I fell in love with craft cachaça during my first visit to Bahia, Brazil. I found the flavors of tropical woods mingling with sugarcane complex and alluring, and after returning home I longed for the taste of the place where I had left a piece of my heart. Sadly, the cachaça available in the U.S. at the time was subpar, not even close to comparison. Today, craft-made cachaça is making inroads into in the U.S. market, but its rise in popularity has led some producers to think deeply about the longevity of the category.
Cachaças aged in native wood can be delicious expressions that showcase Brazil’s diversity, but they can also be fraught with issues that get to the core of the country’s challenge to balance business development with environmental preservation. At this year’s San Antonio Cocktail Conference Dr. Dragos Axinte, founder of Novo Fogo cachaça, presented on this important subject.
In our industry, we see a lot of superficial attempts at sustainability, which often go only as deeply as needed to create marketing claims and packaging bullet points,” he said. “In the cachaça category, this manifests itself in many ways; one of them is the illegal harvesting of endangered woods for barrel making. Many producers select these woods because of their exotic and rare quality, which is highly marketable; the negative environmental impact of this choice is conveniently left out of the marketing materials.”
Almost all native Brazilian tree species used to make cachaça barrels are currently endangered and 85% of the original Floresta Atlântica, a region rich in biodiversity, has been cleared. Novo Fogo’s zero-waste distillery in Morretes, Paraná, is in the heart of this coastal rainforest, and the brand has been proactively repurposing American oak barrels and carefully vetting the companies from which they source wood and barrels. But their commitment to forest preservation goes beyond today’s needs and focuses on the future, with a reforestation project that aims to plant 10,000 endangered trees in a protected 42-acre private reserve. If these trees are not planted, the cachaça industry is at risk of contributing to further deforestation and environmental degradation in Brazil.
Novo Fogo is fortunate to have Brazilian botanist, Dr. Silvia Ziller, in their corner. Ziller is working to source these rare seedlings and plant them in a way that benefits the environment and enriches the ecosystem in a natural way. They call this project The Un-Endangered Forest.
The project is only beginning because it has been very hard to find seeds from the species we are interested in planting,” says Ziller. “These hardwoods were so exploited in the past that there are few trees left and commercial establishments that sell seedlings to do not produce them. It is therefore necessary to hire botanists who know the area around Morretes and use data from research initiatives to locate trees of these rare species, then collect the seeds at the right time of year, and then produce seedlings. We have by now located a botanist who can help, found data on the location of some species, and a nursery where seedlings can be produced. So, probably by the end of 2019 we’ll have the first seedlings to plant and distribute through our network of collaborators.”
The second component of the project is to restore the riparian forests along the stream in the Novo Fogo property. The team has been planted close to 700 seedlings, some of which have already reached two meters in height. “On our property and at the Pousada Graciosa Reserva we have begun planting endangered trees and building the ecosystem that they need to thrive,” says Axinte. “Soon we will begin building an interpretive trail that can be used to access the property for educational purposes.”
The quality of the cachaça is directly related to the care it is given in the production chain, and at Novo Fogo it clearly shows as they produce what many consider the world’s best cachaças, made from freshly-pressed, hand-harvested organic sugarcane. Master distiller Dr. Agenor Maccari, Jr. teaches agricultural science at the UFPR in Curitiba. He is recognized as Brazil’s eminent cachaça distiller and the world’s foremost expert in barrel-aging cachaça, and his various expressions are equally at home in a classic caipirinha, in other cocktail applications, or enjoyed neat. At Novo Fogo, the dried sugarcane waste becomes fuel for the boiler, and the heads and tails of the distillate are used as fuel for tractors, as a fire starter and a cleaning agent.
Novo Fogo’s silver cachaça is rested for one year in chemically-inert stainless steel tanks, which mellows the spirit and enhances intense banana notes without masking its original rainforest identity. Chameleon adds vanilla notes from a year in repurposed American oak barrels, while the Barrel Aged expression spends two to three years baking in the heat and humidity of the rainforest yielding notes of banana bread, chocolate, cinnamon bark, coffee, and a trace of black pepper in the finish. My favorite is Tanager, aged in oak and araribá (zebrawood) which adds a natural red color and distinctive earthiness. Novo Fogo owns only two zebrawood barrels, sourced from an abandoned house located on a friend’s property. Graciosa is aged for 2 years in repurposed oak and finished for 18 months in castanheira do Pará (Brazil nut) which adds a creamy, nutty quality, while the complex Colibri switches between oak and amburana (Brazilian teak) barrels, yielding spices of vanilla from the oak and cinnamon from the teak.
“Our number one priority is to be an exceptional company that can live 100 years,” says Axinte. “Our objective is to ensure that trees like amburana, jequitibá rosa, bálsamo, arariba, and others do not become extinct, at least in our region.” It is easy to support a project of such importance, especially when it involves drinking a superb spirit.