Cachaça can be considered as the first distillate in Latin America (Photo: Getty Images)
Marvada, poison, branquinha, water that the bird does not drink… There are several nicknames given to liquor that try to express the unique flavor and the burning sensation that goes down the throat of this one of the drinks that most represent Brazil. Due to its cultural and historical importance, which blends with the country’s development, the distillate gained a commemorative date of its own, the National Cachaça Day, celebrated all September 13th.
And it’s not by chance: on that same date in 1661 there was an episode known as “Revolta da Cachaça”, a popular uprising against the Portuguese colony that led to the legalization of the drink – until then prohibited from being sold here. In 2009, during the Expocachaça fair in Belo Horizonte, the Instituto Brasileiro da Cachaça (Ibrac) decided to celebrate the date as the National Day of Cachaça, which lasts until today. One of the most important symbols of Brazilian gastronomy and people, its history in the national territory began much earlier, referring to the beginnings of colonization.
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According to Ibrac, the most accepted theory of its emergence says that the Portuguese improvised a distilled drink from sugarcane juice derivatives, which produced the same pleasurable effect as the bagaceira, distilled from grape skin.
The place where the first distillation of the drink took place is not known for sure, but it can be said that it took place in some sugar mill in the coast of Brazil between the years 1516 and 1532. Cachaça can thus be considered as the first distillate in Latin America, even before the appearance of Pisco, Tequila and Rum – renowned beverages from Peru, Mexico and Cuba, respectively.
Once an important item for low-income workers, the drink was initially known as “pinga” before becoming better known as cachaça. Now, it is the key ingredient of caipirinhas, being sold abroad for prices comparable to those of whiskey.
According to the Yearbook of Cachaça 2021, which reflects data from the previous year, cachaça producers totaled 955 establishments registered with the Ministry of Agriculture, an increase of 6.8% compared to 2019.
The production of “marvada” is mainly concentrated in the Southeast, with Minas Gerais, São Paulo, Holy Spirit, Rio de Janeiro and Santa Catarina among the five largest states producing the drink nationwide. Regarding the brands of the drink, in 2020 there were 4,743 of them spread across the country, in which 586 municipalities have records of producing establishments – which represents 10.5% of the total number of cities in Brazil.
Silver x Gold Cachaça
With such a production, do you know why some cachaças are more “white” and others more yellowish? The difference is in aging. Large-scale industrial production immediately bottles the beverage after its distillation, giving rise to the “white” or “silver” version, which tends to be cheaper. In copper stills or wooden barrels, the drink is left to age or rest, in which, over time, it often ends up acquiring a yellowish or gold color, in which the process takes longer.
According to Ibrac, there are a number of woods used in the country that enhance the flavors of cachaça, such as Amburana, Jequitibá, Peanut, Balsam, Ipê, Freijó, Eucalyptus, Castanheira, in addition to the well-known oak. “The tradition of Brazilian wood originates fundamentally in the north of Minas Gerais, a time when cachaça producers began to seek independence from the Portuguese Crown, because oak barrels could only be obtained with them. Since then, Balsam and Amburana are the two most used woods for aging after oak”, he says Paulo Sagarana, former owner of the São Paulo bars Sagarana and Van der Ale, one of the greatest connoisseurs of the drink in the country.
According to the enthusiast, the Balsam brings herbal notes, of anise and fennel, while the Amburana gives a flavor of spices such as vanilla, clove and cinnamon.
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Although the first “white girls” were broadcast in Pernambuco and other large sugarcane producers, it was in Minas Gerais that the distillate gained strength and unique characteristics. Currently, the state is the largest producer of cachaça in stills in the country – handcrafted, made on a smaller scale but with better quality – with 200 million liters per year, accounting for half of the national production, according to data from the State Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock and Mine Supply (Seapa).
Thus, production is also the livelihood of many people: the activity in the state generates more than 100,000 direct jobs and around 300,000 indirect ones. The 2021 Cachaça Yearbook points out that Minas is ahead and has 397 registrations of establishments producing cachaça – the state also comes out ahead in the number of registrations of brands (1908) and products (1,402).
But why did Minas cachaça become so famous? The tradition that crosses generations, the terroir Minas Gerais – the closest relationship between the soil and the local microclimate – and production in copper stills may be some of the explanations, as indicated by Gilson de Assis Sales, superintendent of supply and cooperativism at Seapa.
National Capital of Cachaça
With such tradition and production, it is to be expected that the municipality with the highest concentration of cachaça producers is Minas Gerais. salines, in the north of the state, is the city with the most producers in the country: there are 23 in all, which also add up to 166 brands of the drink.
Located 600 km from Belo Horizonte, the municipality has just over 42 thousand inhabitants and the production of the distillate corresponds to one of its most important economic activities.
Not by chance, it got the nickname of National Capital of Cachaça in 2018 through a federal law. Years earlier, in 2012, the Cachaça Museum to celebrate the tradition of the spirit in the region. The Cachaça Festival also takes place periodically and moves both the cachaceiro market and regional tourism.