6 Cachaça's - 6 different wood maturations!
The art of maturing cachaça apparently goes well back to the 17th century. Sugar production was going through rough times with the center of gravity shifting from Brazil to the Caribbean. But at the same time, the state of Minas Gerais became the epicenter of gold mining and an enormous relocation or migration to Minas Gerais started. The story goes that during that time lots of branquinha or white unaged cachaça was stored in casks to be able to transport the cachaça to the mining region in Minas. During the voyage, the cachaça would take both color as well as flavor from the wood, letting the Brazilians discover the advantages of wood maturation. And, as the story continuous, this is still the reason why ‘lowland’ cachaça from the region around Paraty, Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo often is unaged, while the cachaça distilled in Minas Gerais is more often aged in wooden casks.
One of the main factors distinguishing cachaça from rum – and from all other distilled beverages for that matter – lies in the maturation of the product. As it goes for rum, whisky, cognac,…an important part of the matured cachaça receives its maturation in oak casks. But Brazilian legislation allows cachaça to be matured in a variety of quintessentially Brazilian types of wood too. Types of wood that all will influence color, flavor and taste of the cachaça in their own particular way.
In our first taste box you will find:
1. Sapucaia Florida Cristal - amendoim wood - 40.5% alc
The Sapucaia Distillery was founded in 1933 in Pindamonhangaba, a small city in the valley of the river Paraíba, situated between Brazil’s two most important cities: São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Local entrepreneur Cicero Prado started the cultivation of sugarcane with one purpose only: making the very best cachaça of Brazil, a worthy ambassador of the nation’s pride. For his brand and distillery he chose the name of both his estate and a mighty local tree species: Sapucaia.
It didn’t take long before Sapucaia made good name and fame in the São Paulo area and other parts of the country. It helped a lot that one of Brazil’s most famous actors and filmmakers, Amácio Mazzaropi (1912 - 1981), selected the Sapucaia fazenda as a location to shoot what has become one of Brazil’s most iconic movies ever: the popular story of Jeca Tatu, about a typical Brazilian country boy or caipira.
Through the course of time Sapucaia invested in better pot stills and quality oak casks, and the brand started to gain prestige and won some prestigious awards. Both the Sapucaia Velha (five year old, matured on oak casks) as well as the Sapucaia Reserva da Familia (ten year old, oak) made it to the South-American Playboy Top 20 of best cachaças, with the Reserva also making it to the top-50 of the Cúpula da Cachaça ranking.
In 2015 Sapucaia left Pindamonhangaba, and moved the distillery to Pirassununga (São Paulo): home of the biggest cachaça producer there is – ‘51’. But the contrast between the two distilleries can’t be bigger. The 50.000 liter produced by Sapucaia is a mere drop in the ocean, compared to the almost 300 million liter that comes out of the many stills at ‘51’. The big ‘51’ isn’t open for visitors by the way, but if you ever want to visit Sapucaia, owner and distiller Alexandre Bertin will guarantee you a warm welcome!
The distillery is situated outside of the city center (the city of Pirassununga is one of the most pleasant cities in Brazil, in my personal opinion!) amidst the sugarcane plantations. The juice is fermented for a maximum of 24 hours with proper local yeasts only, and distillation takes place in five small (600 liter) copper-with-stainless-steel stills, heated both by steam and through direct heating with wood and/or the bagaço.
To mature the cachaça, Sapucaia uses American oak (250-300 liter casks), jequitiba rosa and amendoím (a stunning 100.000 liter tun!).
Amendoím or Pterogyne Nitens Tul is a type of tree found in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. Its excellent quality for timber is one of the main reasons this tree slowly but surely becomes an endangered species. The chopping of the amendoím tree these days is strictly regulated.
The very subtle aromas of the amendoím wood are hardly perceptible in the cachaça, and it also leaves the color of the spirit unaltered. So why use this type of wood to mature or rest the spirit? Well, amendoím also reduces the acidity and the alcohol level. It kind of stabilizes the cachaça and makes it softer, letting the typical flavors and aromas of the sugarcane play the first violin. For many a cachaça lover, amendoím is THE wood to mature cachaça. Because it doesn’t alter much of the character of the spirit itself, it’s an excellent type of cachaça to make a rich and full-bodied caipirinha. As an example I prefer the Sapucaia Florida Cristal, matured for 24 months on amendoím. Just try it and you’ll know why I love it so much.
Amendoím sometimes gives the cachaça a delicate nutty flavor. This can’t be much of a surprise, once you know that the amendoím tree is also known as the producer of…peanuts. Peanuts actually not being real nuts, but a legume crop part of the bean or pea family.
Amendoím is also considered to be an aphrodisiac. So forget about barbaric products like grinded rhino horn, and forget about those slimy oysters. A cachaça matured in amendoím is all you need to get your motor running!
2. Magnifica de Faria Tradicional - ipê wood - 40% alc
In the mountains surrounding Rio de Janeiro, at an altitude of 800 meters, we find the Magnifica de Faría distillery, founded in 1985 as ‘Fazenda do Anil’ and deriving its actual name since 1997 for one part from the Faría family – still in charge of the distillery today – and for the other part from the fact that the lady of the house was the very first female Rectrix Magnifica for the Santa Ursula university in Rio. The first idea however was to baptize the distillery ‘Estella’ after the grandmother who lived to be well over a 100 years old, thanking her old age to her daily dram of cachaça. A certain Belgo-Brazilian beer brewer named ‘Stella’ opposed to the name however, claiming it was too confusing with their own name. So the name changed, but the star or estrela keeps on living on the label.
Rio de Janeiro was the capital city of the Portuguese empire between 1808 and 1822 and of the Brazilian independent nation until 1960, thus being a very important commercial center as well as a major producer of high quality cachaça, both in the mountains of the Coffee Valley as in Paraty, the export harbor during the colonial times.
The Magnifica de Faría distillery, near the town of Vassouras, the old capital of the Coffee Valley, brings an old tradition back to the region. Being convinced of the immense potential of cachaça, founder and master-distiller Raul Faría worked for the recognition, image, and definition of cachaça, developing the “Brazilian cachaça development plan – PBDAC” in 1997 which later became the Brazilian Cachaça Institute (IBRAC). In the same year, the Ministry of Agriculture created the Industrial Chamber of Cachaça, to which Faría was appointed its first president.
The cachaça is made with freshly cut and pressed sugarcane from the proper estate only. The fresh cane juice is fermented naturally, without the addition of neither artificial yeasts nor any other agents, but only with local native yeasts.
One will often find the name ‘ipê’ on a cachaça label. But there are several species of ipê: there’s yellow, red or white ipê for instance. These are all siblings in the big Handroanthus family: a tropical tree that produces an overload of yellow, red or white flowers during the blossoming season. Some species like the Tabebuia Heteropoda or the Tabebuia Incana are being used to produce Ayahuasca, the most important indigenous medicine from the Amazon basin. Its effects can vary from mildly stimulating to extremely hallucinogenic. This is probably why Ayahuasca is being used as a shamanic communication method.
The yellow ipê (Ipê Amarelo) gives the cachaça somewhat of an orange-red hue, while its influence on flavor and smell of the cachaça is rather limited. Again, it softens the spirit. Ipê Roxo – the red ipê – is a type of wood with very strong antibacterial characteristics, and it contains a fair amount of antioxidants. Popular belief in Brazil says that cachaça matured in tuns of red ipê is very beneficial and healing. Allergies, diabetes, diarrhea, cancer, leukemia, malaria, Parkinson’s disease, stomach ulcers or psoriasis: this kind of cachaça cures it all. And if it doesn’t work, it surely doesn’t harm…
3. Salinissima - Balsam wood - 42% alc
One of the towns that appeal the most to the imagination of cachaça fans all over the world is without any doubt Salinas. This town in Minas Gerais, home of about 50.000 souls, is also home base for a whopping 150 cachaça brands with a combined annual production of around 5 million liter. Taking this into account, Salinas has every right to call itself the cachaça capital! At the old airport of the town, a cachaça museum was founded in 2012 to support that claim, and to attract cachaça-tourists from all over the nation and even abroad.
Both climate and soil in and around Salinas are ideal for the cultivation of sugar cane and for the use of a broad variety of local wild yeasts that make this cachaça unique. The town is known for its cachaças that often mature on bálsamo and/or umburana wood.
The balsam wood is mainly being used as timber, but the tincture has some medicinal qualities against respirational problems and rheumatic diseases. The resin as well as the wood itself is very aromatic, and in grinded form is used to mix with incense. Bálsamo is also used in the perfume industry.
Resting the cachaça in bálsamo tuns – often 25.000 liter and more – gives the spirit a bit of a chestnut color and intense herbal flavors and aromas. Because the taste is rather pronounced and typical, bálsamo cachaça will often be used in blends with oak matured or amburana matured cachaça. When tasting it pure or unblended, it sometimes even doesn’t remind of cachaça anymore, with the typical vegetal character being overpowered by an intense herbal taste.
Especially in the north of Minas Gerais, in cachaça town Salinas, the use of bálsamo is very popular amongst cachaça producers.
4. Weber Haus - canella sassafras wood - 39% alc
Amidst the Serra Gaúche, the land of the Brazilian cowboys, near the town of Ivoti we find the Weber Haus distillery. Not really Portuguese sounding you say? You are absolutely right! It’s a cachaça distillery that finds its origins with German immigrants who first cultivated sugar and manioc, before distilling cachaça in 1848. Not yet as a commercial distillery, but for proper use only. The typical German half-timbered houses on site still remind the visitors of the German ancestry of the family.
The current distillery dates back to 1948, when in a shed a still and a mill powered by mules or donkeys were installed. But it wasn’t until 1968 that the distillery legalized its production and obtained the necessary permits. A few years after, the distillery was modernized.
Until 2001 cachaça was distilled under the label of Primavera. That year, to honor its founder Hugo A. Weber, the name was changed into Weber Haus. Today, Weber Haus is an ecological distillery, working guaranteed without pesticides, with a 100% natural fermentation – be it with carefully selected yeast strains – and with the bagaço being recycled as fuel for the copper pot stills. Weber Haus therefore can put the ‘organic cachaça’ certificate on its label.
Nowadays, Weber Haus has become one of the most awarded cachaça producers around, with over 30 medals in international competitions like the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Despite the huge success of the brand – both in and outside of Brazil – Weber Haus today still remains a family business.
Ocotea Odorifea or Canela-Sassafrás is a native Brazilian tree growing between 9 and 35 metres in hight, and can be found in the states of Bahia, Minas Gerais, Paraná, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, and São Paulo. The wood is rich on camphor, but also on safrol: an aromatic ether used as oil in cosmetics. It can also be found in black pepper, cinnamon or basilicum. Sassafras wood and oil were also both used in dentistry. Early toothbrushes were crafted from sassafras twigs or wood because of its aromatic properties, and sassafras was also used as an early dental anesthetic and disinfectant. Besides that, sassafras oil was once the chief ingredient of American root beer. Today, the use of sassafras oil is forbidden in commercially mass-produced foods and drugs in the USA by the FDA in 1960 due to health concerns about the carcinogenicity of safrole, but the ground leaves of sassafras are still a distinctive additive in Louisiana Creole cuisine.
The wood, known for its resistance against rotting, is often used for making furniture or in the boatbuilding industry. Sassafras has a distinct, spicy scent while being worked – probably the reason why in South-Africa it is known as ‘stinkhout’ or smelly wood, and Germans call it fennel wood.
In central-east Brazil, cachaça matured in sassafras is believed to purify the blood and to be very healthy for the skin.
A cachaça matured in sassafras wood often results in a brownish cachaça with a strong taste and big wood influences.
5. Weber Haus - amburana wood - 40% alc
Umburana, amburana, cerejeira. Three different names for one and the same type of wood.
This tree, to be found in the drier parts of Argentine, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru alas obtained the status of ‘endangered’. Thanks to its shrink resistance it’s a type of wood very popular for making furniture. But it also has some excellent qualities to mature or rest cachaça in.
Freshly cut umburana has a distinctive nose of vanilla, slightly resembling American oak. But when used to mature cachaça, umburana casks provide a very pronounced aroma strongly evoking cinnamon. The cinnamon can also be very dominant in the final taste of the cachaça. Given its very powerful and special taste, umburana matured cachaças are ideal to drink straight, without mixing. It’s also the ideal cachaça to combine with certain dishes. Try it for yourself: a piece of warm apple pie or apfelstrudel with a scoop of (preferably homemade) vanilla ice-cream, accompanied by an amburana matured cachaça (for instance the ‘Cerejera’ from Sete Engenhos or the ‘Organic Umburana’ made by Weber Haus). You’ll be in for a very pleasant surprise!
Umburana matured cachaça is also an important component of many blended cachaças. The herbal notes of the umburana wood used in a blend with oak matured cachaça lifts the blend to new heights accentuating the vanilla flavors of the oak wood.
Cachaça that only received a short period of maturation in amburana casks will get a light golden color, while cachaças matured for a longer time will receive a deep, warming and rich color. But watch out: there’s also a variety called amburana-do-sertão or amburana-das-caatingas: a type of wood that will not alter your cachaça at all. Since the wood is extremely neutral, casks of this type of amburana are especially used to transport… water. Don’t mind if I prefer cachaça though.
6. Santo Grau Itirapua - PX Sherry cask
Santo Grau was founded in 1992 and uses for the maturation of their cachaça techniques that come from sherry producers in Spain. A part of their cachaça is matured according to the solera system in ex-sherry casks from Spain. An example of such a cachaça is the Santo Grau PX – matured in old PX-casks: casks formerly containing Pedro Ximenez which is a darker and sweeter style of sherry.
Oak has always been popular amongst cachaça producers. Back in the early days of cachaça the Portuguese colonists preferred to drink wines and European spirits like bagaçeira. These European wines and spirits were transported across the Atlantic in small oak barrels, which were afterwards re-used by cachaça producers to store their spirit.
Oak is a strong but rather flexible type of wood, facilitating the production of the staves for small casks. It also contains a lot of tylose, giving the wood a closed cell structure and thus making it leak proof – a not unimportant detail if you want to stock your precious spirit in it. The tylose also makes it rather effective against rot and decay.
Of the hundreds of oak species, American White oak (Quercus Alba) is the chosen type for Sherry producers.
Unlike makers of table wine, Sherry producers make big efforts to avoid wood flavours in the wine. New barrels are of no use for Sherry as they give off unwanted tannins and woody flavours. Once a new butt has been made it will be used for up to 10 years to ferment wine before it will be deemed suitable for ageing Sherry. It might then be in use for a century or more and will inevitably need repair at some time. If a stave breaks it will be replaced by an old one as a new one would affect the flavour of the wine. Bodegas keep stocks of old staves and hoops for just this purpose. Butts are painted black using a special inert paint, and this makes it much easier to spot a leak.
*All credits of the text to Stijn Hiers of Sabor Belgium.