A wave of artisan cachaca hits local bars
Camper English, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, October 5, 2007
Nipping at the mojito's heels, the caipirinha is poised to become the next Latin cocktail of the moment.
With just three ingredients - a muddled half of lime, sugar and cachaca (kah-SHAH-sah), a Brazilian spirit - a caipirinha is easy enough to make. If a bar or restaurant has a muddler, there is a fair chance the bartender can make a caipirinha.
With so few ingredients in the drink, the choice of cachaca will have a large impact on its flavor, but until recently bartenders had to work with the very few mass-produced, rough-tasting brands that were available in the United States.
In Brazil, however, there are an estimated 30,000 small-scale cachaca producers and 5,000 brands on the market. Cachaca is the third-most distilled liquor in the world, and because of the caipirinha's popularity, more of it is hitting stateside shelvesCachaca is commonly called Brazilian rum, but it is distilled from fermented sugarcane juice instead of the molasses used in most rums from other countries. The majority of cachaca is unaged (whereas most rums are aged), giving it a lighter and often more vegetal flavor with a strong sugarcane taste.
Like other liquors, cachaca can be either column distilled, an industrial technique that usually results in a cleaner, though less flavorful end product, or pot distilled, a smaller-batch method that retains more character of the raw ingredient, but also impurities. Most of the commonly available Brazilian brands like Cachaca 51 (also called Pirassununga) and Pitú are column distilled and bottled without aging.
Other brands of cachaca are aged in oak or native Brazilian wood barrels, and are generally considered "sipping cachacas," enjoyed without mixer. The brand Ypióca, also fairly available in the Bay Area, produces several cachacas aged one to two years in balsam or freijó barrels. Wood aging softens the mouthfeel of spirits and adds vanilla, caramel and other flavors. When the wood is not the usual oak used in wine and the majority of spirits, refreshingly new flavor notes can be found in the final products.
In recent months, three smaller brands of aged imported cachacas have become available: Armazem Vieira, GRM and Rochinha. These products range from 2 to 16 years of aging in woods with names like arririba, umburana, and jequitiba rosa. Some of these brands are available at the liquor store John Walker & Sons, and at the bar Cantina in San Francisco and the restaurant A Cote in Oakland. These boutique products come with a matching price, though. The GRM (my favorite of the bunch) sells for more than $60 per 750 ml bottle.
These three brands are imported by Olie Berlic, a former sommelier from New York who discovered them in Brazil while preparing to launch his own brand of cachaca, Beleza Pura. Berlic says, "I was looking for a high-end, unaged cachaca. The caipirinha calls for unaged, un-wooded cachaca, so that you don't have the wood flavors competing with the fresh lime citrus flavors." Beleza Pura is meant for the caipirinha, whereas his imports can be sipped neat.
The Fazenda Mae de Ouro brand is pot distilled from sugarcane not burned before harvesting (the brand manager said this can impart smoky flavor into the final product), and aged for one year in oak. Though aged, the product makes a fine caipirinha.
Many new high-end brands were developed specifically for the American market and palate. These companies advertise their cachacas as possible substitutions for vodka, rum or tequila in cocktails consumers already know. To make them adaptable to multiple drinks, they distill the products multiple times and/or highly filter the products to remove flavor.
Agua Luca is distilled from fermented sugarcane juice "within 24 hours of harvesting," then the final spirit is filtered 12 times for a flavor profile that's closer to vodka in flavor and structure than most cachacas.
Leblon is the most visible and available premium cachaca in the city. It is unique in that it is aged for a few months in used Cognac barrels both in Brazil and in France. Because of this, other brands' representatives question Leblon's authenticity as a true cachaca but newcomers may prefer its softer texture to the rough industrial brands.
Despite all the new brands on the market, even most Brazilian establishments here don't carry more than a few bottles of cachaca. San Francisco restaurants Canto do Brasil and Espetus stock three, and Destino carries four brands.
There are a few go-to venues for cachaca variety though. The restaurant Bossa Nova in San Francisco offers nine brands of cachaca, and Oakland's A Cote carries "9 or 10" cachacas. The Union Square Latin bar, Cantina, likely has the largest selection in San Francisco with nearly 20 brands, almost all of them high-end, and more than half meant for sipping rather than mixing.
As it's rare to find this many brands even on liquor store shelves, these venues may be the best places in the Bay Area to learn about cachaca, with bartenders who can lead tastings of their preferred products. Barring that, you can always fly to Brazil and research the other 4,990 brands.
Where to drink cachaca
A Cote, 5478 College Ave. (near Taft), Oakland; (510) 655-6469, acoterestaurant.com
Bossa Nova, 139 Eighth St. (near Minna), San Francisco; (415) 558-8004, bossanovasf.com
Cantina, 580 Sutter St. (near Mason), San Francisco; (415) 398-0195, cantinasf.com
Canto do Brasil, 41 Franklin St. (near Oak), San Francisco; (415) 626-8727
Destino, 1815 Market St. (near Guerrero), San Francisco; (415) 552-4451, destinosf.com
Espetus, 1686 Market St. (at Gough), San Francisco; (415) 552-8792, espetus.com
Camper English is a freelance cocktails and spirits writer and publisher of Alcademics.com.