Few Americans have dedicated as much time to cachaça as Tim Weigel, chief mixologist for the U.S. branch of Hakkasan Group, a global hospitality company.
Cachaça is a Brazilian spirit made from fresh fermented sugarcane juice, and often compared directly to rum. Americans, if familiar with cachaça, likely know the beverage through the caipirinha cocktail. Like rum, however, there is more to the spirit than a sweetened concoction.
Weigel is currently revising a thesis paper on the Brazilian spirit to earn his master accreditation from the United States Bartenders’ Guild. As Weigel studied, his curiosity continued to build. Most theses fsimply challenge a status quo — once a candidate wrote about how long lime juice lasts. Weigel wanted to dig deeper.
“I already had a fondness for Brazil,” Weigel says. “When I got to the aged cachaça section, they only had a few paragraphs, and there’s a lot more to it.”
Weigel ended up heading to Brazil in December 2014 to conduct ground research. For three weeks he traveled across the country, visiting several cachaça museums and distilleries.
Cachaça can be stored in oak, but there are plenty of other indigenous woods that make for more interesting varieties, Weigel says. What he found was the spirit sits on at least 20 different types of wood, from Brazilian Cherry to Amburana to Araruva. These Brazilian woods often have tighter grain than oak, and therefore lend more subtle notes.
While the selection of cachaça available to U.S. consumers isn’t as vast as in Brazil, there are multiple options to buy, largely from two importers, Avua and Novo Fogo, and both offer Brazilian wood-aged expressions. As many of the Brazilian tree species are endangered, Weigel noted Novo Fogo’s sustainability efforts, which include starting on American oak and finishing on the native woods.
“Amburana, it’s a really great cachaça, it has cinnamon raisin bread characteristics,” Weigel says. “Brazilian Ash lends an herbal flavor. I have a 10-year-old one and it’s like a gin. Then there are more fruity ones, more like a lively fruity strawberry.”
Weigel brought back 15 bottles of cachaça from Brazil and has since continued to experiment and study the spirit. Cachaça is versatile in cocktails, Weigel says, and the expressions range well from fall cocktails with apple juice to fruity summer drinks. Still, he said many are best when standing alone, or on the rocks.
As drinkers continue to grow more curious and information is easier than ever to obtain, more spirits will continue to emerge from across the globe and increase in popularity. To appropriately enjoy those spirits, they need to fully be understood, which is why efforts like Weigel are worthwhile.
“It’s all about getting bartenders interested and getting them up to speed and understanding what spirits are,” Weigel says. “That helps getting guests to understand the spirits and cocktails and it’s more fun.”