If you were drinking a cocktail with the floral notes of a rainforest, the aroma of banana and lime flowers, the earthiness of sweet red peppers and the saltiness of oysters, you'd be drinking cachaca (pronounced ka-SHA-sa), a Brazilian spirit distilled from sugarcane juice. And while all of those rainforest-and-ocean flavors and aromas are present when you drink cachaca straight, you'll most often see cachaca as the main ingredient in a caipirinha, a cocktail that's a mix of sugar and muddled limes and served over ice. The caipirinha is to Brazilians as craft beer is to Coloradans: It's everywhere, and it's great.
A new brand of cachaca just hit the Denver market: Novo Fogo, which translates to "New Fire" in Portuguese. The name refers to the concept behind the brand, specifically the desire to create a spirit in a sustainable manner that honors the people, products and place where it's produced.
We recently sat down with Dragos Axinte, Novo Fogo's founder and owner, at Ste. Ellie, where his spirit was showcased in five different cocktails. The event was one of the stops on Novo Fogo's "Bars on Fire" tour, when Axinte pops into a bar and educates guests on the nuances of his cachaca.
"The name 'Novo Fogo' has to do with the responsible way of creating and selling liquor," says Axinte. "We found a bunch of good people who treasure the natural resources of Brazil, and who try to produce something without destroying anything."
Axinthe, a native of Romania, fell in love with Brazil indirectly through his love of sports. After reading a book on Pele, Brazilian's famous soccer superstar, he was hooked. His passion grew and eventually led him to South America, where he fell in love again -- this time with cachaca. "I fell in love with the people, the place, the food, the drink, everything about it," he says. "I fell in love with cachaca, for sure."
Axinte recalls walking into a restaurant in Porto Alegre, a port city in southern Brazil. "I was handed a caipirinha, and by the time I sat at the table, it was gone," he recalls. "I just loved it, and I loved the whole experience, and while I didn't realize how big of a deal the drink was, I brought some home and ran through it pretty fast -- and I had a hard time finding more good cachaca."
So in 2010, he started his own company. "We wanted to create a brand that had an organic and sustainable component, and told the story of the simple life," Axinte says. "We did a lot of research until we found our kindred spirits...it was this distillery in the state of Parana, right by the Atlantic Coast, in the rainforest.
"I have this fascination with the rainforest," Axinte continues. "And this was a distillery that was a zero-waste business with a USDA organic certification trying to do things the right way. And we thought that was a story worth telling."
The stretch of rainforest where the distillery is located is important, because only 7 percent of it remains. All of Brazil's major cities have blossomed on this coast, and the last hundred years have seen major deforestation. "We wanted to see if we could somehow attach ourselves to rainforest preservation efforts through a commercial venture," Axinte says. "This distillery was exceptional, and the people were exceptional. They were role models in a role-model community that was looking to preserve everything around them." The sugarcane fields, the source of his cachaca, are only ten feet behind the distillery. That's like barley fields sprouting up right outside a brewery's back door.
Sticking your nose in a glass of Novo Fogo cachaca rewards you with vegetal, grassy aromas. Axinte points out the tropical fruit fragrance -- mostly banana.
"Rhum agricole from Martinique is on the briny side because the sugar cane is grown on the coast," he points out. "Our cachaca is kind of in between, because it's in the rainforest, and next to banana plantations and lime trees -- but it's also on the coast. And with the rainforest so close, that means the air is very, very clean, and that means, too, that all of the influences of the terroir move around in that air and end up in the sugarcane.
"The sugarcane has salt in it from the ocean below. It comes up in the sea breeze, and it's this crazy combination of mountains and ocean and rainforest."
Keep reading for more on cachaca. Novo Fogo also produces a barrel-aged cachaca (the unaged, "silver" kind rests in stainless steel only, for one year). Two to three years in oak barrels yields a spirit with richer flavors -- and an amber hue. The used barrels are purchased from the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and they're made of white American oak and were rested, full of whiskey, for years.
For this aged cachaca, Novo Fogo re-treats the barrels. "The significant thing is that, if we were to take the barrels wet, as they were, and just put our cachaca in it, we'd have bourbon in six months because it's so hot and humid," Axinte notes. "We take the barrels apart, take the rings off, literally sand the inside of each barrel stave, put the barrel back together and re-toast it. So we have what we call a 're-purposed' barrel. It's like a new barrel that has a memory of the old one."
New cachaca sits in barrels for up to 36 months. "A lot happens in two to three years," Axinte says, laughing. "You get spices of American oak, like toffee and vanilla and nuts, and it's not over-oaked, so it has that sugarcane 'funk.'"
Ninety percent of Brazil's cachacas are aged, but if you go to the south, it's more like 98 percent -- and most of them are aged in American oak. If you're in the south of Brazil, you're drinking aged cachaca, on ice, with no mixer. When Axinte talked about mixing the spirit, Brazilians thought he was crazy. But in America, where mixologists are eager to pair unique flavors, aged cachaca is mostly seen as a stand-in for whiskey.
"It mixes so well because of the oakiness," Axinte says. "Basically, any twist on a cocktail with a dark spirit works out. It has the mixability of oak, but it has the identity of sugarcane. I love doing cachaca old-fashioneds, Manhattans and sazeracs."
Dragos Axinte's cachaca cocktail, the Santa Catarina
1 oz. Novo Fogo Silver Cachaca 1 oz. Aperol 1 oz. Cocchi Americano
Stir in mixing glass with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a grapefruit peel.
Mixologist Tommy Klus's version of the classic Rabo de Gala (the Rooster's Tail) 1.5 oz. Novo Fogo Barrel-Aged Cachaca .75 oz. Punt e Mes .75 oz. Zucca aperitif liqueur 1 dash of Scrappy's aromatic bitters
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Stir in mixing glass with ice, strain into chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with an orange peel.