What actually is cachaça?
As with many of our spirits from Latin America, Cachaça is not one of the formal spirits categories under the “Spirits Regulation” (EU 2019/787). Unlike, for example, pisco (from Chile or Peru), the term cachaça is not even recognized as a protected designation of origin.
Should the negotiations on the free trade agreement between the European Union and the South American internal market Mercosur, which have been going on for more than 20 years, come to a successful conclusion at some point, it can be expected that the EU will only be able to name the cachaça, which in Brazil may mean cachaça . So let's just focus on how cachaça is defined in Brazil, because that's where it comes from, after all.
In Brazil, the Instrução Normativa Nº 13, de 29 de Junho de 2005 currently regulates all the details of the production and marketing of cachaça, even if with the Portaria N° 339, de 28 de Junho de 2021, a fairly comprehensive new edition is already in the national voting process . Since it contains some useful clarifications and also suggests relevant changes, let's take a look at them right away.
Cachaça is therefore a Brazilian distillate made from fermented sugar cane juice with special sensory properties and an alcohol strength between 38 and 48% vol.
But before we go into further details, it makes sense to look back in history to understand the drink's origins.
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Origin and history
The history of cachaça is inextricably linked to European sugar needs and the Portuguese colonization of modern-day Brazil. At the end of the 15th century, sugar was a valuable commodity in Europe because it was not yet known how it could be extracted from the local sugar beet and therefore had to be imported from the Orient or India at great expense. Only on Madeira in the 15th century was there significant Portuguese sugar cane production.
European colonization of the American continent in the 16th century
Just eight years after Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the Americas in 1492, Portuguese conquerors landed in what is now Brazil and founded numerous colonies. They quickly realized that the climate would be perfect for growing sugar cane and so within a few years the center of Portuguese sugar production was relocated from Madeira to Brazil. The first written evidence of a sugar cane plantation in present-day Brazil dates back to 1504, and the first large sugar factory is said to have been founded in 1516.
Slave labor, “Cagaça” and first distillation
After unsuccessful attempts by Portuguese conquerors to force the indigenous people to work on sugar cane plantations, an unprecedented transport of slaves from Africa to forced labor on the plantations began. A total of around 12 million slaves were deported from the "Portuguese Gold Coast", i.e. today's Angola and Congo, to today's Brazil by 1853.
While the plantation operators imported wine products from their European homeland for their own consumption, the slaves got to drink fermented by-products of sugar production. The foam that formed on the fermenting sugar cane was called “cagaça” and is a likely origin of the distillate's name as it is known today, although it has gone by hundreds of different names and nicknames over the centuries. The first alambiques (stills) were also very quickly brought from Madeira to the "New World" and depending on the source, the first distillation of a sugar cane product in today's Brazil is said to have taken place as early as 1516, but no later than 1532.
Since the distilled "aguardente de cana" (liquor made from sugar cane) could be used as a means of exchange or payment in the slave trade, production was ramped up enormously and in 1585 there are said to have been around 200 sugar cane distilleries on site, which were the by-products of sugar production (mainly molasses) distilled from the sugar mills.
Gold rush in the 17th century and first cask storage
With the discovery of gold deposits in Minas Gerais at the beginning of the 17th century, the sugar cane distillate experienced its first boom locally, as it was drunk in large quantities by the miners. The side effect of this development, which continues to this day, was the need to transport the distillate from the distilleries on the coast to the mines inland. Because, like everywhere else in the world, wooden barrels were used for this - but unlike everywhere else in the world, numerous different tropical trees grow in Brazil, their wood.