What is Cachaça? The Brazilian Cane Spirit Explained

By Timo Torner / Last updated on August 2, 2023

A Guide to the Brazilian sugar cane spirit.
What is Cachaça

Like rum, cachaça (pronounced kə-ˈshä-sə) is a distilled spirit made from sugar cane. But instead of molasses or fresh juice, It's made from fermented sugar cane juice. By law, cachaça can only be produced in Brazil. It must contain between 38% and 48% alcohol and a maximum of 6g of sugar per liter. Further, it has a distinct spicy, sweet, vegetal, and fruity taste and is Brazil's national spirit. 

Cachaça is best known for being the base ingredient in the Caipirinha cocktail. This popular and easy-to-make drink is the main reason cachaça is the third most popular spirit in the world. In absolute numbers, that equals a yearly consumption of 1,500,000,000 liters of cachaça. About 99% of it is consumed within Brazil, while less than 1% is exported to the rest of the world. 

First, the U.S. labeled it as Brazilian rum, hence, a sub-style of rum. However, that is incorrect because it's more likely that cachaça is its predecessor and is considered the oldest distilled spirit from Latin America. Also, it is very closely related to rhum agricole.

Cachaça vs. Rum vs. Rhum

The key difference between cachaça and rum is that cachaça is made from fermented sugarcane juice, whereas rum is made from cane sugar, cane syrup, evaporated cane sugar, or sugar by-products like molasses. In turn, for Rhum, you need fresh sugar cane juice.

Overall, cachaça is quite similar to Rhum Agricole in terms of flavor and production methods. They have a similarly fruity and vegetal taste but cachaça is significantly cleaner and gentler than rhum. Check out this comparison table of cachaça vs. rum vs. rhum.

Cachaça Rum Rhum
Base ingredient Fermented sugar can juice Various Sugar Cane Products Fresh sugar cane juice
Origin Brazil Barbados French West Indies
ABV 38% to 48% 40% to 84.5% 37.5% to 70%
Proof 76 to 96 80 to 169 75 to 140
Taste Sweet, fruity, vegetal, spicy Sweet, spicy, vanilla Earthy, grassy, and vegetal

How Does Cachaça Taste?

Unaged Cachaça has a bright, fruity, grassy, and funky taste. The flavors are comparable to some white rum or rhum agricole. However, the overall flavor profile is slightly cleaner, more gentle, and has more pronounced sweet notes.

Aged Cachaça has a mellow taste and often takes on flavors from the barrel. That results in notes of spice, fruits, and coffee.

Cachaça Fact Sheet

  • Base ingredient: Fermented sugar cane juice
  • Origin: Brazil
  • Proof: 76–96 (defined by law)
  • ABV: 38–48% (defined by law)
  • Calories per oz:  92 - 119
  • Taste: Sweet, fruity, vegetal, spicy
  • Different types: 2 (unaged and aged)
  • Best served: In Caipirinha or on the rocks

What is Cachaça Made From?

Cachaça is made from freshly-pressed sugar cane sap, fermented before distillation. The sugar cane used to press the juice must be grown in Brazil.

Yeast is added to the sugar cane juice to start the fermentation process. This addition helps convert sugar to alcohol. The outcome is a low-alcohol product is then distilled in a single-step distillation process using copper pot stills.

Copper pot still producing Cachaça

Some Cachaças are bottled directly after distillation. Others rest in steel tanks or age in wooden barrels. For the latter, the spirit matures in French or American oak barrels that are either new or used (often ex-Bourbon or Brandy barrels).

Aged Cachaça typically ages one to two years in barrels before being bottled. However, the aging time can also be significantly longer.

Some brands use regional wood types like Brazilian nut trees, zebrawood, teak, and many more. Depending on the wood, the taste of the aged spirit can vary widely.

Different Types of Cachaça

Similar to other distilled spirits, cachaça comes in different types. In general, one can divide cachaça into aged (Amarela) and unaged (Branca) categories.

  • Branca: Branca is Portuguese for "white" and describes the different styles of unaged cachaça. Cachaça clássica (classic), tradicional (traditional), or prata (silver) are all part of this category.
  • Amarela: Amarela is the Portuguese word for "yellow" and describes the light to dark yellow color aged cachaça gets from aging in wooden barrels. Aged cachaça often sells as ouro (gold) or envelhecida (aged). They need to contain at least 50% of cachaça aged for at least one year. Premium products only consist of alcohol aged in wooden barrels.
Different types of Cachaça

How to Drink Cachaça 

Technically, you can drink cachaça in any way possible. Neat, on the rocks, in shots, or cocktails. Yet, a well-made Caipirinha is still the best way to enjoy Cachaça. If you've never made one, take a look at our traditional Caipirinha cocktail recipe.

Aged high-quality Cachaças are supposed to be enjoyed neat or on ice. Outside Brasil, though, you'll mostly get products suitable for mixing with other ingredients.

Best Substitutes for Cachaça

The best alternative to cachaça is Rhum Agricole. Especially Clairin, a sub-type of rhum produced in Haiti, has a very similar taste and is a perfect substitute in cocktails. However, Clairin is a lot harder to get than cachaça, thus, not a really practical alternative. White rum and aguardiente are far more readily available replacements.

Some also suggest using vodka, but I wouldn't recommend that as Vodka doesn't add as much flavor to your drink as sugarcane-based spirits do.

Using Cachaça in Cocktails

Caipirinha is not the only mixed drink you can make with the Brazilian sugar cane spirit. Another popular cocktail is the Batida - a mix of unaged Cachaça, coconut milk, lime juice, and homemade passion fruit syrup.

Other drinks you can make with it are the Bitter in Brazil, twists on the Batida, and variations of the Caipirinha.

Caipiroska cocktail with fresh limes on table

Best Cachaça Brands

For a long time, Brazil didn't export cachaça. And until today, the majority of cachaça that they do export goes to the US and Germany. But still, in the last couple of years, more and more brands have been trying to expand.

Here are some of the best and most popular cachaça brands.

  • Avuá
  • Pitú
  • Novo Fogo
  • Leblon
  • Espirito
  • Capucana
  • Yaguara
  • Ypióca

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