For a long time, the barrel, a Gallic invention, was used only as a container to transport beer and wine. The use of barrels to age alcoholic drinks dates back to the early seventeenth century. Pasteur was the first scientist to notice that the wooden barrels had the potential to alter the flavor of a drink. Since then, many scientific studies have been published considering wood as a source of extractable aromas. The barrel is seen as an active container, capable of modifying the drink over time, enhancing its quality.
The aging of cachaça is a practice that modifies the chemical and sensory quality of the drink, adds colors, flavors and distinguished aromas. Oak is traditionally used worldwide for aging spirits. In Brazil, barrels made of native woods are also used, creating distinct aromatic profiles, colors and flavors. The various woods allow the modulation and characterization of aged cachaça, and the development of “blends” mixing two or more wood species, thus increasing the aromatic complexity of the spirit. The use of Brazilian woods and their blends imparts originality, distinctive attributes, and recognizable flavors to cachaça.
During aging, the alcohol content of cachaça extracts the wood compounds. At the same time, the air passing through the barrel gaps and the porosity of the wood modifies the compounds of the beverage, thus forming a new aromatic bouquet, more complex and intense. The aromatic profile obtained depends on several factors, the main ones being: the species of the wood, its geographical origin, the manufacturing process and the size of the barrels, the aging time, the temperature, humidity, and atmosphere of the storing place.
The Brazilian woods mainly used for aging cachaça are: Amendoim-bravo (Pterogyne nitens Tul), Jequitibá-branco (Cariniana estrellensis), Araruva or canarywood (Centrolobium tomentosum), Cabreúva or balm (Mycrocarpus Frondosus), Jequitibá-rosa (Cariniana legalis), Amburana (Amburana cearensis ), Grápia (Apuleia leiocarpa), Ipê-roxo or pink trumpet tree (Tabebuia Heptaphylla), and Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa), among others. Some of them are ideal for the manufacturing of storage barrels, as they impart little color and barely interact with the cachaça. Others release more recognizable and intense flavors and colors, being ideal for the manufacturing aging barrels.
Amendoim-bravo (Pterogyne nitens Tul)
Widely available wood, it can be found from the Northeast region to the west of Santa Catarina. The tree has an average height of 10-15 m (32-50 ft.) and a trunk measuring 40-60 cm (20-24 in.) in diameter. It is ideal for the manufacturing of storage barrels. Its subtle scent is barely noticeable, but it imparts a slightly yellow tone and a mildly astringent taste to the cachaça. The spirit is stabilized, its quality is enhanced and the aromas of sugar cane and white cachaça are preserved. Cachaças stored in barrels made of Amedoim wood are ideal for preparing mixed drinks, especially caipirinha.
Araruva or canarywood (Centrolobium tomentosum)
Also known as araribá, it is indigenous of Southeast and Center-West regions of Brazil. The tree has an average height of 10-22 m (32-72 ft.) and a trunk measuring 30-60 cm (12-24 in.) in diameter. Widely used for cooperage, markedly in the countryside of Paraná. The cachaça aged in this wood has a slightly yellowish color and a delicate, floral aroma. Its distinctive feature, as compared to other Brazilian woods, is the viscosity and the oiliness it imparts to cachaça.
Cabreúva or Bálsamo (Mycrocarpus Frondosus)
Also known as bálsamo and pau-bálsamo in Portuguese, it can be found from southern Bahia to Rio Grande do Sul. The tree has an average height of 20-30 m (65-98 ft.) and a trunk measuring 60-90 cm (24-35 in.) in diameter. Characterized by a greenish-yellow coloration, it imparts the cachaça with very intense herbaceous aromas, and slightly astringent flavors. It is used in “blends” of cachaças aged in oak and/or cherry wood.
Oak (Quercus sp)
Not native to Brazil, the tree grows in temperate zones in the northern hemisphere of the globe. Several species are used in cooperage, the most common being the European oak (Quercus sessile) and the North-American oak (Quercus alba). Oak barrels are widely used for aging cachaça. The import of new barrels, and barrels previously used for aging other alcoholic beverages such as wines, whiskeys and cognac, imparts cachaça with the diversity of aromas and flavors associated with oak. The cachaça aged in American oak has a golden color, distinctive aromas of vanilla and coconut, mild flavor and a complex aromatic bouquet. The aging in European oak imparts an amber coloration to the spirit, intense aromas, and flavors characteristic of almonds, toasted wood, and tannins.
Amburana (Amburana cearensis)
Also known as cerejeira and many other names in Portuguese, it can be found in the Northeast, Center-West and Southeast regions of Brazil. The tree has an average height of 10-20 m (32-65 ft.) and a trunk measuring 40-80 cm (16-31 in.) in diameter. It imparts an intense color, a distinct characteristic aroma bouquet with notes of vanilla, and a slightly sweet flavor. The cachaça aged in amburana is widely known and available in Brazil, being often used in “blends” of cachaça aged in European oak barrels, as it intensifies the aromas and flavors of the bouquet.
Jequitibá (Cariniana estrellensis)
Widely found in Brazil, it grows in Acre, the Center-West region, in the south of Bahia and in the South region of the country. The treen has an average height of 35-45 m (115-48 ft.) and a trunk measuring 90-120 cm (35-47 in.) in diameter. The Jequitibábranco (Cariniana estrellensis) is suitable for building barrels meant to be used to store cachaça, as it releases almost unnoticeable flavors, aromas, and colors. The Jequitibá-rosa (Cariniana legalis) imparts a golden color, pleasant flavors, and a complex bouquet to cachaça, comparable to the profile obtained with North-American oak.