Marcos Vaccaro has lent his magic touch to the production of Abelha Cachaça since the early 2000s. Here, he speaks about his passion for cachaça and for making artesanal cachaça with an organic and sustainable ethos. We call him a ‘Visionary’ due to his social attitude and approach to life; Marcos is more than a master distiller: he is a strong and cohesive force in a changing community.
1. Tell us about your interest in producing cachaça and when it first started?
It is funny, but it all started in my childhood really. I grew up in the countryside where the farming tradition is strong and I watched different farming processes and found them fascinating. I first started as a production manager…farming potatoes! (laughs). My interest increased later on, when I moved from Santa Catarina in the south of Brazil, where I was born, to live in the Chapada Diamantina, in Bahia in the northeast of the country. It was 1998 and at that time artisanal cachaça was becoming more popular, so…one thing led to another and here I am!
2. When did you become a Master Distiller?
I began my journey to become a master distiller back in 1999 when I set up an organic farm in Bahia and took several courses on how to make cachaça using an alambique (traditional copper pot still). I travelled around the country visiting a great deal of cachaça producers in Brazil; some of them were famous names in the cachaça industry, and it was a fascinating experience. It’s safe to say I’m a master distiller 4 months a year, when I’m dealing with the process of fermentation and distillation of cachaça. The rest of the year, I’m a farmer worried about producing the best sugar cane in the most sustainable way as possible.
3. What does it take to make great cachaça?
Believe it or not, the process of making cachaça is actually a very simple one! Good quality cachaça comes from a good climate, medium to low fertility soil with rain and heat during the growth of the sugar cane and water restrictions and low temperature during maturation. We are lucky at Fazenda Vaccaro in that we have these natural things as a foundation to build on – we say we are at a geographical heaven for the production of cachaça! The quality of the final cachaça is guaranteed by following the each process with utmost care, through cultivation, fermentation to distillation, resting and aging.
4. What do you think cachaça means to Brazilians?
Mixed! Cachaca is consumed by many and is also considered by many Brazilians as a “peasant´s beverage”. Therefore there is a considerable prejudice in the consumer market. However, many people, including opinion leaders and journalists are opening up to the quality of the artisanal cachaça, and it’s premium value in the market, something that is very important to us. We like to think we’re helping shape this new perspective towards cachaça.
5. What is your favourite drink made using cachaça?
That’s easy! A type of strawberry granita; frozen strawberries blended with sugar and cachaça and a little spring water. I often head down to a local restaurant that makes it with organic strawberries, also from our farm.
6. Tell us a little bit about your story with Abelha. How did it all start?
Our first contact happened when Anthony and Hal found something about our farm on the internet! I wasn’t very convinced initially because they looked too young (laughs)… but I soon put my doubts aside after meeting them.
Our relationship blossomed from the very beginning due to our shared ethos on sustainability, organic farming and outlook on life. Anthony spent some time living in a rural community in the South of Brazil and worked with farmers like us in Vaccaro Farm. My meeting with Hal was slightly different; at first I thought he was very serious (very English!), but after spending time with him I realised he is funny with a good sense of humour. Nowadays, more than business partners, I consider them my friends.
7. How is Abelha different from other cachaças?
I’m sure I have a biased opinion (laughs)…. although according to VIP magazine Awards (one of the top lifestyle magazines in Brazil) for best Brazilian Cachaca, Abelha won the top prize in the artisanal category! The main difference between the large majority of cachaca in Brazil and Abelha, an artisanal cachaca is the production process; industrial cachacas are produced in a column still via continuous distillation; no separation between the beginning and end of the distillation. Artisanal cachaças (like Abelha) are produced in alambique, (copper-pot still) which allows separation to improve the compostion, body and flavour of the resulting cachaça.
8. Have you added any special touches to the production of Abelha cachaça?
Well, every master distiller places a bit of themselves in the process of making their cachaça. It is very personal. My main role is to ensure that the utmost care is taken during all processes and very importantly that we harvest and press the sugar cane at the optimum time.
9. Tell us a little bit about Rio de Contas, the region where Abelha is produced.
It is truly a magical place. Rio de Contas is within the Chapada Diamantina, a national park and one of the highest parts of Bahia, filled with waterfalls, lakes and beautiful views It is attracting more and more ‘ecological tourists’, who come for it’s natural beauty. Rio de Contas is also known for its colonial architecture, with houses and buildings dating to diamond and gold exploration in the 19th Century. To me, it’s a must visit place!
10. What advice you would give young people who would like to become a master distiller?
Be humble and don’t be afraid to visit other distillers, always trying to learn tips from them!