Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – A few generations ago, the rallying cry for granting Petrobrás a monopoly in Brazilian oil production was “O Petróleo é Nosso!” Last week the U.S. and Brazil signed Letters of Intent designed to do much the same for the sale and marketing of each country’s typical alcoholic beverages in the other country.
On the Brazilian side, the appropriate ministries will now take steps to proclaim that “bourbon” and “Tennessee whisky” can only be sold in Brazil if they are produced in the U.S. (bourbon) and in Tennessee (Tennessee whisky). Hooray!
On the U.S. side, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (a/k/a “the revenuers”) will solicit comments prior to issuing a ruling that “cachaça” can be sold in the U.S. under that name (and need not be classified as “Brazilian Rum”) but only if it’s produced in Brazil. Oba!
Most Americans and Brazilians take it for granted that something called “bourbon” or “cachaça” must come from the U.S. or Brazil, respectively. But, until you put this into trade agreements, it appears that people anywhere in the world can produce a corn whiskey and call it “bourbon” and a sugar cane alcohol and call it “cachaça”. Bummer!
The French have ensured that spirits called “cognac” can only be sold if produced in its eponymous region of France. Vive la France! The Peruvians and the Chileans are squabbling over whose “pisco” will have exclusivity and Mexicans think that “tequila” can only be produced in Mexico. Olé!
Brazilian cachaça has so far been sold, in the U.S., under the generic classification of “Brazilian Rum”. You could put “cachaça” on your label, but you needed to call it “Brazilian Rum” when it was imported, taxed and traded. On the other hand, when you exported it from Brazil, you had to call it “cachaça”, because it’s NOT rum under Brazilian law. Those hurdles now seem overcome. Raise a glass! Raise two!
But wait! The Curmudgeon has consulted his guru Zardoz—he who has seen the future and knows it doesn’t work. This oracle predicts that drinkers in the U.S. will not buy something they can’t spell or pronounce. There is no “ç” (the letter “c” with a little hangy-down bit) in the English alphabet or the internet—some think it’s a “g”, as in “cachaga”. Aargh!
When Americans go to their local liquor store and order “cachaca”, most will ask for “kuh CHAH kuh”. Rum, though, is easy for gringos to pronounce. Therefore, most U.S. importers, who know their monolingual customers far better than bilingual Brazilian exporters, will continue to use “Brazilian Rum” to market what is really cachaça.
As it happens, the most common usage of cachaça outside Brazil is in the drink called “caipirinha”. Americans, on seeing “caipirinha”, get tongue-tied. Bartenders will hear: “Gimme one a them Caper Inna things from Brazil, will ya? You know, made with that kuh CHAH guh!”
So, notwithstanding the progress made on the international commercial trade side, the Curmudgeon doubts that Americans will ever drink much cachaça, marketed as such. The Curmudgeon, who loves cachaça but does not drink rum or bourbon, thinks that’s a great pity.
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, moved here thirty-plus years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)