As Anibal Luiz Gama presses the halved coconut shell to his lips, his nose captures the aroma of the crystalline liquid that swirls inside. Tanned and shirtless, Gama has a simple daily routine that takes place in a setting in the Brazilian countryside that's changed little in hundreds of years. Chickens scurry along the nearby dirt road; neighborhood children amble by on their way to school. The rippling sound of pure mountain water cascading from a small stream accompanies the steady clip-clop cadence of a waterwheel in perpetual motion. And, audible only to the most discerning ear, the continuous drip of sugarcane juice as it makes its way from an ancient press through a maze of pipes into fermentation tanks.
For twenty-three years, Gama has been proprietor of Corisco, a small mill and distillery that produces cachaca, the potent Brazilian spirit that's as synonymous with the customs and culture of its native land as tequila is to Mexico, cognac to France, and vodka to Russia. Technically a sugarcane brandy, the beverage is remarkably simple to produce. The juice squeezed out of cane stalks ferments for several days in stainless-steel tanks. Once fully fermented, the juice is distilled and the water content evaporates; in high-quality, low-production operations, this is done in copper vats. The newborn cachaca is then cooled and aged a few days in large hardwood casks. Within a matter of a week or so, the most basic cachaca branca (white cachaca) is ready to leave the alambique for market and the tables of millions of thirsty Brazilians.
With just three employees, Gama produces fifty thousand liters a year of four distinct varieties of the beverage, including a dark, sweet caramelized version and one made with the leaves of tangerine trees in the aging process, giving the liquid a subtle shade of iridescent, aquamarine blue. "We sell everything we make," he says proudly. "Corisco is a good name."
Corisco hails from Paraty, a region that has been an important part of Brazil's cachaca lore since Portuguese plantation owners began producing it over 450 years ago. Gama cites the good quality of water and cane and the humid weather Paraty is noted for as factors in making Iris cachaca one of the best in the land.
Today, cachaca is experiencing an unprecedented boom of popularity, both at home and abroad. Just as in colonial times, when the concoction made its way from the slaves' quarters on large sugarcane plantations to the master's mansion, this beverage of lowly origins has evolved from a drink for the masses to one that's found favor among all of Brazil's social classes. Whether in the country's trademark caipirinha cocktail, made with lime, sugar, ice, and a shot of cachaca, or sipped straight, the beverage wins over new converts every day. And creative producers and bartenders keep finding new ways to use cachaca, mixing it with and aging it in an endless variety of fruit juices, from abacaxi (pineapple) to caju (cashew fruit).
Making cachaca has also become a way for young, city-born entrepreneurs, retired professionals, artists, and other nontraditional producers to get a taste of the rural life-style, and be a participant in one of their country's most historic industries by launching boutique brands. Famed lyricist and music producer Ronaldo Bastos, known for his collaborations with singer Milton Nascimento, is an example. His Nega Fulo brand, produced on a small alambique near the mountain city of Novo Friburgo in the state of Rio de Janeiro, has won acclaim as one of Brazil's best new cachacas.
Cachaca by the numbers provides some startling statistics on consumption and economic impact. The Brazilian Program for the Development of Cachaca (Programa Brasileiro de Desenvolvimento da Cachaca--PBDAC) reports that the annual production exceeds 1.3 billion liters, with a commercial value of US$500 million. It's not surprising that the drink is second only to beer in Brazil for annual beverage consumption. …