Cachaça: To Rum Or Not To Rum

by Matt Robold on May 10, 2012

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Cachaça makers and importers have been celebrating the recent agreement between the USA and Brazil that has Brazil recognizing American spirits like Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey in exchange for the American recognition of Cachaça as its own spirit category.

Until now all cachaça in the United States has been categorized as “rum” by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). This is because cachaça is a sugarcane spirit – it’s made (more or less) by pressing the juice from the cane, fermenting that, and then distilling it. In the USA, until today, all spirits derived from sugar cane or cane byproducts (like molasses) with less than 2% additive was a rum. That was the end of it.

Brazilians have long-fought for freedom from this label. They insist that cachaça is a different animal, and one worthy of its own classification.

“Cachaça is most definitely not a rum,” says Dragos Axinte of Novo Fogo Cachaça. “At the highest level, cachaça is made from fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, while rum is made from molasses. Molasses is a by-product of the process of making sugar from sugarcane and has very different characteristics from sugarcane juice, since it’s been boiled. I would say that [rum and cachaça] are distant cousins.

Even so, the TTB has stated that the reclassification of cachaça may not move it entirely out of the rum category and that the agency may classify the Brazilian spirit as a subclass of rum. It’s not exactly what producers wanted to hear – says Axinte, “This is a cop out and compromises the TTB’s recognition of cachaça….”

Personally, this is much ado about nothing – a perspective that is not lost on Axinte. It’s true that cachaça is made from cane juice rather than molasses, but so is rhum agricole from Martinique, Haiti, Guadalupe, Mauritius, and the like. In fact there are plenty of rums based on cane juice on the market – as well as rums based on various sugarcane products other than molasses (such as miel for rums like Ron Zacapa from Guatemala). Based on that information, it becomes harder to see how cachaça isn’t a rum because of a raw material difference.

In regard to the similarities between rhum agricole and cachaça, whom Axinte calls “first cousins”, he says, “even with this there are many differences (geography/terroir, boiling of the juice in rhum agricole to get the rummy taste, fermentation and distillation differences), leading to completely different tastes.” Axinte goes on further to say that cachaça shouldn’t be a subclass of rum, “because rum has certain requirements that clash with cachaça’s (such as the minimum ABV – 40% for rum and 38% for cachaça).”

This last point is definitely true. The USA requires that any rum be a minimum of 40% ABV (80 proof), and any spirit within a sub-category (a “type” in TTB terms) would have to adhere to the 40% rule as well. However, there are already rums in the world that are made at less than 40% ABV. There are also brandies and other spirits that are made – in accordance with local laws and traditions – at lower proofs than TTB definitions. Those brands or marks simply do not export their products to the US. It isn’t a perfect system, but exclusion of some cachaça due to the 40% rule is certainly no worse than the exclusion of various rums, brandies, or other spirits due to the same rules.

TTB Proposed Amendment

The TTB is redefining cachaca in the US

Perhaps the real problem isn’t the definition of cachaça, but rather the definition of rum. If you think of rum as a spirit made from molasses, then there is no way to consider cachaça can be anything more than a very distant cousin to rum. However, if you define rum so narrowly, then you must find new definitions for your rhums agricole, sugar cane rums made in non-French territories, and miel-based rums from Central America. When you think of rum, the category, as being the equivalent of the brandy category – an overarching, broad category that encompasses all spirits made from sugarcane and its byproducts – then it’s easy to see how strong the familial ties between these spirits really are.

Cognac or Armagnac aren’t anything less than awesome for being a subcategory of brandy. As a category, it is hard to argue that being grouped together at a high level with the greater brandy world has harmed the Cognac industry or besmirched their reputation in any way.

Cachaça is rum. Rum is vast. It is broad and – frankly – rather generic. There is no honor lost in a sugarcane spirit being included in the category that has been accepted as the standard for cane spirits around the world.

In the end, this distinction between rum, cachaça, or cachaça as a subclass of rum is largely irrelevant to anyone other than label-makers. When asked how this recent development was likely to affect producers like Novo Fogo, the answer was pretty plain.

For me, this partial recognition is a positive development, but there are much bigger positive things happening to the cachaça category right now…,” says Azinte. “The more significant news is that the cachaça category has sufficient market velocity and political support to cause legislative change.” In regard to the new name, “we’ve always been selling cachaça…. Our label today says ‘rum,’ but it also says ‘cachaça.’ When you are holding a bottle of Novo Fogo in your hands, you have no doubt that you are about to enjoy some tasty cachaça.

Also, most stores already have a cachaça section, which is appropriately located in the larger sugarcane spirits section. There is nothing that spectacularly restricting about this. The only thing that has been missing is the US government’s respect of calling Brazil’s national spirit by what Brazilians call it.

At the end of the day, all we really have is a change in labeling requirements. At the end of the day, the average consumer won’t really notice. At the end of the day, I still want a caipirinha and I want it cold and made with good cachaça.

Question of the Day

What do you think? Is cachaça rum, kind-of like rum, or something wholly separate?

{ 17 comments }

Jordan May 10, 2012 at 8:30 am

To me, the biggest thing that separates cachaça from rum or rhum is the requirement that it be distilled to no more than 54% ABV. That is extremely low, even lower than the AOC requirements for rhum agricole. Distillation proof has an enormous effect on flavor and is probably the reason why cachaça has so much grassy, vegetal flavor.

Matt Robold May 10, 2012 at 9:01 am

I see your point. But to me it still just doesn’t seem like that’s enough to push it out of being a subcategory of rum. To me there’s RUM as a category which is all sugarcane spirits. Beneath that you have your different subcategories, including molasses rum, cane rum, rhum agricole, miel rum, cachaca – and I might even throw arrack in there depending on whether or not the 2% adulteration rule were to stick too.

As I said, to me the bigger issue is the definition of rum-as-a-category than cachaca or rhum agricole as spirits.

Dragos May 10, 2012 at 9:09 am

Jordan – that is only partly true. The only proof requirement of cachaça is that it be bottled at 38% – 48% ABV. The distillation proof requirement is a myth, although in reality cachaça is indeed distilled at a lower proof than rhum agricole (and this makes a big difference). There are also technical differences in the fermentation that affect the taste; quite importantly, the cane tastes differently from country to country. For example, the grassy notes of Novo Fogo mainly come from the fact that our sugarcane is virtually surrounded by the Atlantic rainforest and is subject to the sea salt carried by the breeze from the ocean at the bottom of our mountain. These terroir notes do not matter in a spirit that is heavily processed, but an organic spirit made in small batches will reflect its environment in a big way.

Dave Russell May 10, 2012 at 11:15 am

Thanks Matt. Well written. Someone once penned the phrase “A rose by any other name …”

Adam Kanter May 10, 2012 at 12:46 pm

There are some advantages of having its own category of spirits, rather than a sub-category. Pennsylvania is a controlled liquor state. To be able to have the product exist on shelves in its over 600 stores, a product must attain at least a 3% market share within its category. This is a major obstacle for cachaca brands that have to compete with Bacardi, Captain Morgan, and many other large names. If cachaca had its own category, we would see the cachaca selection in Pennsylvania go from ONE brand (Cacahca 51) to dozens.

Pennsylvania is the largest purchaser of spirits in the United States, tell me that doesn’t make cachaca companies yearn for their own category?

Matt Robold May 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Absolutely a big reason for them to want it. To me, that’s more of an indictment of Control States than the TTB though.

Dave Russell May 10, 2012 at 12:59 pm

It’s all rum. The other stuff is legal definition stuff that may help or hinder access to our favorite spirit. It’s like the “What is Agricole?” argument. Adds nothing to the spirit. For every hard and fast “rul” of rum, I can name several exceptions in the marketplace.

Jon Steinhauer May 10, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Other than for marketing purposes, it’s well categorized as a rum. Scotch is whisky, and Bourbon is whisky. One problem is the way government bureaucrats regulate, both at the Federal and State levels, what we are allowed to drink. Similar categorization idiosyncrasies impact beer and wine (different agency). In some states beer, irrespective of style, is categorized as either “beer” or “ale” depending solely on ABV. Sake is considered a beer for regulatory purposes, but some Japanese sakes are distilled, which then can not be a beer and would be regulated as a spirit. I don’t even know if you can obtain those in the US, and what would you call them, anyway? Genuine ice beer would be treated the same way.

Another problem is that some store owners, employees and distributors are not knowledgeable about what they are selling. I have seen cachaca shelved with rums, vodkas and cordials. I conclude from Mr. Kanter’s comment that in Pennsylvania you can’t purchase small batch, rare or boutique spirits? That is unfortunate, if true.

Blackferne May 10, 2012 at 1:30 pm

I don’t know enough to be super picky, but I like cachaca. To me this is like debating the number of angels that could fit in a lowball glass.

Dave Lieberman May 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Rename the category “sugarcane spirits” and let Brazilian importers drop the words “Brazilian rum” from their labels.

Now I’m going to go home and crack open my bottle of Seleta.

Matt Robold May 11, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Actually, Dave, if cachaça is a subcategory if rum they will no longer be required to put “rum” on the bottle – just like cognac makers don’t put “brandy” on their labels.

Steve Luttmann May 13, 2012 at 6:16 am

nice discussion Matt

one thing to consider is the cultural aspect. in Brazil, there is Cachaça – which comes from Brazil – and then there is Rum – which comes from the Caribbean. not only are they classified differently, but they are used differently and taste different.

before there was Rum, there was Cachaça, which was first created in Brazil in the early 15th Century. ‘Rum’ was first created 100 years later in the Caribbean.

from a ‘science’ and process standpoint, there are clearly many similarities and some differences (laid out very well in the comments above). however, the similarities between all spirits are so significant, we could make a better case scientifically just calling it all alcohol, and getting rid of all the descriptors. but that wouldn’t be much fun. kind of how I feel when people ask me what ‘starch’ i would like with my ‘protein’… (and I think some of us would be out of a job that we really like)

for Brazil, this is a big deal. this is getting the respect they deserve, much like Mexico in the early 70′s, when the TTB-equivalent permitted Tequila to be called ‘Tequila,’ eliminating ‘Mexican Whiskey’ from the label. Brazil
is finally coming into its own, and being recognized both culturally and economically.

Brazilians like to joke that they should now start calling Rum ‘Caribbean Cachaça’ in honor of their North American friends. although it’s not our intention, it is a rather american-centric idea to call Cachaça ‘Rum’ (which by the way doesn’t happen in other parts of the world, particularly Europe, which recognizes that Cachaça is simply ‘Cachaça’).

i think this is pretty exciting for Brazil. if calling it ‘Brazilian Rum’ makes someone feel more comfortable drinking Cachaça, that’s fine. Cachaça is certainly like Rum, and Rum is certainly like Cachaça. But from a cultural standpoint, I think it’s important to recognize the difference. it’s also what makes this fun.

Eric Lecours May 24, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Brandy to Pisco is probably a closer comparison. Both Brandy and Pisco are made from grapes but are distinctly different, Pisco being made from grape pomace while brandy is made from wine. Also, Pisco can only come from Peru.

Pisco is classified as a type of Brandy by the TTB. I don’t see how Cachaça should be given its own class separate from Rum while products like Pisco (and Grappa) are types under Brandy.

What they do gain though by being recognized as a distinctive type of Rum from a specific country is the right to label Cachaça without having to note “Rum” anywhere on the label and to prevent other countries from using this type. That’s big. It gives them a distinctive identity and protection.

Matt Robold May 25, 2012 at 2:33 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with Eric. In fact I looked at the current changes to the Pisco rules while writing this post. “Rum” is simply a catch-all for sugar cane spirits. If one is going to argue that cachaça is older then we might as well argue that technically the category should be part of brandy or even “sugarcane arrack” since the Indonesians, Indians, Persians, and more were making sugar cane spirits about 1000 years before sugar cane even existed in Brazil.

Again, I fully support cachaça losing the requirement to be labeled “rum.” And that has been achieved. But in terms of labeling things, unless you’re going to effect a change that all sugarcane spirits are just called “sugarcane spirits” then using the common nomenclature of “rum” isn’t really hurting anyone. To argue for greater specificity is to argue for too much specificity in my eyes. I don’t need rhum agricole, molasses rum, miel rum, mixto rum, and cachaça to all be different categories any more than I need armagnac, cognac, and pisco to all be separate and not part of brandy.

Scott T June 1, 2012 at 10:33 am

Pisco also comes from Chile.

Capn Jimbo's Rum Project July 19, 2012 at 9:00 am

Pro…
Cachaca is a product of cane juice.

Irrelevent…
Where and when Cachaca evolved is of no matter. The Dood argued this well.

Con…
Almost all rum is aged in some form of oak, most commonly American oak, but also French Oak. It has been well said that any spirit really obtains its flavors from four sources: the material (sugar cane, grapes, grain), the yeast, the distillation and very significantly, the wood.

Indeed, the contribution of wood simply cannot be underestimated with American Oak providing such flavors as vanillan or coconut, and French Oak providing some lovely spicing. Rum without oak aging would not be perceived as rum.

In fact wood is so important that spirits like bourbon, single malt and other whiskies specify oak, whether it is new, and how long the spirit must be rested in the oak. It’s that important. Although “rum” does not specify oak, the use of oak has become established trade usage.

Cachaca – in general – is NOT aged in oak but rather in a wide variety of exotic woods. These include chestnut, umburana, jequitibá, ipê, grápia, balsam wood, almond, jatobá, guanandi, brazilwood, cabreúva, tibiriçá, garapeira, or cherry and yes occasionally even oak (but not usually).”

Carl October 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm

The discussion whether cachaca is rum should be secondary to the discussion whether a particular spirit is really cachaca. The former issue verifies the spirit with respect to a set of rules bureaucrats can easily follow when permitting the product into the country. The latter issue interests the consumer, who is truly the person who needs the best possible information for discerning the nature of the product. Placing both identifiers on a label is really only a problem for producers who want to adapt their labels to particular countries with varying labeling rules. But that shouldn’t be so big a problem for big producers who sell to big markets.

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