Learn more about the art of aging cachaça in barrels made of oak and Brazilian woods, such as the Jequitibá branco, Amburana, Bálsamo and Ariribá.
The maturation of alcoholic beverages in wood recipients is an art that has been practiced for over 2,000 years. At first, wooden containers were used to carry and preserve the beverage, but then experience showed that the containers could confer differentiated – and much appreciated – flavors to fermented and distilled drinks. The practice of exposing the liquid to wood recipients became increasingly common as part of the alcoholic beverage making process. In the context of cachaça production, the perception of the drink’s aromas and flavors can be considerably improved by the wood aging process, which in many cases may be responsible for more than 65% of its sensorial features. A spirit that is already cherished and enjoyed in its non-aged version, without any trace of wood, can gain economic and sensorial value after being aged in wooden barrels. Though it is not mandatory, after distillation cachaça can be left to mature in stainless steel tanks or, according to standard procedures, be stored or aged in wooden barrels.
CACHAÇA AND STAINLESS STEEL TANKS
Most marketed cachaças rest for at least three months in stainless steel tanks. Besides functioning as storage containers, the tanks foster the oxidation process of some compounds, especially acetaldehyde, and the resting period improves the sensorial quality of the cachaça.
However, storing or aging cachaça in wooden barrels will purposefully and considerably change the characteristics of the spirit. These changes depend on determinant factors such as the alcohol content of the beverage and its quality, the size, wood type and state of preservation of the barrel and if it has been subjected to an aging period or toasted, as well as the environmental conditions of the cellar.
“CACHAÇA ARMAZENADA”: STORED IN WOODEN VATS
A Cachaça armazenada (or “stored cachaça”) may be left to rest for an undetermined period of time in barrels of any size. They are usually large vats (e.g. 10,000 liters) made of woods that interfere only slightly with the colors and flavors of the beverage. Traditional producing regions like those in the states of Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Paraíba are famous for a cachaça that is stored in large vats made of Brazilian native woods, including amendoim (Tipuana), freijó (Cordia goeldiana), and jequitibá branco (Cariniana legalis). Due to the availability of this material for extraction and the lack of resources and access to stainless steel containers, the production and use of wooden vats became popular in these regions. The Brazilian woods proved to be ideal for storage thanks to their resistance, low porosity (resulting in reduced evaporation) and low ability to change the sensorial profile of the beverage, leaving the essential features of a non-aged cachaça untouched.
“CACHAÇA ENVELHECIDA”: AGED IN WOODEN BARRELS
For a product to be labeled “aged” (envelhecida), 50% of its bottled volume must mature for at least one year in a barrel with a maximum capacity of 700 liters. Most aged cachaças rest in American or European oak barrels that were previously used for ageing whiskey. Brazilian woods contribute to a lesser extent to the composition of blends that contain oak, particularly native woods such as amburana and bálsamo. Some regions traditionally age cachaça exclusively in native woods, as is the case with bálsamo wood casks in the city of Salinas, in northern Minas Gerais. Cachaça can be classified as silver, gold, premium, extra premium or special reserve according to the period of maturation in wooden barrels and vats. To gain a deeper understanding of these classifications, please consult our guidebook on types of cachaça. Despite the remarkable potential of the woods used to age cachaça in giving prominence to the sugarcane spirit in the world market, we must also consider a serious problem that affects the production sector: the eminent risk of extinction of the main wood species used in the making process of the Brazilian brandy.
What happens during the cachaça aging process?
During the maturation process, the alcohol present in the cachaça extracts compounds from the wood, and the oxygen that circulates through the porosities of the barrel contributes to the formation of acids, esters and aldehydes that modify the beverage. While other spirits are aged almost exclusively in European or American oak barrels, cachaça differs in that it can undergo this process in barrels made of more than forty species of Brazilian native woods, such as jequitibá rosa, jequitibá branco, bálsamo, amendoim, ipê, amburana, grápia, ariribá, jatobá, freijó and canela sassafrás, which confers identity and authenticity to the Brazilian distillate.
The toasting of the wood barrel
The toasting of the internal surface of barrels is a common procedure in the world’s most important cooperage houses, which typically use oak to make barrels for aging fermented and distilled beverages. The toasting process is aimed in degrading undesirable wood compounds and generating aromatic molecules that add quality to beverages, and “rejuvenates” depleted barrels after many years of use. It is still not a very common practice in cachaça aging, but some cellar masters are now using toasted Brazilian wood barrels in order to obtain new aromas and flavors. Listed below are the woods used in the making of barrels to store and age cachaça:
AMBURANA (AMBURANA CEARENSIS)
Imburana, umburana, cerejeira, cumaru-do-ceará, amburana-de-cheiro, cumaru-de-cheiro. Risk of extinction: Endangered: high risk of short-term extinction. Sensorial description: Gold or crystal amber color in low-volume barrels (200 liters), after one year of aging. In large volume vats, cachaça acquires a pale yellow color. Aromas and flavors of vanilla, cloves, cinnamon and other spices, depending on volume, maturation time and whether or not the barrel has been toasted.
BÁLSAMO (MYROCARPUS FRONDOSUS)
Pau-bálsamo, cabriúva, bálsamo-caboriba, pau-de-óleo and cabriúna-preta Risk of extinction: Endangered: high risk of short-term extinction. Sensorial description: Aged in new barrels, cachaça acquires amber-red tones and woody and vegetal flavors. If aged for many years in large, old barrels, cachaça takes on a golden greenish color and intense aromas, with a range of herbaceous and spicy notes such as aniseed, clove and fennel, as well as a spiciness and an astringent sensation.
JEQUITIBÁ ROSA (CARINIANA LEGALIS)
jequitibá-vermelho, jequitibá-cedro, estopa, jequitibá-grande, pau-caixão, pau-carga, congolo-de-porco and caixão. Risk of extinction: Endangered: High risk of short-term extinction. Sensorial description: Strong color, aromas and flavors if the cachaça is aged in small barrels. Because of the presence of vanillin, which adds notes of vanilla to the cachaça, this is considered the Brazilian native wood that most resembles American oak.
ARIRIBÁ (CENTROLOBIUM TOMENTOSUM)
araribá-vermelha, araribá-rosa, araruva, potumuju Risk of extinction: Low probability of extinction under current conditions. Sensorial description: Pale yellow color and light flowery and vegetal aroma. When toasted, this wood reveals aromas of red fruits (strawberry). It is one of the woods that confer increased oiliness on the distillate, as it is rich in glycerol, a desirable natural component.
EUROPEAN OAK (QUERCUS PETRAEA)
European oak, different from American oak (Quercus alba) Risk of extinction: Low risk of extinction. Sensorial Description: Colors ranging from pale yellow to mahogany and more subtle and seasoned aromas, reminiscent of almond, and with a degree of sweetness, contributing with imparting texture and astringency. European oak is the most commonly used wood for aging cachaça.