Cachaça seems to bring up strong feelings among rum drinkers – is this traditional Brazilian spirit a rum or not?
In my reading, I have seen rum drinkers passionately argue mutually incompatible claims.
- Cachaça is by definition a form of rum
- Cachaça is by definition not a rum; rather, it is a spirit parallel to rum (perhaps like whiskey or mezcal)
- Cachaça is the umbrellla term, and rum is one form of Cachaça
We’d like turn to agreed upon regulations for rum – but each country has it’s own independent rules; each allows different amounts of additives and sugars to be added. The best we can do is consider the generally agreed upon definitions for rum which seem to be accepted by most nations, and which are promoted by most distilleries. A quick summary of those
- Must be made from molasses or fresh sugarcane juice (garapa)
- fermented with yeast
- aging in wood is optional
- have “the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to rum” and bottled at not less than 40% ABV.
And indeed, Cachaça fits all of these just as well as the rums of any other nation. If it precisely fits the definition of rum, then why do some claim that it isn’t rum? The argument seems to be that it developed in Brazil first, and then spread elsewhere. Thus, as the original form, it is different from later rums. However there are several problems with this line of thinking;
- It wasn’t invented in its modern form. The Portuguese distilled sugarcane juice in the Madeira islands, off of Africa. Later, a fermented version of this became popular in Portuguese farms in Brazil.
- Over the next 300 years, Brazilians experimented with different ways to produce spirits, and the Cachaça industry long ago developed modern distillation and production techniques, like other rum producing nations.
- Where a spirit was invented has nothing to do with what a spirit is. Whiskey was invented in the British Isles, but would anyone claim that therefore what Americans produce isn’t whiskey?
So Cachaça is rum just as much as the sugarcane distilled spirit of any other nation. Why then does it have a different name? Many products have a geographical indicator, or GI. The French name for geographical indicators is Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, AOC. Other countries have their own legally protected names for products. Examples include
- America: bourbon whiskey, a type of corn whiskey aged in new oak barrels.
- France: Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, Champagne, Roquefort cheese, and many others.
- Martinique (French) AOC for rhums made on the island of Martinique
- Brazil: Cachaça
A geographical indicator doesn’t change what something is (bourbon is whiskey; Cachaça is rum; Cognac is brandy.) Rather
it’s to protect those producers from outside interlopers making an inferior product and passing it off as something that cannot compare to the original. Would you feel duped by a Canadian-made rum labeled as Jamaican rum? Or Brazilian-made “bourbon”? The AOC and GIs are the government-enforced regulations that prevent such travesties from hitting the store shelves and the wallets of unsuspecting consumers.
- M. Pietrek, The French Connection – A Cheat Sheet for French Caribbean Rhums and the AOC
This is a perspective from The West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association Inc. (WIRSPA)
There are also spirits which, though rum by definition, are described as sugar cane spirits or by other synonyms. For example, ‘cachaça’ the national spirit of Brazil, is distilled from fermented sugar cane juice and you’ll discover a number of ‘aguardiente de cañas’ produced locally across South America. However, if the product is fermented from sugar cane juice, syrup or molasses and distilled below 96% alcohol it is rum, pure and simple.
Here’s a great article Main Differences Between Artisanal and Industrial Cachaça
How is cachaça fermented?
Luiz Basso and Carlos Rosa write
In traditional cachaça (“alembic cachaça”), the fermentation process is spontaneous, and involves exclusively the indigenous microbiota present in the must and equipment. It has already been demonstrated that in such systems there occurs a succession of yeasts, with the prevalence of Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains. The freshly cut sugar cane juice is fermented in a simple, open vat sometimes after adjusting the sugar concentration and with the addition of small amounts of crushed corn as used in most of the traditional distilleries.
Natural microbial starter cultures can be prepared with sugar-cane juice, rice, maize flour and lemon (to reduce pH) to favour growth of indigenous S. cerevisiae strains. Fresh addition of sugar cane juice occurs each day for five to seven days. This starter culture is used to inoculate the main vat that is typically less than 1,000 litres, and the single batch fermentation is often complete in 24 hours. The starter culture, in general, corresponds to 25% of the vat’s total volume. At the end of the fermentation, the yeasts
sediment and the fermented liquor is transferred to a copper alembic for distillation. The vat is left with around of 25% of the liquor and contains most of the yeasts.
The process is repeated by slowly refilling the vat with fresh juice. The microbial populations not only affect ethanol yield and other physiological parameters of fermentation but also the flavour of cachaça. It is suspected that the frequent contamination with Lactobacillus could contribute to the aroma of cachaça, as has been
There is an effort to improve the sensory quality of cachaça, not only selecting proper yeast strains but also evaluating several Brazilian wood casks as substitutes for oak barrels for ageing. After a single distillation, Brazilian cachaça already has a sensory quality that is acceptable for drinking, which may explain why the ageing of cachaça is not a common practice in Brazil. However, this process certainly leads to a significant improvement of cachaça flavour
Sugar Cane for Potable and Fuel Ethanol, Luiz Basso and Carlos Rosa, Distilled Spirits, Volume 3: New Horizons: Energy, Environment and Enlightenment, Eds. P.S. Hughes, G.M. Walker