By Alejandro Gedeon
It was 1989 and I was a student at Cal Arts when I saw this dark bottle from Brazil with an incredible art deco label on it. Opening it was painful. It was like opening a treasure you could only find on a shipwreck. After pouring the golden liquid into a shot glass, I brought it close to my nostrils so I could smell the aroma, and then magic happened as the first drops fell into my mouth.
I was possessed by the sugar cane spirit and many of my childhood memories came alive. It reminded me of the barn smells, the horse sweat, the cow shit, and of course, the sugar cane sticks I used to chew on with such passion that I ended up surrounded by flies trying to suck on the juice that was spattered all over my face.
Since then I love and enjoy her more than any other drink in the world. Her name: Cachaça. That’s how it started, my affair with a drink that not only gave me such memorable moments, but also captivated so much my attention that I ended up doing a documentary about it. People ask me why I would make a documentary about “cachaça.” Well, there is a lot more to it, there are many secrets hiding inside the bottle.
Most of my Brazilians friends that I knew in Los Angeles didn’t drink cachaça, so that was one of the first things that caught my attention. Why was this holy drink which I love not part of my Brazilian friends’ diet? There’s got to be something wrong about it that I can’t see or smell. When I went to Rio de Janeiro in 1995 I visited a place that of course became one of my favorites: The “Academy of Cachaça” in the Leblon neighborhood. There I found a menu that offered a list of around 25 cachaças. After many visits I tried them all, and started to know which ones were to my liking. But soon I noticed that most of the people that frequented the Academy were drinking beer rather than cachaça, and then I realized that there was something really wrong about this drink and that definitely it wasn’t me.
To make things worse, when I went to the local supermarket to buy some of my favorite cachaças, what did I find? To my surprise there were none. The only cachaças available were a couple of industrial brands that were very cheap and were meant to be used for “Caipirinhas” (Brazil’s national cocktail). These couple industrial brands were also the only ones available at restaurants in the city of Rio. But I didn’t give up and I kept searching for my “caninha” (one of the many nicknames for cachaça) until I found a tiny bar and liquor store called “The House of Cachaça”.
Located in the center of Rio, in the Lapa neighborhood, this place owned by Mr. Oswaldo Costa offered more than 100 different brands with the most beautiful labels I’ve ever seen. Mr. Oswaldo told me that he traveled often to the state of Minas Gerais and went from distillery to distillery to buy the best cachaças in Brazil straight from the producers. He also explained to me the difference between a homemade cachaça and an industrial cachaça. He said that there are more than 8000 distilleries alone in the state of Minas. Mr. Oswaldo definitely opened the world of cachaça to me.
He made me realize that the Brazilian middle class and of course the elites didn’t know what cachaça was other than that it was the drink of the poor, the drink of the “cachaceiros and the pinguços,” What? They even had a pejorative word for cachaça drinkers? Wow! I guess I already belong to that group. This whole thing couldn’t be something else than a full-blown case of discrimination and prejudice against one of the most precious products from Brazil.
After I met Mr. Oswaldo I decided to hit the road. In 2001 I returned to Brazil and I found out about the “Festival of Cachaça” in the colonial city of Paraty, just 2 hours driving south from Rio. Yes! A festival of cachaça held in one of the main regions that had produced this sacred drink since the late 1500s during the colonization of Brazil.
By the 1700’s, there were around 200 distilleries along the coast of this town, and Paraty itself became a synonym for cachaça. Today there are only 5 left, but the brands from Paraty must be considered among the best in the country. This little town was breathtaking as was one of it small distilleries, Corisco, still powered by a gigantic water mill.
I went on to find various museums of cachaça and private collections like the one owned by Paulo Monteiro in the small town of Caeté, Minas Gerais, where he has a collection of around 6,000 cachaças, including the famous one with Pelé on its label. “There are 5 or 6 left, because at the time Pelé was already a famous soccer star and got upset that he was associated with an alcoholic drink like cachaça. So he tried to pull them all out of the market” says Paulo as he shows me around the most amazing labels one could ever see.
“Cachaça… strong, devastating, delicious and pleasurable like a great love” says writer and journalist Marcelo Camera. He was founder in 1994 of the “Comfraria do Copo Furado,” an informal group of cachaça lovers from Rio dedicated to tasting, enjoying and qualifying cachaças from all over Brazil. “Our slogan is: Together we’ll drink! Alone as well! We have São Benedito (black saint) as our protector and famous bossa nova musician and composer Tom Jobim as our patron.
Marcelo explains, “The way we qualify cachaças is as follows: cachaças that should go to heaven (the best ones), cachaças for the altar (good ones), cachaças for the shelves (ok for cocktails) and cachaças for the elites (the worst ones). Why? Well, because there are certain Brazilian elites that despise Brazilian culture”. Mr. Camera adds: “They use names as ‘cachaceiro’ and ‘pinguço’ for Cachaça drinkers. So, why don’t they use the same terms like whiskero or vodkeiro for Whisky and Vodka drinkers? I consider myself a “cachaçologist,” a “pingofile” and a devoted cachaça taster.”
The highlight of my trip happened 11 miles north of what’s now considered the “cachaça capital of the world,” the red earth and blue skies town of Salinas in the northern region of Minas Gerais. There I met in his hidden ranch, the legend, the myth, the man of principles and producer of “Havana,” the most expensive and priceless cachaça in Brazil. His name: Anisio Santiago.
An extremely modest man in his 80’s (he looked 10 years younger); Anisio had slowly created a world of his own. A world that made him a myth and his drink the most expensive of them all. He had something very peculiar and strange for a truck driver become cachaça producer. He disliked money so much that one day he decided to use his own product to pay the bills. So he started paying his employees with his bottles of “Havana,” shopping at the farmers market and even sending his grandsons to school—all paid in cachaça. Anisio had defied the rules of the game and gone back to the times of trade.
He made only one exception; he would sell two bottles a day for those costumers who would come all the way to his place. Wearing a torn shirt and smoking a straw cigarette Anisio offered me a glass of his favorite drink, Brahma beer. I wanted to get him on camera for my documentary but I could only enjoy a great conversation after he told me that he didn’t let anybody take pictures of him and he didn’t like to give any interviews at all. He couldn’t be more humble.
When I asked him why he produced just 5000 litres a year (8300 bottles), he answered: “You can’t be thirsty for money, that’s what is destroying the world”. He let me wander around his ranch, check out his cachaça production, and afterwards he made a point of showing me the most treasured thing in his life, an impeccable ’47 Chevy pick up. After enjoying the afternoon with this wonderful man. I thanked him for his kindness and as I was walking away he looked at me a bit surprised and asked me to stop. He went inside his house and came out with a paper bag. He pulled out two bottles of “Havana” and said, “This one is a gift, but the other one you have to buy.” That one bottle was 45 reais ($15 dollars), but once I walked out of Anisio’s premises each could have fetched up to 150 reais (around $50 dollars). Today they sell for 280 reais (about $100 dollars) at a special liquor store.
Anisio died two years ago but his legacy remains, and he will be remembered by all of us who met him as a man bigger than life. Last year I went back to Brazil to shoot the remaining part of the documentary and on a good note I found out that some things have changed for the better.
Some fancy supermarkets like Rio’s “Zona Sul” (catering to Rio’s upscale south area of Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon and Barra da Tijuca) now carry up to 50 labels of the best cachaças from Brazil, and some of the best restaurants and bohemian bars like Mangue Seco, Giuseppe Grill, Sobrenatural and others also offer great brands for the costumer. This doesn’t mean that cachaça has been widely accepted, not at all.
The Brazilian middle and upper classes are just starting to learn how to appreciate their national drink, and one of the reasons for this is that during the last 5 years (since 2000) Cachaça has been widely appreciated in many other countries outside of Brazil, especially in Germany, Japan, South Africa, France and USA. Cachaça and the already famous caipirinha cocktail are making a great success abroad. No wonder Brazilian elites are thinking, “Well it’s got to be chic to drink cachaça if the Europeans and Americans like it that much.”
Nickname: Pinga, caninha, immaculada and 100 more.
Production: 1.5 billion liters per year.
Consumption: 3rd distilled drink most consumed in the world.
Most expensive cachaça: Havana $100 dollars
Most Popular: Pitu and Caninha 51
Great Alternative: Autentica
So I invite everybody to join me and taste the “Brazilian Spirit”, I promise you’ll be dancing. Tin tin, saúde!!!
*Alejandro Gedeon is a Colombian filmmaker who was married to co-owner of the Animamundi festival in Rio. He currently lives in Cali, Colombia, and lived for several years in Los Angeles, California.