She’s a witch”, the owner of Trinca, a bar in São Paulo, told me, referring not to Maria Izabel’s spell-casting abilities but to the quality of the cachaça she produces. The founder of Cachaça Maria Izabel, one of Brazil’s most artisanal cachaças, lives with her six daughters at her distillery in Paraty, a beautiful small town on the Costa Verde (green coast), almost midway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
It was in 2015 that I discovered Brazil’s fine cachaça—or rum made from fermented sugar-cane juice as opposed to molasses. I made the pit stop in Paraty on 30 September with the sole purpose of meeting Maria Izabel. Paraty is a centre of cachaça production and the town is dotted with cachacarias, shops where you can taste a range of brands and also drink caipirinhas, Brazil’s national cocktail.
My Uber driver takes a sharp right off the highway to Rio, down a jungle road. We bounce along a rocky road that teases us with views of the Atlantic Ocean till I get my first view of a beautiful hacienda. It’s located on a headland beside the ocean, and an infinity pool with two deck chairs beckons, an idyllic setting. Not your usual distillery.
As I walk down the slope, on my left is a semi-open shed that has a gleaming, unusually shaped copper pot-still visible, the kind known as an Alembic still. One level below is a covered balcony with tables and chairs that’s attached to the distillery shop. On one of the tables are sets of tasting glasses in a cane basket and several bottles of cachaça.
Maria Izabel is a petite woman, perhaps in her late 60s, with a lovely smile and a face that lights up as she speaks about her cachaça. The first time that happens is when I ask her how she learnt to make it. Her family on her father’s side used to produce cachaça in the 1700s. “I had an idea therefore,” she says enigmatically. Perhaps the family scrapbooks and diaries contain the secrets she learnt.
“Craft is the difference between freshly squeezed orange juice and a Tetra Pak,” Ajay Nagarajan, co-founder of Bengaluru’s Windmills Craftworks, once explained. And as Maria Izabel tells me about her cachaça, I understand further what makes a liquid truly craft. She bought this estate in 1986, planted it with four hectares of sugar-cane and began making cachaça in 1996. “To take care of my daughters,” she tells me when I ask her why. Apart from her ancestral know-how, she read up on the subject and visited other distilleries in the region to help her shape her project.
“Let’s taste now,” she says and pours me 5ml of a Blue Cachaça, delicately flavoured with mandarin leaves. We move on to a Prata (white), unaged and fresh off the still, and then to a cachaça that’s aged in Jequitiba, a local wood type, for one-two years. I notice that the wood, unlike, say, the American oak, has very little influence on the colour of the liquid, which is practically white. The influence on the flavour, she says, is limited, and the colour minimal. This one, she says, is primarily to be consumed as shots, or in a caipirinha.
Paraty, situated between the mountains and the sea, has a unique terroir that explains the quality and taste of the cachaça, she says. That’s just the starting point, though.
Every step is taken painstakingly. To start with, she cuts the cane and processes it on the same day, to avoid contamination with bacteria that might give it acidity. She makes on average no more than 4,000 litres of cachaça in a year (750ml, 12-bottle cases).
We go on to taste a couple of her aged cachaças, matured in American oak casks, one for three years and one for four. “Just drink these neat,” she advises, no need to add ice or water.
Whisky maturation in India is challenging due to the high temperatures, which, apart from leading to a higher degree of angel’s share (liquid stored in the cask that’s lost to evaporation each year), make it difficult to keep in casks beyond, say, 10 years—unlike, say, Scotland, where whiskies are commonly aged to 21 or even 25 years. There’s no limit, she says, to the number of years that they can age cachaça; they lose around 10% of liquid in the first year, after which it decreases.
The next three that I tasted have been matured for five, six and seven years, respectively, in American oak casks, with the liquid being finished in the last six months in a port cask, giving it a lovely rounded and sweet note. Finally, I taste an eight-year-old, with the maturation giving the cachaça a lovely depth and balance, with a touch of spice at the end.
Maria Izabel leads me into a room below her shop where her cachaça is matured. It’s filled with casks, two giant ones made from Jequitiba, and the others a mix of American oak, port pipes (used for port) and French oak casks (ex-wine).
The whole tasting and tour cost me 10 reais (around ₹170), in contrast to the 250 reais I paid Jhony, my Uber driver, to ferry me back and forth. I make up for it by buying a few bottles of cachaça, including some gift packs.
“What about your daughters?” I ask her, “Have any of them taken to the craft?” “None,” she says, gesturing in the direction of one daughter, a potter by trade. “I don’t even drink alcohol,” the daughter says, leaving me wondering what will happen to Maria Izabel’s legacy. Perhaps hundreds of years later, a descendant will discover her diaries and revive the family tradition.
Vikram Achanta is founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting company, and co-founder of 30BestBarsIndia.