What Is Cachaça? Get to Know the Spirit Behind Rio's Caipirinhas

In the mood for a new cocktail? Mix one with Brazil's national spirit.

A caipirinha, made with a sugarcane liquor called cachaca
Photo: Getty Images

If you’re dreaming of a trip to Brazil's Copacabana Beach, start right here at home by mixing a cocktail with cachaça, the South American country's national spirit. 

Cachaça (pronounced 'kah-SHA-sah') shows up in spicy-sweet sips all over the world, but it's best-known as the main ingredient in a Caipirinha cocktail. A traditional Caipirinha ('kai-peer-EEN-yah') is Brazilian cocktail made with muddled lime and sugar, ice cubes, and cachaça and served in an old-fashioned glass with a lime garnish.

Hand holding glass of caipirinha on the beach. Paraty, RJ, Brazil - stock photo

Priscila Zambotto/Getty Images

There are also other ways to try the spirit, like a Batida Rosa, which includes soda, pineapple juice, lemon juice, and grenadine, according to Difford's Guide for Discerning Drinkers, just one of 20 cachaça-based cocktails they suggest. 

Chef Ed Verner of Boxer, Auckland's drinks-focused experiential bar, uses cachaça in a spritz-type cocktail with chardonnay, club soda, tartaric acid, and eucalyptus smoke. 

"As someone who uses a lot of indigenous plants in my cocktails to show off the flavors of New Zealand and its terroir, I really appreciate that cachaça is one of the rare spirits in the world that gets to change and mature in wood from its own country,” he told Travel + Leisure.

Made from fresh sugarcane juice which is fermented and distilled, cachaça gets its aroma and flavor from the Brazilian woods it’s stored in. For example, amburana barrels reduce acidity and impart suggestions of cinnamon and vanilla. There’s also premium cachaça (aged for at least one year) and extra premium (aged at least three years). 

Barrels of Brazilian Cachaça. Paraty, Rio de janeiro, Brazil

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And, no, it’s not rum, even if it was referred to as "Brazilian rum" until 2013 when a formal agreement between the U.S. and Brazilian governments established that it must be called "cachaça." (Actually, Cachaça dates back to the 1500s, at least 100 years before rum arrived on the scene.) The main difference between the two spirits is that rum is traditionally made from molasses, while cachaça is made from fresh-pressed sugarcane juice — sugarcane has an earthier taste, while molasses gives rum its thick, licorice flavor. 

There’s also a difference in where they’re made and their alcohol by volume. By law, cachaça must be produced in Brazil and contain alcohol of 38 to 48 percent by volume, while rum can be made anywhere and is distilled to a much higher ABV.  

Cachaça has been called spicy, sweet, fruity, vegetal, and even funky. The award-winning Cachaça Alambique Brasil Ouro Amburana was given the following description in the International Wine and Spirits Competition: "The nose offers all manner of green, grassy, and floral notes. The palate is all Christmas cake and pumpkin spice which carries through to the finish."  

If you do make it to Brazil, take a seat in the dark, wooded interior of Oro. The two-Michelin starred restaurant has multiple cachaças on its menu. Or, try one of the multiple “Pool Caipirinhas” at the Copacabana Palace, a Belmond Hotel’s pool bar. The Caipirinha de las Flores is made with silver cachaça, orange cordial, lemons, and flowers.

Need an excuse to add it to your bar cart, or find it on a local cocktail menu? Mark your calendar for September 13. Dia Nacional da Cachaça (National Cachaca Day) commemorates a successful revolt against a Prohibition of sorts that forced the King of Portugal to legalize cachaça in 1661. Try making your own "Perfect Caipirinha," for the occasion and raise a glass to your new favorite drink.  

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