GL: Is there such a thing as terroir for cachaça?
NW: Just as wine grapes have terroir, so does sugarcane. With cachaça, there are two ways we look at terroir. First, in the types of sugarcane selected to produce the cachaça, which differs regionally and is selected based on the preference of the producer. Second, based on whether [or not] airborne yeast is used. One of the things about artisanal cachaça—including Avuá—is that the yeast comes from the air surrounding the farm. There are numerous species and subspecies of yeast across the globe, and many have special characteristics that give rise to different flavor profiles across the fermentation or bread-baking process. That is one of the reasons for terroir in alcohol production, as any great Belgian beer brewer would tell us.
In addition, the incline of the land and altitude of the sugarcane affects how much sun the cachaça receives and has a direct effect on the concentration of the sugar within the cane. More sun generally means a higher concentration of sugar, but that doesn't necessarily mean a better cachaça. It's having the right balance of sugar.
GL: Can you explain the distillation process?
NW: With a keen eye toward economy and sustainability, Katia researched cachaça production extensively, ultimately designing a facility that seeks to minimize the amount of labor and electricity involved in the production process while maintaining rigorous quality standards.
To plant the cane in the hills around the farm, rather than using an electric plow, Katia employs two bulls, named Mark and Roberto, to pull the plow. The cane is harvested by hand, bundled, and brought down the hill to the distillery. The distillation process is innovative and sustainable, requiring electricity only to move the spirit from the distillation facility to the storage and bottling facilities—water and fire power, along with gravity, facilitate the distillation process.
Following the harvesting of the sugarcane, a spring-fed waterwheel is used to crush the cane and extract the juice, which is then directly fermented and distilled into cachaça. That is one of the unique things about cachaça, and one of its key differentiators from rum—that it's produced directly from sugarcane juice rather than molasses.
The crushed bagasse (residue) from the crushed cane falls to the granary below, where it is dried and used to fire the still and feed the cattle. The extracted juice is fermented with yeast, forming a type of "beer". The fermentation process occurs until this substance reaches sufficient alcoholic content, which takes about 24 hours, at which point the fermented product is filtered through to the still, leaving the yeast behind.
The copper pot stills are similar to those used in producing Cognac. Employing traditional methods, Katia extracts the "heart" of the still, which contains ethanol and flavor compounds. The distillate is cut with pure spring-fed water sourced from the same spring used to power the waterwheel. The Prata rests in stainless-steel barrels for six months, while the Amburana is aged in amburana wood for at least 24 months before being hand-bottled and labeled by Katia on the farm. Brazilian cachaça producers are endlessly innovative, aging cachaças in more than 20 different varieties of wood. Amburana is a wood native to South America, similar to a cherrywood, with a fragrant nose compared to licorice, cinnamon, almonds, and Thai basil.
GL: What are the tasting notes for Avuá's two cachaças, Prata and Amburana?
NW: The Prata is vegetal and dry, with a mild sugarcane nose. It mixes well with dry drinks and vermouth. The Amburana is smoother, with a milder vegetal flavor. The aroma is rather unique, with flavors of Thai basil, allspice, cinnamon, and vanilla. You can mix it with other spirits like Champagne, or drink it neat like an aperitif or fine whisky.
GL: What's the secret to making the perfect Caipirinha?
NW: The secret is in the quality of the limes. Unfortunately, the fruit we get in the U.S. is not the same as it is in Brazil. Brazilians have numerous varieties of limes, with different colors, pulpiness, and aromas. Interestingly, they don't differentiate between limes and lemons. Lemons [in Brazil] are in fact called "Sicilian limes." The closest we have to the variety of lime used in Caipirinhas is the Key lime. Try to get the best-quality lime you can. The juiciness of the lime is the most important factor; using ripe limes is also very important. In addition, remove the white interior pith from the limes to reduce bitterness in the Caipirinha.