by Neal MacDonald, Editor, Proof66
Colinas do Sul - or “Hills of the South” - is a cachaca that has a lot of modern marketplace sensibilities in its favor. For example, it’s made from sugar cane grown by a cooperative of small farms in Minas Gerais, Brazil. There they make a point of using sustainable farm methods that includes not burning their fields, presumably meaning that the cane fields were not (at least recently) carved out of the Amazon rain forest. They’re an upstart brand in a category of spirits that’s already the roguish, eccentric cousin of the rum world.
Cachaca is known as “Brazilian rum” and considered the signature spirit of that country. Where most rum is made from molasses - the by-product of sugar production that is fermented, distilled, and then bottled - cachaca is special because it is made from the pressed juice of sugar cane, which is the juice used to make sugar (and molasses) in the first place. In Brazil, they consider it a category unto itself though it can be compared to rhum agricoles that, in the French tradition, are often made from pressed sugar cane.
Here at Proof66, we were provided a bottle of their Silver expression to try out. The middle of December seemed an excellent time to try a spirit famous for beach parties and we did so enthusiastically. The appearance of the bottle is pretty unassuming - classic wine style. But we’ll note one issue: it has a real cork with a wood top and a real, genuine cork seal. This is really cool and lends a kind of rustic authenticity to the spirit… except, for our bottle (bottled in 2010 according to the label), the seal wasn’t very good allowing the cachaca to leak out. The cork just kind of rested hopefully on the bottle without any kind of a tight fit. Hopefully it’s not “fatigued” by the air!
As is our custom, we tried the Colinas do Sul out in a variety of settings trying to compare it to more familiar spirits. We tasted it against Bacardi Light - one of the most popular rums on the planet - as well as Leblon Cachaca - which is one of the highest rated (and widely available) cachacas in the world. If the Colinas do Sul is good enough to pull you away from Bacardi and make you look beyond Leblon, then it is a find indeed.
Sipping Neat: We always start here: room temperature, naked and pure.
The comps: The Bacardi Light is a very familiar sugar aroma with maybe just a breath of citrus. It’s sweet going all the way down with unmistakable rum finish and a bit of needle and bite. Clean. In contrast, the Leblon has a musky, herbal aroma with the sugar that sings “jungle” (or something tree-ish). Tolkien fans would think of ent draughts. It is excellently crafted with no needle and a green, gentle taste. These two spirits represent rum and cachaca respectively - there is no mistaking they are two different spirits.
The Colinas do Sul has a very distinct aroma from the Leblon - the same green, gentle sweet but with a pang of sandalwood and a much richer, less swampy aroma. The taste is much lighter and sweeter than the Leblon with less of a follow-through. The finish has a nibble rather than a bite and a lingering brown-sugar fade. Very nice.
The decision: Of the three, the Bacardi is the cleanest and possibly the more mixable but the two cachacas are far more interesting and the Colinas do Sul the more interesting of the two.
Sipping on Ice: adding a little ice and water often changes the character…
The comps: the aroma vanishes in the Bacardi Light and makes it resemble something closer to vodka (perhaps more mixable); the taste and lingering sweetness is still rum. We judge it better at room temperature as a sipper. The Leblon is still all wet jungle though the chill greatly softened the sweet - again, great craftsmanship and excellent cachaca. It lost no character with the dilution.
The Colinas do Sul: what we saw as a kind of sandalwood scent served neat was much more subdued and more musky on ice and a bit of water - the flavors of cachaca are still evident but a bit diminished and a faint bitterness on the finish. Still an interesting sipper.
The decision: Bacardi Light makes a very boring sipper easily eclipsed by the two cachacas but, of the two, we have to give the nod to Leblon on ice.
Caipirinha: Brazilian drinks begin and end with the Caipirinha cocktail. We used the classic recipe recommended on the Colinas bottle: 2oz of cachaca (our apologies to the nation of Brazil for making one with rum—it was in the name of science!); 1 lime cut into wedges; and 2 teaspoons of turbinado sugar (we actually used agave syrup). We muddled for exactly twenty strokes with a big, old-fashioned wooden monstrosity, gave it 80 shakes on ice, and strained into a glass.
The comps: the heresy of a Puerto Rican rum Caipirinha was a lime-intensive drink with absolutely no alcohol taste whatsoever; very deadly at a beach party. Topped with a bit of club soda, this is an impressively refreshing, made-for-beach drink that is sure to make for greatly embarrassing Facebook pictures and foggy memories. The Leblon herbal aroma subsides to a kind of faint mint with the lime and the flavor becomes a warm, loamy lime instead of the cold crisp lime in the Bacardi. It tastes, perhaps, more authentic or tribal. Delicious… and it becomes fabulous when topped with a bit of soda water. But it calls attention to itself. One could drink 50 of the Bacardi version without ever knowing it where you’d drink 5 of the Leblon version and remember every one.
The Colinas do Sul: there’s a lot to live up to bearing the weight of the Brazilian nation along with our own adulations. The aroma certainly lived up to expectations… it’s gorgeous in the lime. One gets the same mint as the Leblon had but a whole new dimension of berry and fruit… where did that come from? It’s glorious. Tasting, though, was a bit of a letdown. The lime brightened and soured a bit, almost as if the cachaca were glorifying the lime. Does club soda help? No… the sour is still there. Maybe the lime was off?
The decision: hands down the Leblon. The Bacardi was good—in fact, excellent in that we could order it a bar and happily never look back. But the cachaca versions (as they should be) were simply way more interesting and worth a party all by themselves. But the Leblon was, in our opinion, better than the Colinas do Sul in this classic.
Strawberry Caipirinha: Inspired by the traditional version and the fruit overtones in the Colinas do Sul, we tried a Strawberry Caipirinha. This involves replacing half of the lime with an equivalent in fresh strawberries and muddled as before in agave syrup.
The comps: Strawberry and lime is quite a delicious combination. If possible, the drink with the Bacardi Light is even more dangerously drinkable than before. Topped with a dash of club soda, it’s ridiculous. Why this drink isn’t a staple at every college fraternity party is a mystery to us… if those foolish youth would only listen! And it only gets better with the Leblon… the mint fades but the herbal aroma brings out a scent of even fresher strawberries (if that can make sense when we used fresh strawberries to begin with) for a lemonade-like finish. Oddly, it actually gets a bit lessened with club soda… far better to take it straight (for even wilder parties).
The Colinas do Sul: Once again, a lot to live up to! We designed this drink for the Colinas do Sul and the muskiness still comes through. As does the sour in the lime. We’re afraid this didn’t quite work to expectations. It’s good but not quite as good as the Bacardi (which vanishes completely in the drink) and not nearly as good as the Leblon.
Decision: Alas for the Colinas do Sul, the Leblon is the clear champion here. It’s an absolutely fantastic and unmistakable mix for a strawberry Caipirinha.
With Coke: for reasons of sentimentality, rum is always associated with Coke. Is there a reason to buy a cachaca for a “cachacha and Coke” rather than a “rum and Coke”? We used genuine Coca-Cola (US bottling version with corn syrup rather than cane sugar sadly) in ratios of about 3:2 cola to spirit with ice.
The comps: the Bacardi Light and Coke was utterly predictable… one knows there’s rum in the drink but it could be just about any rum. It did slide nicely and smoothly into the Coke but not a great cocktail (why do college kids always drink this?). The Leblon, on the other hand, retains a distinctive aroma even in the Coke; one is left with a sense of “Wait, what is that I’m smelling?” The taste is much more interesting as well - a much better dance partner for Coke and a drink we’d order a second time.
The Colinas do Sul: that musky sandalwood comes right out of the Coke; we think the cola accentuates the aroma and heightens the experience. Here, there is a split whether this is a good or a bad thing but for those who like cachaca in general, we guess you’ll love this aroma. The taste is enveloping with the muskiness and even outshines the cola. We feel this makes for a very successful spirit that doesn’t just shine through the cola but instead throws it to the ground, jumps on top of it with knees and chest, and pummels it into submission.
The decision: we can tolerate the Bacardi Light in Coke but greatly enjoyed the cachacas in it. Of the two, Colinas do Sul by far had the more distinctive taste, one we could pick out of a crowd. For those who enjoy rum and cola, this is a definite must-try.
Coconut Water and Mint: We wanted to try something divergent from citrus and fruit that would take advantage of the musky, woody qualities of the Colinas do Sul. In a burst of inspiration/foolhardiness, we muddled mint into coconut water and a bit of agave syrup and shook on ice with the cachaca with a dash of Fee Brothers Celery Bitters.
The comps: First, if you’re doing this at home, avoid the celery bitters since it smells weird with the mint. But the taste is actually very nice with a light jade color, soft sweet coconut with a nuance of mint. There is absolutely no heat from the alcohol whatsoever from the Bacardi. For all we know, it could’ve been vodka. The Leblon musk comes right through even the weird pepper from the bitters. Tasting, though, the flavors were in great conflict with each other and not good at all.
The Colinas do Sul: this is always an interesting moment for us…we come up with plenty of bad cocktail recipes. But it’s always the mark of a good spirit if it can save a bad recipe. So far, this celery/mint/coconut monstrosity is definitely bad (particularly for cachaca if the Leblon is any judge). The aroma is definitely better - it smells decidedly more garden-like without any of the conflicting, bizarre pepper. Where with the comps you sip with trepidation, with the Colinas do Sul you sip with interest. And the wood/earth flavors of the Colinas do Sul did save the drink… it’s not exactly good but it definitely saved it from being vile. We see lots of potential here with different herbal flavors for the daring mixologist.
The decision: while the Bacardi is the safe play here the expert will be far better served with the Colinas in tinkering with different, signature cocktails.
Verdict: We can say with some finality that working with cachaca in general is a lot more fun than working with light rum. Of the cachacas, the Colinas do Sul is very good but is slightly edged out in citrus settings by the Leblon. But in herbal settings - and we would put Coke in this class! - the Colinas is the better of two very good choices. At the time of this writing, Leblon is in the number one position of 61 rated cachacas according to our algorithm. The Colinas do Sul can enter the field confidently with Leblon and even best it in some categories: a very well-made spirit and an excellent choice for upscale settings and herbal/spice cocktails.