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Cachaça, Folklore

Cachaça, the spirit (firewater) made from sugarcane, is the typical drink of the Brazilian people. Known by many different ‘nicknames’ like cana (cane), caninha (little cane) or branquinha (whitey), água-que-passarinho-não-bebe (water-that-birdie-won’t-drink), among others, cachaça is to Brazil what tequila is to Mexico and bagaceira to Portugal.

Cachaça, Folklore

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Last update: 26/10/2016

By: Lúcia Gaspar - Librarian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

Branquinha, (Whitey)
Branquinha, (Whitey)
é suco de cana (is sugarcane juice)
pouqinho – é rainha, (a little – it’s a queen)
muitão – é tirana... (a lot – it’s a tyrant)

(Ascenso Ferreira)

Cachaça, the spirit (firewater) made from sugarcane, is the typical drink of the Brazilian people. Known by many different ‘nicknames’ like cana (cane), caninha (little cane) or branquinha (whitey), água-que-passarinho-não-bebe (water-that-birdie-won’t-drink), among others, cachaça is to Brazil what tequila is to Mexico and bagaceira to Portugal.

According to Luís da Câmara Cascudo, the name originates from the fields of the Minho region in Portugal. The word ‘cachaça’, however, never caught on in either that country or in Spain. The oldest recorded of the word is from the 16th century. It shows up in a letter from a Portuguese nobleman, Sá de Miranda (1481-1558), sent to Antônio Pereira, Lord of Basto:

Ali não mordia a graça (There they don’t bite for fun)
Eram iguais os juízes, (They were equal to judges)
Não vinha nada da praça, (Nothing came from the plaza)
Ali, da vossa cachaça! (There, your cachaça!)
Ali, das vossas perdizes! (There your patridges!)

When it began to be produced in Brazil, cachaça was a type of syrup, without a trace of alcohol. It was the foam from the cauldron which was used to purify the liquid sugar on a low heat. It was also used to feed animals, such as donkeys, goats and sheep.

Only after the second half of the 16th century did the drink begin to be made in stills, which were initially made from clay and then later from copper.

In the olden days, on Northeast Brazilian plantations, cachaça would be given to the slaves during the first meal of the day, so they could better handle the difficult day they were faced with in the cane fields.

Various foreign travellers who visited Brazil recorded information about the production of the drink, since the 16th century, but never used the term ‘cachaça’. André João Antonil was one of the first to use it in Brazil, in the first decade of the 18th century. In the 19th century, other travellers, such as Frenchman Auguste de Saint-Hillaire and the Englishman Henry Koster, also spoke about the production of cachaça.

The drink became a national drink with the political movements that supported the country’s independence. It was the preferred drink of the patriots, who refused to drink foreign wine, especially Portuguese wines.

It is present at over-the-counter and pub conversations in the suburbs and the rural areas of Brazil, as well as at wakes in countryside towns. It is also mandatory at celebrations such as baptisms, where it is served mixed with honey and passion fruit juice, known as “cachimbo” (pipe) ou “cachimbada”.

Whether in caipirinhas or batidas (mixes), mixed with fruit and ice, or pure, taking a quick swig before typical dishes of Brazilian cuisine, like feijoada, for example, cachaça is a part of Brazilian daily life.

In popular medicine it is mainly used in the preparation of “garrafadas”, a well-known popular medicine often used by the population.

In the religious ceremonies of Afro-Brazilian cults, like candomblé and xangô, cachaça is an important element. The liquid is poured on the ground to honour the divinities. Cachaça is indispensible in Brazilian Catimbó. Without it, an “efficient” amulet or spell cannot be made. In the indigenous ritual pajelança, from Amazônia, the wrists, temples, soles of the feet, palms of the hands, back of the neck and the top of the head are moistened with cachaça, which forms an impenetrable armour that protects the individual for several days or weeks.

Cachaça has been the object of research of many folklorists, such as Luís da Câmara Cascudo, Mário Souto Maior, Nelson Barbalho, and José Calasans, which points to its importance to national culture. There are many sayings, verses and praises of the water-the-bird-won’t-drink that have been recorded and passed down through generations and by students of the subject, which help to preserve Brazilian popular culture:

A cachaça alegra os tristes. (Cachaça gives joy to the sad)
Melhora quem está doente, (Cures the sick)
Faz aleijado corer (Makes the crippled run)
E cego ver de repente (And the blind see again)

Agora eu quero falar (Now I want to speak)
Da saborosa cachaça, (Of sweet-tasting cachaça)
Bebida de bom consumo (The widely-consumed drink)
Seja no mato ou na praça, (Whether in the forest or the square)
Aos poucos traz alegria (A little brings joy)
Demais, só traz desgraça (To much, just brings disgrace)

Água de cana é cachaça (Sugarcane water is cachaça)
Concha pequena é colher (Little shell is the spoon)
Língua de velha é desgraça (Old woman’s tongue is disaster)
Bicho danado é mulher (Wild animal is wife)

Popular literature in verses, better known as literatura de cordel (chap books) in Brazil, have a large number of sheets with cachaça as the theme, as there are many Brazilian anecdotes about ‘whitey’.

As Sebastião Vila Nova said:

If it is undeniable that cachaça has compromised the health of many low-income and malnourished Brazilians, on the other hand, it is also unquestionable that without it many buildings would not have been built; a lot work would never have been done by the heroic, poor people of our Brazil.

Recife, 28 November 2005.
(Updated on 25 August 2009).
(Update on 26 october 2016).
Translated by Peter Leamy, January 2011.

sources consulted

BARBALHO, Nelson. Dicionário da aguardente. Recife: [CEPE], 1974.

CACHAÇA [Foto neste texto]. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 26 out. 2016.

CASCUDO, Luís da Câmara. Dicionário do folclore brasileiro. Rio de Janeiro: Edições de Ouro, [19--].

______. Prelúdio da cachaça: etnografia, história e sociologia da aguardente no Brasil. Belo Horizonte: Itatiaia, 1986.

SOUTO MAIOR, Mário. Dicionário folclórico da cachaça. Recife, 1973.

VILA NOVA, Sebastião. Cachaça, uma biografia: apresentação. Ciência & Trópico, Recife, v. 27, n. 2, p. 401-402, jul./dez. 1999.


how to quote this text

Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Cachaça, Folklore. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at:  <>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.