Cachaça is one of the fastest-growing categories in the USA, but historically, it has struggled for the appropriate classification. While Brazilians consider Cachaça to be its own category of distilled spirits, the TTB classify it as rum. The word Cachaça is always printed on the label, but it is not always relative to the category. Some labels say the spirits are distilled from 99.995% sugarcane and .005% corn, because they use corn or flour as a yeast starter. Other distilleries that don’t use yeast starters typically print “Brazilian Rum”, with the word Cachaça located elsewhere on the label.
Sounds like harsh treatment from the TTB, but on the other side of the coin, the Brazilian government didn’t accept Bourbon or Tennessee Whiskey as categories either. It was not until Brown Forman saw huge growth in the Brazilian market that the two countries agreed to class their native distilled spirits appropriately. Unfortunately, Brazil got the short end of the stick. While Cachaça is now its own category in the USA, it’s still a subcategory of rum and has to meet the definition of rum. For Brazilian Cachaça producers, that means bottling at a minimum of 40% ABV, as opposed to 38%, which is the standard there. Also, there is the issue of using corn or flour as a yeast starter, which distilleries can no longer do unless they say so on the label.
Despite all this classification noise, Brazil’s national spirit is finding its way into major growth markets such as England, Germany and the United States. Sadly, most of the Cachaça that has been finding its way to these countries is produced in factory-like settings, which completely strips away the wonderful back story….
There are 40,000 distilleries in Brazil, but 95% are illegal. Most distilleries make Cachaça for local markets and because they are so small, can’t afford to take out a license. There are vast regional differences that cannot be traced in the continuously distilled, mass-produced Cachaça available to us. The terroir of sugarcane in Brazil is a huge factor, but you would never know, right?
The arrival of Novo Fogo is a huge win for the Cachaça category. Novo Fogo is going to be to Cachaça what Del Maguey was to mezcal. Logistically it is so hard to put together all the moving parts for an export Cachaça, but Novo Fogo managed. While Brazil is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, it is still difficult to do business down there. There are very few reliable resources for packaging needs, such as quality glass and label production. Even if you make it past this point, you then have to get the stuff out of the country. Roads are poor and domestic travel options are minimal. All this and I still haven’t even mentioned the actual liquid from Novo Fogo! It most definitely takes courage, references and a strong knowledge of Brazilian culture to even make an attempt.
Located in Morretes, off the coastal mountains surrounding the border of the Atlantic rainforest, where banana flowers and sea air influence the sugarcane, is where you will find Novo Fogo’s environmentally friendly distillery. All the sugarcane is hand-cut using machetes, unlike at large distilleries, where they burn sugarcane fields to increase efficiency but also demolish the environment. The sugarcane is pressed on site and the juice is immediately fed (using gravity, not pumps) into fermentation vats, where it is fermented within 24 hours using organic yeast that is cultivated on site. Eliminating the use of pumps not only reduces energy requirements but also eliminates noise pollution in an ecosystem that is protected. There is no lag time after fermentation and the sugar wine is poured directly into the still for distillation. The time period between pressing and distillation is where most distilleries get it wrong. Leaving the juice or sugar wine out in the heat for too long causes off flavors in the Cachaça. Once it is distilled, it is not a real concern because the liquid has been purified to higher alcohols and won’t spoil. So, from the gravity-fed system, we finally arrive at the pot still for a single distillation. There is a pre-heater next to the still that also acts as a heat exchanger in the process, which reduces energy requirements and increases efficiency. All the heat required for distillation is produced from the burning of “bagas,” the leftover sugarcane pulp from pressing. Once the heat requirement is met, the rest of the bagas is spread around the neighboring fields as a natural fertilizer. Like most spirit runs, the foreshots and feints are separated from the middle cut (a.k.a. the heart) for quality purposes. Instead of recycling those cuts, they blend them together and use them for surface cleaning, and fuel for tractors and other machinery close by. After distillation, the spirit goes into 30,000-liter tanks to be married with other batches for one year. The result is their silver expression. The rest of the spirit goes for maturation in ex-bourbon barrels, which are de-charred and re-toasted on site to fit the requirements of their Cachaça.
The control Novo Fogo retains from start to finish is meticulous. Their careful attention to detail results in high-quality Cachaça that leaves nothing to waste. Distilleries are major polluters in this world, but Novo Fogo has set a great example, showing that it is possible to minimize waste, reduce energy requirements and preserve our environment in the process.