The History of Cachaça
If we remember that the first distillation of cachaca was made in 1532, we can conclude that the history of cachaça is tightly tied to the history of this marvelous country, Brazil.
There are many conflicting and hazy stories about the origin of cachaça. In a certain way, we can consider that the Portuguese started it in the Madeira islands when they began distilling sugarcane juice. One of the versions told is that the distillate was created in Pernambuco province when a slave, who travelled on the farm, let leave the “cagaça” – a foam that was created on the top of an open vat of sugarcane juice. The liquid fermented naturally and, owing to the natural fluctuations in temperature, evaporated and condensed, forming small drops of cachaça (“pingos”) in the roof of the farmhouse. The mildly pejorative term “pinga” was created in the popular imagination from this story.
Another version presented by the historian Luís da Câmara Cascudo, in his book Prelude to a Cachaça, tells that the first cachaça was distilled in 1532 in São Vicente, where the first sugarcane plantations were founded in Brazil. In this version by Cascudo, it was the Portuguese, after learning the techniques of distillation from the Arabs, that produced the first liters of spirit.
The fact that cachaça accompanied the history of Brazil since its beginning, passing by the initiation of sugar in the country, then the growth into the territorial frontiers of Brazil, and finally arriving to the urbanization of the country. Originally, cachaça was destined for slaves but gradually fell into the popular taste, turning into an important component to the national economy, and for a consequence, proliferated across all of the coast of Brazil.
Brought by merchants, the Brazilian beverage began to have success in Europe and in Africa, where it was used as a mode of exchange for buying slaves which were to be brought to work in the colonies of Brazil. In terms of the relevance of cachaça to the Brazilian economy, the spirit became a treat to the Portuguese government. In the same time period, Portugal produced a grape distillate called bagaceira, and the increase in production of cachaça discouraged the colonists from purchasing the Portuguese beverage. In order to reduce the production of cachaça, Portugal established an excessive duty on the the distillers of cachaca, and despising the tax, rebelled against Portugal, marking the episode known as the Revolta da Cachaça, in 1660.
Afterwards in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which we saw multiplying alambics in the farms of Sao Paulo and Pernambuco, cachaca spread to Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais after the discovery of gold and precious gems. During the 17th century, the economy of sugar entered into decline and was overpassed by the extraction of gold in Minas Gerais. At the time of the immigration into Minas Gerais, legend tells us that branquinhas (white cachacas) were placed into barrels of wood to be transported to Minas Gerais. During the time of the voyage, the cachaça, in contact with the wood, took on both color as well as the taste and flavors of the wood. It is for this reason, it is said, that Minas Gerais became the most important region in Brazil to rest cachaças in wooden barrels. Today, we can observe that lowland cachacas, like Paraty, have a predominance of white cachaças, whereas in Minas Gerais, the producers almost always opt to age the best part of their distillates in barrels in order that they acquire sensorial characteristics, such as the heart and the flavor, of the woods. In the mining regions, there have always been small stills that worked to enrich themselves by serving the mining communities, in spite of the ruinous taxes from the Portuguese.
With the popularity of cachaca and the decline in the bagaceira commerce, new ways of taxation and prohibition of cachaca were implemented by the Crown. These means contributed to the discontent of the colonies and motivated the first ideals of independence, contributing to the Congregation of Minas and the death of Tiradentes, the most famous Brazilian revolutionary. As a symbol of the fight for the independence of the country, cachaca was served at the dinner meetings of the conspirators.
Starting in 1850, with the decline of slave labor and the increasing economic activity linked to the production of coffee, a new social group emerged within Brazil named the “Barões do Café”. With elitist ideals, fleeing from the rural habits and with a greater identification with the habits and products from Europe, the new Brazilian elite rejected all national habits, such as cachaça, derided as a thing without value, destined for poor people, uneducated, and, generally, black.
Against this discriminatory position, arrived intellectuals, artists and students to regain? The “Brazilian” identity criticizing with irony and intelligence the incorporation into the culture and foreign customs. In 1922, in Sao Paulo, was realized the Modern Art Week, in which Mário de Andrade, one of its major exponents, dedicated a study named The Euphemisms of Cachaça. Throughout the Twentieth century, other important intellectuals like Luis da Câmera Cascudo, Gilberto Freire and Mário Souto Maior, studied the cultural importance, economics and history of cachaça for Brazil.
In the last few decades, important works have contributed to the revalorization of cachaça and its recognition as a national heritage. In 1996, the president Fernando Henrique Cardoso legitimized cachaca as a “product typically of Brazil”, establishing criterias for manufacturing and commercialization. In 2012, a law conferred onto cachaça as “Heritage of Culture and History” in the state of Rio de Janeiro.
Today, there are more than 4,000 alambiques, or stills, spread out throughout almost every Brazilian state, characterized as a unique phenomenon when talking about spirits, cachaça will be characterized as an artisanal product with many family-owned alembics, in which shows an enormous quantity of brands of cachaca spread out over the entirety of the Brazilian territory.