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?

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