You don’t need to be a world traveler to have a luxurious destination conjured in your mind as you slowly sip on a beverage. Just as smells can remind you of certain memories, a fruity cocktail or punchy liquor can instantly transport you to the original homeland of your drink of choice.

So when a trip to a tropical Brazilian beach isn’t on the horizon, but you wish it was, pouring yourself a spicy, sweet cachaça could be the solution you’re looking for.

What Is Cachaça?

Pronounced as “kah-sha-sah”, Brazilia cachaça is considered to be the national spirit of the nation. Cachaça is made from the juice of fresh and fermented sugarcane plants, then distilled into a liquor between 38 and 54 percent alcohol. The canes must be grown in Brazil for the drink to be cachaça. 

A rum-based cocktail being poured into a glass at a bar.
Cocktails made with rum or cachaça start life as part of the sugarcane plant, which is fermented and distilled to create a drinkable liquor. Still from Skillshare class How To Make Rum Cocktails by Phillip Dillow.

The country now has over 3,000 distilleries throughout the country producing for a, largely, native customer base, with some cachaça now being exported to other parts of the world as it grows in popularity. It’s estimated over 500 million liters are consumed in Brazil alone each year, and June 12 is known as International Cachaça Day.

Aging cachaça is what distinguishes different varieties of the drink. Barrels made from indigenous Brazilian woods like balsam, zebrawood and amburana impart unique flavors into the liquid over a period of one to three years, along with giving each variety a distinct color.

The History of Cachaça

No one is entirely certain where cachaça originated from, but it’s been a staple in Brazilian households for over 400 years. Historians often consider cachaça to be South America’s first distilled liquor, drunk by enslaved African people in the region as early as the mid-1500s. 

This population gave cachaça its name, with Brazilians later providing the drink with numerous alternative and nicknames like caninha, marvada, garapa doida, parati, imaculada, purinha, zuninga, or aguardente de cana.

As the world’s largest sugar producer for over 100 years, Brazil had a plentiful supply of sugarcane throughout the 1600s and 1700s. But the plant’s juice is notoriously unstable in its original state, which is why, when manufacturing became more advanced, molasses could be extracted and distilled instead. 

Three rum bottles of different varieties, waiting to be used in cocktails at a bar.
Unlike cachaça, rum can be made anywhere in the world, but is mainly produced in the Caribbean and South America. Still from Skillshare class How To Make Rum Cocktails by Phillip Dillow.

This was the origin of rum, which soon became an integral part of daily life for the British Navy operating in the Caribbean and was transported back to Europe. Cachaça, meanwhile, remained a localized beverage until almost the present day.

What Does Cachaça Taste Like?

Being made from sugarcane, it’s easy to expect cachaça to taste sweet and sugary. In reality, the subtle sweetness of raw cachaça is overpowered by a more fruity, grassy and earthy taste which comes straight from the raw plant it’s made from. 

This is why some distillers add varying amounts of sugar to sweeten the beverage in its natural state, but anything more than six percent is considered to be “sweetened cachaça” and must be labeled as such.

Branca, or white, cachaça is often cheaper and can have a sweeter taste, as it’s bottled straight after distillation. This is typically what will be used in mixed drinks like cocktails. A gold, or amarela, cachaça drink is aged for up to three years and drunk neat. The deeper, richer taste often makes this version of cachaça pricier.

Drink Recipes Using Cachaça

Premium aged cachaça is the best choice for drinking as-is, on the rocks or even as a shot. But if you’re looking to improve your bartending skills, making cocktails from cachaça is easy enough to do.

A slice of lime sitting on the edge of a glass as a cocktail garnish.
Using limes in cachaça cocktails helps to balance the earthy flavors of the liquor with the sweetness of your other ingredients. Still from Skillshare class Intro to Mixology by April Wachtel.

One of Brazil’s most famous cachaça cocktails, the Caipirinha, is made with the liquor, lime and sugar over ice cubes, with lime peels garnishing the finished drink in a tumbler-style glass. When it comes to making a signature cocktail, this is as simple as it gets and it’s the most traditional option too.

The Batida, or milkshake in Portuguese, is another cocktail where cachaça is the star ingredient. Blended with coconut or fruit, sugar and condensed milk, this drink is perfect for warm summer nights when a cooling adult beverage needs to be on the menu.

Cans of creamed coconut sitting on a wooden shelf in a bar, alongside cocktail garnishes like nutmeg and a grater.
Milky ingredients like cream of coconut can be added to your cocktails and even blended to create an adult milkshake. Still from Skillshare class Cocktail Secrets by Ivy Mix.

And for those moments when you need to put a little pep in your step, you can always add a splash of cachaça to your espresso for a boozy iced coffee that can easily rival the best espresso martinis.

Cachaça vs Rum

The similarities between cachaça and rum mean they’re almost always talked about in the same sentence by liquor fans or beginner mixologists. For convenience, cachaça imported into the US was once labeled as “cachaça rum”, but other than both being made from sugarcane, you won’t find much to compare the two. 

Rum starts life as molasses, made from a completely different part of the sugarcane extraction process to cachaça. The molasses are a by-product rather than a natural part of the plant and are removed when the sugarcane is fermented. While this is the most traditional method to make rum, distilleries also use demerara sugar, beet sugar and even honey to create their own unique twist on a classic.

For rums made with sugarcane, though, the juice extraction also makes it a sweeter and more vanilla-flavored drink. The boiling process cooks the sugarcane into a caramel-like consistency until it begins to resemble syrup. This is why rum cocktails are often much fruitier and sweeter than ones made with cachaça.

Rum can also be produced anywhere in the world, with most options distilled in Central and South America. European distilleries are now increasing their own rum production to rival those in the Caribbean, entering the craft liquor market in a similar way to craft beers. 

Cachaça, though, is strictly Brazilian and cannot be made in any other country. Any fermented sugarcane products created outside Brazil, even if they’re made in the exact same way, aren’t allowed to use the name “cachaça” at all—in fact, Brazil actually has a copyright on the name of the liquor and the Caiphirinha cocktail.

Cachaça vs Rhum Agricole

Rum may be one of the best known liquors to be frequently compared to cachaça, but another alcoholic drink is actually more similar. Made on the island of Martinique, rhum agricole is made from freshly squeezed sugarcane, like cachaça, rather than a by-product from the fermentation process.

A white frozen cocktail in a square glass, garnished with a small slice of lime.
With properties similar to cachaça, rhum agricole is a good alternative to use if you’re looking to try this liquor but can’t find it in your local store. Still from Skillshare class Cocktail Basics for Beginners by Phillip Dillow.

Rhum is still considered to be a sub-classification of rum, while a 2013 agreement between the United States and Brazil means cachaça is now viewed as its own distinct drink. The taste of rhum is also more similar to cachaça than a standard rum, since its production is almost identical. 

The difference, though, is rhum is made from sugarcane outside of Brazil—this is mainly in Martinique, but other islands like Haiti have also been known to make their own. Martinique’s rhum must also be distilled in column stills, whereas cachaça can be made in either these or pot stills. 

Another important distinction between the two is the alcohol content upon distillation. Cachaça can only be distilled once to its final proof (between 38 and 54 percent), whereas rhum can be separated several times until it reaches 65 to 75 percent alcohol per volume.

Get in the Carnival Spirit with a Brazilian Cocktail

Impress your friends with your cocktail-making knowledge and add a splash of cachaça to your next round of drinks. It may not be quite as good as hanging out on the Copacabana Beach, but your new bartending skills can liven up any evening with some Brazilian flare and make it a night to remember.

Written by:

Holly Landis