by Raul Faria
I received the opportunity to visit the Leblon Cachaça distillery in beautiful Patos de Minas, Brazil. Leblon Cachaça has been a favorite spirit of mine for a long time and we’ve used it in many of our most popular recipes like the Garden Smash and Suika Caipirinha. It has a big fresh flavor with tons of citrus and vanilla notes and really captures the flavor of fresh cane juice. So just what is cachaça? Well it is a sugar cane distillate that utlizes sugarcane juice and is a distinct product of Brazil. According to Brazillian regulations it is to be between 38% to 48% ABV and can only be made from sugarcane juice and it also must be made in Brazil. In this post we will walk through the process of making Leblon Cachaça, speak the the man who started it all and provide you a glimpse into what an artisinal spirit production looks like.
First step to superior Cachaça? Sugar Cane. Cachaça is a sugar cane distillate, similar to rum but differs in that it uses sugar cane juice and not molasses. Now there are rums that utilize the sugar cane juice as well like Rhum Agricole from Martinique but as we stated above, cachaça is a distinct product of Brazil and can only be made in Brazil. Leblon actually owns its supply of sugarcane and has 104 acres of farmland so it is absolutely a farm to bottle operation. This is important as the sugar cane juice must be pressed within 24 hours in order to capture the fresh sugar cane flavor. Having the distillery right next to the source makes that possible.
Start the presses! The sugar cane must be cut, cleaned, pressed and the juice pumped into the fermentation tanks all within 24 hours. This is crucial in capturing the fresh flavor of the cane juice for the final product. For the entire 104 aforemtioned acres of farmland Leblon owns they have 6 people to cut and 9 people to clean. They keep a tight, dedicated crew to produce their spirit. Definitely an artisinal production.
It’s all about alambique. After the juice is fermented it is pumped into the alambique stills. The copper alambique stills help separate Leblon from the majority of cachaça on the market. Their use of copper pot stills help capture more of the fresh cane juice flavor while helping isolate the desired heart of the spirit. Many other cachaças on the market are “cachaça industrial” and are column distilled which can mute the fresh flavors of the cane.
Wood working. The woods utilized in the aging of cachaça are also another variant from the cane juice rums. Cachaça can generally use a wide variety of woods for aging but typically utilize balsam and native woods. Leblon utilizes used XO congac casks for their cachaça and new French oak barrels for the Leblon Reserva.
I also got a chance to speak with Leblon CEO Steve Luttman about his cachaça. No one has done more to spread the spirit category of cachaça interantionally more than Steve and his team at Leblon. Not just the brand but the spirit category as a whole. Most would simply have described cachaça as “Brazillian rum” and be done with it. Not Steve and certainly no one at Leblon. That is why in 2009 they launched thier “Legalize Cachaça” campaign supporting the Brazillian Goverment’s official petition to have the American Governement recognize chachaça as a distinct product of Brazil made in accordance to Brazillian laws and regulations. The legalize chachaça movent had their vicotory in 2013! This allows cachaça producers today not to have the word “rum” on their labels. So while Steve and his team had been focused on not just advancing their brand but the spirit category of cachaça they also ended up promoting some Brazillian culture along the way.
Tell us how Leblon started? Why Cachaça?
Leblon started in 2005. I basically quit my job and started the company with my Brazilian family and some friends. We found a distillery in Minas Gerais – Patos de Minas to be exact – and it really went from there.
Cachaça was a natural fit for me because Brazil is my ‘adopted country,’ and I have a lot of passion for the people and the culture. It’s a magical country.
Cachaça is basically where Tequila and Mescal were 40 years ago, and I saw the opportunity to produce and present higher quality artisanal alambique Cachaça both in Brazil and throughout the World. to many, Cachaça is viewed as a low quality distillate i.e. ‘it gives you a headache’ ‘rocket fuel’ etc. not much different to how people viewed Tequila years ago. however, artisanal alambique cachaça is the ‘100% agave’ equivalent, so to speak. the taste differential is just as significant…
What does the copper alambique still bring to the table in terms of flavor?
Alambique distillation is a small batch process that allows you to segregate the highest quality distillate from the impurities, particularly at the ‘head’ and the ‘tale’, this is different than continuous ‘industrial’ distillation, which segregates ‘nada’.
Copper is very important as it interacts with the distillate, and specifically neutralizes the undesirable flavor emitted by sulfur.
Can you walk us through the aging processes for Leblon and Leblon Reserva? How does your choice of woods affect the flavor of Leblon?
Reserva Especial is aged in new French Oak (as opposed to the XO Cognac Casks, which is used for our Leblon Pura). it’s aged up to 2 years on average, with a blend of Cachaças aged as long as 4 years.
French oak has a very classic flavor, and really works well with the aroma of fresh cane cachaça. it’s very smooth – not bitter – but it does not impede what Cachaça brings to the party sensorially.
What was the inspiration for Leblon reserva?
Reserva was initially a distillery ‘hobby’ – we set aside some juice and put it in some new oak casks, and would sample with friends only. we still don’t have a lot of it, which is why we put it in a 375ml bottle. and the packaging was done by Helen, who manages our barrel aging, and also happens to be a fine artist and calligrapher on the side. The liquid tastes great, especially on the rocks.
Where do you think Cachaça goes from here? Where is the opportunity for it to grow as a spirit category internationally and also in its home country of Brazil?
I think this will develop much like Tequila did over the past 40 years. it’s right now still very ‘foreign’ to many people, just like Brazil. but this changed a lot over the past 8 years, and the World Cup had a huge impact in making Brazil and Cachaça more ‘familiar’ to many people. We think the Olympics in 2016 (Rio) will also have a big impact.
Like anything, it will take time, which is fine. But Cachaça, like Brazil, will continue to grow for the next 25 years. there’s no doubt about that.
In Brazil, there is a huge reassessment of local categories amongst the new generations. Unlike their parents, who did not ‘like Brazil’ and wanted to only consume ‘imported,’ Brazilians are becoming proud again of Brazil, and are re-valuing their own culture. There is also a huge local ‘foodie’ movement in Brazil, in which people are looking for high quality, natural, and locally made products… combine this with the continued long-term economic growth, in which more and more consumers are entering the middle class and can afford ‘better,’ and we have the current ‘artisanal cachaça movement’ happening in Brazil, which we’re at the forefront of…
How did Çedilla come about? What inspired its creation? Can you walk us through the process a bit?
Cedilla was another in-house hobby – a project of Gilles, who is a well-known liqueur maker in France. he has been experimenting with a number of fruit macerations, and our Açai version really rose to the top. it’s a basic fruit maceration – for two months in the cachaça (un-aged Leblon) – with orange peel, ginger root, and lime zest, with cane juice added for sweetness.
We are also playing with other fruit macerations as well. We have a Brazilian Maracuja (passionfruit) liqueur that is really out of this world. Hopefully you’ll get to try that soon….
Below are some more pics from our distillery tour. Be sure to visit leblon.com for more information about their products and look forward to the recipes from the other competitors as well.