Many Americans are unaware of cachaça even though it is the most popular distilled spirit in Brazil. An astonishing 175 million cases are produced each year, but most of it is consumed within the country; while no more than 10% is exported, the better versions are starting to turn up regularly in our bars and restaurants.
In this country, most of us who are familiar with cachaça have been introduced to it via the caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil. It is essentially a mojito without the mint leaves: You muddle several teaspoons of sugar with half a lime, add crushed ice, and pour in the cachaça. There are endless variations with fresh fruit, and your favorite fruit (or anything that’s handy) can be added for additional flavor. Traditionally the cheapest available cachaça was used in a caipirinha, but the practice is changing due to the trend toward more sophisticated palates and better-quality spirits.
Premium cachaça really arrived in the United States with Leblon, a brand created in Brazil in 2005. The spirit is crafted by master distiller Gilles Merlet, and production hits all the quality criteria: hand-selected sugar cane, immediate pressing, long fermentation, pot-still distillation, triple filtration, and maturation in Cognac XO casks prior to final blending. Leblon can now be found in chain restaurants, upscale steak houses and cruise lines, and is spearheading the growth of cachaça in this country.
The nose of Leblon ($30) is clean, fragrant and floral, with overtones of citrus and hints of sweetness. In the mouth, the sweetness is nicely balanced with touches of pepper, and notes of candied citrus emerge in the mid palate and continue on the finish. This has more than enough character to sip on its own, or to drink with ice or a splash of water or soda. My instinct is that it would make a very intriguing Martini.
Leblon has recently launched a liqueur called Cedilla, made by combining their cachaça with a maceration of hand-picked Brazilian açai berries. The nose has a pleasant fruit punch quality, highlighted by aromas of black raspberry. The sweetness is prominent on entry (the sugar content isn’t listed, but being a liqueur we can assume it’s at least 12%), and gives way in the middle to mouthwatering flavors of crushed red berries and touches of baking spices. The finish is long, sweet and herbal. The website, lebloncachaca.com, recommends substituting this for cassis or Chambord (in a Kir Royale), or for sweet vermouth (in a Negroni), and also lists a number of interesting cocktails.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to iconicspirits.net.