The History of Cachaça

Much has been written about caipirinha on this website and since cachaça is one of the main ingredients of caipirinha as well as an original Brazilian spirit, I thought I’d write a bit about the origin of it.

The history of cachaça

The history of cachaça actually begins with the history of Brazil itself. Around 1530, the Portuguese began to colonize what is now the northeastern part of the country using a plantation method similar to the ones employed in the Caribbean and southern regions of the United States.  Sugarcane production appeared as the first major exploration venture since the Portuguese had already mastered the planting and processing in the Madeira Islands.  On top of that, the climatic conditions in Brazil favored the establishment of large plantation fields near the coastal regions.

The sugarcane plantations in Brazil were enormous and required the work force of thousands. After having failed to enslave the native American tribes, the Portuguese ended up opting for the use of slave labor brought in from Africa. The main reasons being: the colonists noticed that African slaves were adapted to compulsory labor, Africans were more reluctant to escape captivity, and the African slave trade generated profit to the Crown on account of taxes.

The origin of the name cachaça

In the sugar manufacturing process, slaves performed the sugarcane harvest and proceeded to crush the stems. This crushed mass was then boiled into a thick broth until it turned into molasses. The residue of this boiling process was an even thicker broth, called cagaça, which was commonly fed to the animals along with other remains of sugarcane.

Due to exposure to the hot climate, the cagaça would often begin to ferment in the troughs, producing a fermented liquid of high alcohol content. As strange as this may sound, the pigs and the cattle were the first ones to actually enjoy the original Brazilian cachaça.

Popular legends about the origin of cachaça

How cachaça made its way from the trough to the bottle is hard to say. It is believed that one day, for one reason or another, a slave was probably forced to drink it and ended up discovering the inebriating affect.

Another hypothesis says that the slaves often mixed old fermented molasses with the newly made molasses. During the boiling of this mix, the alcohol contained in the old molasses would evaporate and form droplets on the ceiling of the mill. As the droplets dripped on their heads and rolled into their mouths, the slaves experienced a feeling of sudden euphoria. This is the main reason why in Brazil, cachaça is often referred to as pinga, which literally translates to“drips”.

Likewise, cachaça dripping from the ceiling often struck whip injuries that slaves had in their backs. The burn caused by the contact of alcohol with the wounds inspired the name aguardente (meaning burning water), which is also a common name for cachaça in Brazil.

The real origin of cachaça

Although the popular legends above are quite interesting, it is more probable that the art of cachaça making was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese. Some historians believe that the Arabs were the first to learn how to produce sugarcane-based spirits as far back as the 15th century. The technique was then passed on to the Portuguese during the Arab occupation of the Iberian Peninsula.

Reports, which date back to the 16th century, describe cachaça as being a sort of sugarcane wine consumed only by the Negros and the natives. For a while, it was even used as a sort of stimulant to keep the slaves excited while performing heavy work.

Eventually, cachaça caught the attention of the local “white folks”, who began to replace the expensive drinks imported from Europe with the new found popular and affordable spirit.

Cachaça today

With the turn of the centuries, the whole production process was dramatically improved and cachaça gained considerable popularity.   Currently, Brazil produces about 1,3 billion Liters of the distilled spirit, but only about 0,5% of it is exported. In certain European countries like Germany, caipirinha made from cachaça is even more consumed than scotch.

Cachaça has influences on our national and artistic life. What was once a drink for slaves is now proudly served as the official Brazilian drink in embassies, trade events, and international flights. A few decades ago, France attempted to register Cachaça as their own brand, in a ridiculous attempt similar to what Japan tried to do with Açaí. Needless to say that they both failed and cachaça still remains what it always was: an original product of Brazil.