When you distill sugar cane into liquor, you get rum, right?
No, no, no. Rum is what you get from distilling molasses, after that gooey dark stuff gets made from the cane. When you simply ferment and distill the juice of the sugar cane itself, you get cachaça, the Brazilian national spirit. And when you do it right, you get something very much like a sugar cane eau de vie--clear, un-oaked, fresh, fruity and aromatic, smooth as silk.
I've been a cachaça fan for years, but only got my head straight about its inner nature last week at a promotional tasting for Maison Leblon, a high-end cachaça producer in Minas Gerais, deep in the interior of Brazil. French-trained master distiller Gilles Merlet and Leblon founder Gerry Schweitzer brought along a mini-still and walked the curious (mainly mixologists) through cachaça's paces. Yes, alcohol was served.
Merlet was explaining the various distillation steps to me, and mentioned that their cachaça was made in a single pass through the still. "Ah," I said, "like eau de vie, not like vodka, that gets distilled over and over?" "Oui," he said energetically, exactly like eau de vie--we are not making vodka!"Let me explain why this matters. Industrial-grade spirits--vodka above all, but also mass-market cachaça--gets made in large columnar stills, allowing the spirit to be re-distilled over and over--several passes--until it is almost devoid of any character, except for the alcohol. Fruit brandy (eau de vie) by contrast is made in small Alembic pot stills, and is made in a single pass, discarding only the nasty very first and very last parts (heads and tails) of the run. The result is that a glass of, say, plum brandy smells like a bowlful of plums, and a glass of vodka smells like an empty glass.
So, back to Leblon: it's amazing. My previous encounters with cachaça, amusing as they sometimes were, all involved the industrial stuff, which begs to be blended into cocktails so the rough edges won't show. This stuff makes for great sipping all by itself, with plenty of cane juice nose, surprisingly toothsome texture, and nothing raw to be found. It's what so many grappas wish they could be. This is not the only high-end cachaça being produced; it's just the one I spent last Tuesday afternoon sampling, and it's a winner.
It also does a fine job in cocktails, to be sure (yes, cocktails were consumed). And here is where I picked up the shocker of the day, from Gerry Schweitzer. The one and only Brazilian national cocktail is, of course, the Caipirinha--lemon or lime juice, sugar and cachaça. But in Brazilian cities, almost half of the consumption these days is in the form of Caipiroskas, made from--what else?--tasteless vodka. It's a national disgrace--possibly reason enough to boycott the Rio Olympics.
Meantime, in the US, cachaça is officially classified by the brain-dead Federal alcohol minders as "Brazilian rum"--which it's really not. Thus the slogan, "Legalize Cachaça!" I wear my campaign button proudly.