A Caipirinha is one of the many ways to enjoy cachaça, photo by Ricky Montalvo via Flickr

A Caipirinha is one of the many ways to enjoy cachaça, photo by Ricky Montalvo via Flickr

As the 2016 Rio Olympics kick off, and you’re inundated with medal counts, talk of Zika outbreaks and polluted bacterial water, take some time to hone in on what really matters — cachaça, of course. The spirit is finally gaining traction here in the U.S. and other countries and this summer is the perfect time to take your cachaça knowledge up a few pegs.

So, what is cachaça? Is it rum, or not? The answer is… kind of. Thrilling right? The TTB recognizes cachaça as a specific type of cane spirit — a 2013 agreement recognized cachaça as a distinctive product from Brazil and in return, Brazil recognized bourbon and Tennessee whiskey as distinctive from the U.S.

However, more accurately than saying it’s a type of rum, cachaça is a spirit distilled from fermented sugarcane juice, made in Brazil, and bottled at between 38 and 48% ABV. In fact, at 500 years old, cachaça as a standalone spirit has a huge, lengthy history. “It’s considered to be older than rum,” says Dragos Axinte, CEO of Novo Fogo cachaça. So cool it on the “Brazilian rum” talk, got it?

Still, with half a millennia of history in Brazil, it’s much newer here. “As a young category, it’s had a tough road,” laments Axinte. Yet, it’s having its moment now, and growing at a nearly 30% year on year rate in the U.S.

Increased international interest combined with changing tastes at home have also led to improvements in the quality of cachaças being made. “There’s been quite an evolution in the last 20 years, even in Brazil,” says Axinte. The industrial, factory-style producers are losing ground to those who put more emphasis on carefully crafting smaller batches with particular flavors and qualities.

That’s not to say that only old-school or traditional techniques are being used, but rather that producers today are combining the best of those hand-crafted traditions with today’s superior methodology. “The cachaça might not be that good,” Axinte admits of one local cachaça producer, a 90 year old man who makes cachaça in a shack of building with no electricity, “but it’s awfully romantic… it’s a magical place to be.”

courtesy Novo Fogo cachaça

courtesy Novo Fogo cachaça

Therefore, what Axinte’s Novo Fogo and other brands are striving for is to bridge that gap between cachaça’s heritage and history, and today’s modern tastes. It’s time to tell that romantic story, and to build upon that base which includes 5,000 predominately small, local farm producers, rather than blowing past it with big industry that pays no respect to the spirit’s roots or traditions.

Let’s Taste Some Cachaça

Thanks to Brazil’s ubiquitous obsession with the stuff, cachaça is touted as the world’s 3rd largest spirits category based upon consumption. As more brands continue to become available here, the full breadth of the category is taking shape, and it holds some truly exciting spirits.

One of the most intriguing elements of cachaça is the range of woods that can be used for its aging. While silver cachaça can be rested in nonreactive stainless steel, the stuff that is aged — classified as spending at least one year in wood — can enter just about any type of wood that you can dream up.

Thanks to the diverse spectrum of indigenous Brazilian hardwoods available, the resulting range of flavors is entirely unique to the world of cachaça. It all paints over the funky, earthy, vegetal un-aged cachaça profile, which may also showcase notes of sugarcane, citrus, black pepper, grass, and tropical fruits, dependent on producer.

courtesy Avuá cachaça

courtesy Avuá cachaça

As one example, look at the Avuá cachaça lineup. They offer Prata, a silver cachaça rested for six months, an Oak bottling, aged for up to two years in French oak, and Amburana, aged in South American Amburana wood for up two years. The result is incredibly distinctive and fun, savory and spicy with cloves, nutmeg, and a very specific aroma of powdered cinnamon over buttered toast. A forthcoming release from Avuá will be their Tapinhoa, aged for up to two years in Brazilian Tapinhoa wood.

Leblon cachaça is aged in French Limousin oak, which in a previous life was put to use aging Cognac. Their Reserva Especial is aged for up to two years, while their main bottling is aged for under six months in the same oak.

Yaguara cachaça‘s Ouro makes use of both Cabreuva and Amburana woods, along with American oak. The bottling consists largely of cachaça aged for one year in the Cabreuva followed by one year in American oak, and is then blended with cachaça aged separately for one year in the Amburana. The resulting flavor profile offers hints of cinnamon, chocolate, cocoa powder, and coffee.

Also in the Yaguara family is the self-titled Yaguara cachaça, rested for eight months in stainless steel and blended with a dash of cachaça aged for between five and six years in European oak, and the Yaguara blanca, consisting entirely of un-aged cachaça.

courtesy Yaguara cachaça

courtesy Yaguara cachaça

As for Novo Fogo, their product lineup showcases a cachaça color rainbow. They have a rested Silver release, the straw-colored Chameleon, aged for one year in American oak and its older sibling, the honey-colored Barrel-Aged, which spends two years in American oak.

Then there’s Novo Fogo Graciosa, golden-amber after being finished in Para, or Brazil Nut wood, showcasing baking spices, pecans, peanuts and cherries, and Novo Fogo Tanager, pink-hued after being finished for just three months in Zebrawood. They also have a huge collection of single barrel releases, graduating to darker shades of brown and aged for up to nine years.

Still more types of wood put to use for aging cachaça include Araúva, Balm, and Jequitibá, among others, and as a self-professed spirits geek, as well a a Professor of Alcohol, it’s wonderfully exciting to explore these different woods and the unique cachaças they’re able to offer up.

By all means, turn on the television, cheer for your favorite Olympian — if you’re asking, and I’m sure you are, my chosen rooting interests include Mikaela Mayer of the USA women’s boxing team, and as a resident of Bethesda, Maryland, Katie Ledecky — and mix up a caipirinha. But don’t stop there. Try it in place of rum or tequila in a different cocktail. Sip it neat. Compare rested, silver cachaça with the huge range of barrel-aged renditions. Drink it anyway you please — just don’t call it “Brazilian rum.”