus) wood
Germana Heritage Cachaça - Nova União, Minas Gerais
Aged for eight years in oak, followed by two more in cabriúva-do-campo (Myrocarpus fastigiatus) wood
Dona Beja Cachaça - Araxá, Minas Gerais
Aged for eight years in oak
None of these cachaças are cheap - they are not the USD $3.00/quart cachaça that you find in your local supermarket. Some are very limited in production and hence in availability. Exports for most of these producers are something to consider in the future after the national market has been developed. But they are names to remember if you're in a good, high-quality bar or restaurant in Brazil. Talk to the barman or sommelier, they might just have one or two available. And you might just have a big surprise when you find out just how good they are.