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The Street – “Catch On to Cachaca”

Annika Mengisen

We all felt like trendy jet-setters ordering up mojitos at bars from Miami to London last year, but now it’s 2007 and that mint-green trend is so last year — as taboo as drinking a cosmo at a salsa club.

I had never heard of a caipirinha when offered it by Brazilian friend last year. If you expressed such ignorance today, you would get the same incredulous stares my friend gave me a year ago.

This is the era of the caipirinha — Brazil’s national concoction, for those of you not already in the know. Its main ingredient — cachaca — has been dubbed the new girl from Ipanema, sashaying onto the U.S. scene and captivating connoisseurs as she goes.

Your ever-savvy reporter was sipping one just the other day and lamenting that the U.S. took so long to catch up with the rest of the world, where cachaca, a rum-like drink, is the third most popularly consumed spirit, just after vodka and soju (a Korean liquor).

Increasingly, fans the world over are saying obrigado (”thank you”) to a small but growing number of companies that are bringing cachaca, once associated with a rustic spirit and hangover nightmares, to top-shelf cocktails.

Colonial Ties

Cachaca, the national spirit of Brazil, has taken many roles, perhaps contributing to its mass appeal.

Cachaca first took off in Brazil in the 1500s, when plantation owners noticed the increased vigor of their workers after consuming a fermented sugar juice; they began serving it to workers, allegedly to increase morale.

It enjoyed a golden age among the upper-crust Portuguese when finely distilled cachacas were served at dinner tables in colonial Brazil.

But soon after, in the late 1800s, heavy taxing forced the drink underground once more, and it lost favor with Brazil’s elite.

The Birth of Beleza Pura

In the past decade, however, high-quality cachacas have seen a resurgence in Brazil.

Adventurers like Olie Berlic, CEO of Excalibur Enterprise, are reviving this symbol of Brazilian identity by bringing the best to the U.S.

Berlic’s journey began in 2001, when he left the U.S. to brave the wilds of Brazil. A sommelier in top U.S. restaurants, he was searching for a portfolio of Brazilian wine but didn’t find anything exceptional.

“That’s when I started to seriously consider the spirit of Brazil,” says Berlic. He devoted himself to a rigorous three-year testing process, tasting about 800 cachacas, analyzing their clarity, color and especially that telltale burn on the palate.

“Lower-quality spirits will actually burn the center of your tongue,” explains Berlic, who says the sweetness coating the burn is the sugar added to mask the imperfections of low-quality spirits — typical of price-driven products, which often speed the fermentation of the cane juice with chemicals.

“When we launched our portfolio, it was all about quality,” Berlic notes, who explained that prior to Excalibur, cachaca in the U.S. was produced by very large Brazilian producers whose main concern was price.

Cachaca’s story is very similar to tequila’s: “25 years ago, people in the U.S. started learning about quality tequilas,” Berlic points out. “Prior to that, everyone [just] remembered those … hangovers and tequila’s bad reputation.”

Read the article on The Street’s Website

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