During a raucous party to commemorate Brazilian independence day, held at the happening club S.O.B.’s in Manhattan, the logo of Cuca Fresca cachaca, a spirit distilled in Brazil, remained illuminated behind the bands throughout the night.
In the party area, light and dark cachaca flowed as the Cuca Fresca team celebrated a pending deal to make their brand the house cachaca at the longstanding nightspot, whose initials stand for Sounds of Brazil.
Cachaca (pronounced ka-sha-sa) is distilled from fresh-pressed sugar cane rather than processed molasses, like commercial rum, and is usually the main ingredient in the cocktail called a caipirinha, made from crushed lime and sugar, cachaca and ice. The drink competes with mojitos in clubs where Brazilians and the people who love them gather.
Brands include a clear premium cachaca, Pura Gold and ready-mixed cocktails.
"Cuca Fresca isn’t overly sweet, so it’s good for sipping on its own, especially the Pura Gold, which is aged longer,” said Dival Ramiro, owner of Cachacaria Boteco, a cachaca bar in Manhattan. “Like a fine bourbon, it goes well with a cigar."
Cuca Fresca—which means cool head in Portugese—maintains its United States headquarters in Pleasantville, where Phoenix Kelly-Rappa, managing partner, holds court in a carriage house that the company built.
While her partners take care of business in Brazil, she handles sales and marketing. Though knowledge of cachaca rarely extends beyond major metropolitan areas, she expects the cachaca category to experience an exponential increase, especially after the 2014 World Cup is held in Brazil and the Summer Olympics take place in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“We still have a long way to go, but knowledge of caipirinhas has grown and people are hipper to it than they were five years ago,” said Kelly-Rappa. “In the next five years, it’s going to be huge.”
Currently, the brand is distributed in 20 markets in the United States along with Puerto Rico, Canada and Europe. Sales have reached 5,000 cases a year for the past two years, a respectable figure for a boutique brand and about five percent of the category, but nowhere near the sales of Bacardi, for example, said Kelly-Rappa. Her biggest competitor, Leblon, sells 20,000 cases annually.
She is in talks with the Hard Rock Hotel & Restaurant Group, along with the group that owns the Olive Garden and Red Lobster, which would obviously boost its mainstream appeal.
In Pleasantville, , which revamps its menu every season, will be offering Pura Gold and will feature an apple cider martini developed by Cuca Fresca’s Miami-based mixologist as a special on its drink menu. The brand is also available at the Brazilian restaurant in Tarrytown and at in Mount Kisco.
Kelly-Rappa got involved with Cuca Fresca through her father, who owned a club called The Cooler in the meatpacking district of Manhattan long before it became a chic hangout. He befriended a Brazilian electrician who introduced him to cachaca.
Kelly-Rappa’s friend, Araci Ferreira Slasinski, one of Cuca Fresca’s founders and managing partners, happened to be the scion of a prominent cachaca-making family in Brazil. Her husband’s grandfather, an industry veteran, also had connections in local liquor distributing circles.
“The liquor business is all about relationships,” said Kelly-Rappa. “People who have been doing it their whole lives have counseled us.”
At the moment, cachaca is the fastest growing spirit category in the United States and analysts compare it with the introduction and growth of tequila 30 years ago, said Kelly-Rappa. Back then, few brands crowded bar and liquor store shelves, but the introduction of the margarita served as the gateway to more premium brands like Herradura and Patron, for example.
"People used to drink whatever tequila there was, but then they became more educated,” she said. “Cachaca is following same path and since it’s a versatile drink, it mixes well. In the last five years, premium brands have taken off and as people gain more knowledge about the category, we believe that we’re on the verge of something big.”
To learn more about Cuca Fresca, visit its website.