There are a few people that nearly everyone in the cachaça community points to as essential to bringing the market to where it is today. And not all of those people are producers or even purveyors of cachaça. Dirley Fernandes is one of those people. As the founder of Devotos da Cachaça, perhaps the best online source for news on cachaça, and the Cupula da Cachaça, a bi-annual review of the best cachaças throughout the country, he’s had, and continues to have, a great influence on the culture. I got a chance to ask him a few questions about how he got to where he is and where he sees cachaça going over the coming years. (Edited for clarity)
How did your journey to cachaça begin?
I got to cachaça through my work writing about culture. I have been a journalist for 25 years, dealing with Culture, Politics and the Economy, above all. I have written a lot about popular culture, music, and literature, among other things. Cachaça interested me as part of Brazilian gastronomic culture. But I became embedded in the culture when I was invited by the owner of a cachaçaria that I frequented, to direct a film about cachaça in 2006. Then the documentary 'Devotos da Cachaça' was born - which can be seen on YouTube. To make the film, I dove deep. In the doc, I focused on exactly how cachaça is embedded in Brazilian culture, history and economic life.
You helped to change the culture of cachaça a lot. Did you consciously try to do that? If so, what were some of the challenges you faced when you started?
I don't know exactly what my role was, but there is a good group of people who are trying to further this cause. What I did was to join with people - few at the beginning, more now - who bought the cachaça fight and put their expertise at the service of the sector's development. The arrival of this group, I believe, in fact, changed the way cachaça is seen, and opened the sector to the public’s visibility. Since 2010, these people and I have followed a conscious and shared path: valuing tradition, but encouraging professionalism and applauding innovation, both inside and outside the market. We have come a long way since the first decade of the century, when quality cachaça was very rare in bars. But we still have a lot to do.
You have one of the most important and informative sources of news and information about cachaça. How and when did you decide you wanted to write about cachaça?
That’s funny because I never actually decided or made a conscious choice to do so. I started with a blog to talk about the documentary, back in 2010, when the film was released. The purpose was just to promote the film, to make more people see it. But while promoting the film, during conversations with producers and specialists, and visits to distilleries, I found some really good stories. And the journalist's job is to tell stories. In 2013, the newspaper O DIA invited me to write a blog exclusively about cachaça. It was great for the industry. The blog had an impact well above what the newspaper and I expected. Then Gula, the best gastronomy magazine of the time, called me for the team of columnists. We were managing to make cachaça into something bigger than it actually had been in the recent past. The blog went on and, in mid-2016, I decided to transform the it into an independent website. And we have been around ever since, publishing daily news and articles about the sector.
How do you keep up with everything that is happening in this huge market?
With the basic techniques of journalism: picking up sources, digging around, talking to everyone every day. But after so long doing this, we already know almost everyone and the information comes to us. Another important key to my work is to take what happens in the country's political and economic life and showing how it affects the sector. I was an economics editor for a long time and, until last year, politics editor. The understanding that we have about these universes facilitates our work.
You have also created one of the most important cachaça competitions. When did you decide you wanted to do this? Can you describe what it was like to set up the competition? What were some of your biggest challenges?
I created the competition with the members of the Cachaça Summit, back in 2013. We had created the group of about eight or nine professionals linked to the sector, to think about how to give visibility to cachaça. One day, I went to drink cachaça with students from Manoel Agostinho's course, who is also from the Summit. Then a guy who was there told me that he would open a cachaçaria with more than 400 labels. It was Marcos Vinícius, from what would become Cachaçaria Naconal (the largest purveyor of cachaça in the country). I thought at the time of a Ranking, similar to one that was done by Playboy magazine The three-phase system proved to be the great triumph of the Cúpula da Cachaça Ranking. That's because we involve a huge number of cachaça devotees in the first phase, which is a Popular Vote, and a group of specialists, cachaça professionals, in the second. In other words, we created a Ranking without distillery owners and with a lot of transparency. The first Ranking had two thousand voters; the last, 34 thousand. The biggest challenge is to maintain the level of credibility that the Ranking has achieved. For this, we have to pay attention to all the details. Especially because there are always those who, for one reason or another, want to challenge the legitimacy of the contest. Our answer is transparency.
What cachaças are you drinking during the quarantine?
All of them! Kidding. The cachaças of the moment are 1000 Montes AOB and Matriarca Jaqueira, because they arrived at the newsroom just before the quarantine; Tiê Prata, because its flavor reminds me of the cane fields and the sunlight, which I miss a lot; the magnificent Soleira, because it is a hibernal cachaça, which warms the heart, and it's getting cold in Rio (about 20 degrees here, close to the Tijuca Forest, which is polar cold for a carioca). And two cachaças from Dom Bré - the extremely round Extra Premium, when I need sweetness, and the vivid Jequitibá, when I want to feel that delicious pepper that the jequitibá brings. It's the one I'm drinking now!
What is your favorite cachaça cocktail? Can you share the recipe?
I'm a huge cocktail fan.
I will talk about two variants of the caipirinha. The first is white cachaça and passion fruit - and it can even be pulp or concentrate - with drops of vanilla essence. If the essence is good, three drops will be all you need.
And then there's the tangerine caipirinha with pepper, like the one made at the Cachaça Social Club, here in Rio. A shot of cachaça, half a tangerine and a chilli pepper. Mash and complete with ice.
What do you think will happen to the cachaça market in the coming years?
I think difficult times will come for many. There are new players who are preparing to enter the field and come with strength. And the market is already saturated. Who will survive without losing relevance? The most traditional brands that do not sleep on service and the most recent ones that know how to work well out of the gate in terms of distribution, trade, promotion, advertising, will succeed. The market changes all the time, although many people don't even realize it. But just take a look at the Ranking. It reflects who goes up, who goes down and who sustains themselves over time.
How many different cachaças have you tasted?
To answer your question, I opened a slightly outdated spreadsheet that lists the producers of all of the cachaças I’ve had. It went over a thousand. But there are a lot of cachaça brands that follow Devotos on Instagram that I've never even heard of. When we think about the number of informal producers in places like Maranhão and Bahia. I try to avoid these. But I think I still need to drink a few to reach half of the 4,000 legal labels.
What is the biggest challenge facing the cachaça market today?
Boy, there are many. A problem at the governmental level is the tax structure, which will take a while to settle. But it is better to talk about internal problems. The representativeness of the [trade] associations is one of them. At the local and national level, there are few that have solid support from the actors in the cachaça chain and internal fights consume time and energy that should be directed to effective results.
Another issue is the professionalization of companies. In general, there is excellent production. But, they are very flawed, often bashful in the way they present themselves. Few really know how to sell and promote their brands and the cachaça category as a whole. And with the fragmented market, companies have little capacity and even less willingness to invest in promotion. This limits the advancement of the sector. Cachaça competes with vodka, with whiskey, with gin, every distillate. Compare the marketing efforts between cachaça and these spirits and you will understand the size of the challenge. But there are very good people working to change this situation.
Is there anything you would like to say to an English speaking audience that is interested in learning more about cachaça?
I would tell them to think of a universe. This is what cachaça offers to those who approach it: a whole world of flavors, surprises and possibilities. I believe that there is no one who appreciates the good labels of the great categories of distillates who are not enchanted with cachaça, especially if they are well aided in their approach. We always talk, because it is important, about the fact that cachaça uses other woods, other than oak, for storage and aging, which is a tremendous differential. So, start with the oaks, follow the umburana, try the balsam etc . And the white ones, of course, after a while. But there is more diversity in terms of alcohol content: cachaças of 38%, others of 48%, different fermentation treatments, an impressive richness of aromas . So, know: there is a cachaça universe, something infinite, full of new discoveries.