Comment - Spirits - Cachaca: Be Wary of Tequila's Lead
They may be linked by little but geographical origin, but cachaça and Tequila have quite a bit more in common that one might initially believe. It's just that, according to Richard Woodard, you've got to really look for the link.
Freelance drinks writers get asked to do some odd things sometimes. Not that long ago, someone pitched the idea of writing an article on Tequila and cachaça. Tequila and cachaça? Try as I might, I still can’t quite get my head around the lazy logic that was at work here: was the unifying factor meant to be “Latin American spirits” or a more lateral idea like “spirits categories of three syllables ending with an ‘a’”?
You could kind of see their thinking if it was rum and cachaça. After all (sorry Brazil), cachaça is essentially rum – it’s distilled from sugar cane and comes in white (unaged) or darker, aged variants. Just as the French Caribbean has its rhum agricole, so Brazil has cachaça. It’s just got a different name.
Tequila, of course, is a very different beast indeed. Even the adulterated mixto stuff is more than half-produced from agave, and the flavour profile is utterly incomparable with any rum. So, 'Tequila and cachaça'? Might as well write a 'Cognac and vodka' article.
But, think about it for a while and maybe they’re not as different as their raw materials and production methods might have you think. In many ways, doesn’t cachaça want to be Tequila, to cut the shackles that make it an almost wholly domestic product with little or no imprint on the global stage?
The global cachaça market is about 85m cases. Of that figure, 99% is still consumed in Brazil. Cachaça’s success overseas (such as it is) has been built squarely on the soaraway success of the Caipirinha, now starring in cocktail bars from Memphis to Mumbai.
What has this done for the profile of cachaça? Almost nothing. Beyond bartenders and drinks nerds, who else knows what’s in a Caipirinha? If the producers in Brazil really wanted to rake in the cash, they should have copyrighted the Caipirinha name, because that’s the brand they’ve built.
Perhaps the most 'international' cachaça brand (acknowledging the claims of Cachaça 51) is Sagatiba, a premium start-up in 2004 by Brazilian entrepreneur Marcos de Moraes and sold in August last year to Gruppo Campari for US$26m.
Sagatiba’s raison d’être from the outset was to break away from the cheap and cheerful, “rough as” volume-led core of the cachaça market, creating a premium and above all international brand that could all but turn its back on the home market.
Eight years on, its annual sales hover around 112,000 cases, of which just over 30% are exported. So cachaça’s great hope for global domination still sells two-thirds of its production in Brazil. Better than 99%, but still…
Okay, so if cachaça is so incapable of building an international presence for itself, why did Campari spend millions on Sagatiba? Not for its cachet in the world’s spirits markets, that’s for sure.
In announcing the deal, CEO Bob Kunze-Concewitz talked about the growing trend towards premium cachaça in the bars of Rio and São Paulo, and the appeal of adding Sagatiba to the company’s already strong spirits brand portfolio in the increasingly buoyant Brazilian market.
International expansion will no doubt feature in the company’s future plans but, for now, there’s only one reason why Campari bought Sagatiba: Brazil.
Of course, it’s easy to see why cachaça might want to be Tequila in terms of recognition. Everyone – but everyone – has heard of Tequila, even if the most persistent associations for many consumers remain bad decisions in late-night drinking sessions, shots and shooters, and the worst, sickest, most head-thumping hangovers of their lives.
But, recognition isn’t the same thing as sales. In sales terms, it’s true to say that Tequila exports well over half of its product, but this apparent international success is built on one market to the almost total exclusion of all others: the US.
In 2011, the Americas – which in this case means pretty much only the US and Mexico – accounted for 90% of global Tequila sales. Brands such as Jose Cuervo, Sauza, Herradura and Patrón may work tirelessly to build their presence in Europe and Asia, but in its way, Tequila is scarcely less 'regional' than cachaça.
This over-reliance on two markets has had a huge influence on Tequila styles, with the more premium, aged expressions in particular produced to delight the American palate. Taste most añejo and extra añejo Tequilas and you could almost be drinking a small-batch Bourbon. That distinctive peppery agave flavour? Not so much.
Certainly there are worse countries to be over-reliant on than the biggest premium spirits market in the world, but what happens if – or, more likely, when – the US falls out of love with Tequila? Producers may yet rue their failure to spread their geographical risk.
As for cachaça and the sector’s premium brands in particular, they’ve got far more to gain from selling to their increasingly wealthy fellow countrymen and women than from spending fortunes on trying to create a name for themselves abroad.
Keep plugging away on the international stage by all means, and keep trying to make that strategy pay off in the long term. But, don’t pin all your hopes on it… And be careful what you wish for.
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