I've mentioned several Brasilian drinks on this blog before. They all have in common the fact that they are made using cachaça, the premier liquor of Brasil.
Cachaça is the product of the distillation of fermented sugarcane juice, between 76 and 96 proof, with up to six grams per liter of sugar added. The distillation from a sugarcane base puts it very close to rum. The primary difference being that rum is distilled either from fresh sugarcane juice or molasses. Cachaça is traditionally distilled in a copper pot still, this produces three runs.
The smaller cachaça distilleries, the equivalent of American microbrew beer, use only the middle run, as the first and third contain contaminants that change the flavor. The distiller then ages the cachaça. There is no standard for the wood used, so different distilleries use different woods, allowing for a wide range of flavors in the cachaça market. Larger, industrial distilleries use a column still, which produces a continuous run, which alters the taste due to the contaminants. These industrial distilleries also usually don't age their drink, and simply market it straight at the lower class consumer. Brasilians drink 396 million gallons of cachaça each year.
Cachaça has a long history in Brasil, dating back to the 16th century. It was originally derived from sugar mills, where the sugarcane juice was left after the sugarmaking process. It would ferment, and become a low quality alcohol called cagaça. This fluid was given to the slaves to drink. Eventually, someone got the bright idea to distill the cagaça, and yielded modern cachaça.
There are two types of cachaça, white and gold. Gold cachaça is usually aged, and used as a single drink, while white cachaça is used more for mixed drinks. Cachaça tastes similar to rum, but with more depth of flavor. However, it also has a rather unique odor, that some do not care for.
If the odor, caused by the rapid evaporation of the liquor, bothers you, a quick fix is to drink it from a tall thin glass, which limits the evaporation. This is called martelinho, or the "little hammer".
My prefered brand of Cachaça that can be obtained readily in the US, is Leblon Cachaça . Named after the upscale part of Rio, Leblon uses XO Cognac flasks to age their cachaça, producing a smoother flavor than most brands. It also comes with a massive recipe book, that'll keep you occupied for a while.
Cachaça is becoming a popular drink here in the states. Jump on the leading edge of style, and enjoy the Brasilian drink of choice.