"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair
My father-in-law (the real cachaça expert whom you would be reading if he blogged) pointed me to the much-celebrated filing in the Federal Register (PDF) wherein the "old, weary, unelected giants of concrete and steel" (as I called them) officially "recognized" cachaça as uniquely Brazilian.
A lot of people made a big deal out of this, including me. However, the filing (like so many other government documents) should have come with its own rim-shot sound effects.
According to the document, the Brazilian government petitioned the ATF in an April 2001 letter to "amend its regulations to recognize...cachaça as a distinctive product of Brazil." Despite the fact that cachaça is well-known worldwide as a Brazilian beverage "no further action was taken with regard to the request."
A 2010 petition was apparently more successful and, in April 2012, the bureaucrats on both sides signed an agreement. It stipulated that, if the U.S. recognized cachaça as "a type of rum that is a distinctive product of Brazil, then Brazil, within 30 days thereafter, will recognize Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey as distinctive products of the United States." Tit-for-tat, I guess.
Let's start with this (boldface emphasis mine here and following):
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) administers the FAA [Federal Alcohol Administration] Act pursuant to section 1111(d) of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.
Yup... It's a Homeland Security matter. So, if you drink any foreign booze the U.S. government doesn't like, you drink with Bin-Laden's ghost!
Cachaça products are generally classified as rums under the terms of TTB's current labeling regulations.
It's important to note that the filing, as I read it, still classifies cachaça as "rum" but no longer requires the sub-labeling of "Brazilian Rum". The fact that cachaça actually pre-dates rum by more than a century was apparently lost on the regulators.
Okay, now here's what got my father-in-law started:
In some instances, products identified by importers as cachaça have been manufactured using a small quantity of corn or corn syrup in the fermentation process. Since these products do not meet the standard for rum... TTB has required the labeling of these products as distilled spirit specialty products.
If the distiller uses corn as a meaningful component of the must, then the regulator most certainly has a case here. However, in quite a few instances, the distiller may use corn merely as a means to to catalyze the yeasts at the fermentation stage, not as a substantial part of the final product. This rule, as written, would unfairly force these cachacas back into another labeling ghetto.
Later, the filing then goes back to reiterate the corn issue:
...under the terms of the proposed text set forth in this document, distilled spirits that use any corn or corn syrup in the fermentation process would not meet the proposed standard for "cachaça" because they are not manufactured in compliance with the laws of Brazil regulating the manufacture of cachaça for consumption in that country.
Well, it's nice to know that the U.S. government cares about the laws in another country as they pertain to their labeling and marketing in the U.S. (Cold comfort to Gibson Guitars, speaking of the unnecessarily persecuted.) However, the U.S. government breaks with this standard in the very next paragraph:
The Brazilian standard allows products designated as Cachaça to have an alcohol content ranging from 38 to 48 percent alcohol by volume. However, since the standard proposed in this document would identify Cachaça as a type of rum, and the United States standard requires that rum must be bottled at not less than 40 percent alcohol by volume, or 80 degrees proof, any "Cachaça" imported into the United States would have to conform to this minimum bottling proof requirement. A product that is bottled at below 40 percent alcohol by volume would fall outside this class and type designation. Depending on the way that such a product is manufactured, it could be labeled as a "diluted Cachaça" or a distilled spirits specialty product bearing a statement of composition.
So, in one case, the Brazilian standard is the basis for the government's opinion and, in another, cachaça must be inelegantly stuffed into the creaky "rum" definition due to a minor misalignment in alcohol content ranges. Checking my collection, this ruling would invalidate a little less than 10% of my stash as Saturno, Abelha and Aroma Brazil are at between 38% and 39% ABV. At least one distiller I've talked to even dilutes its product by 2% ABV for tax reasons.
So, there's still something worth celebrating about the regulatory filing (as some cachaça makers certainly have) in terms of Brazil getting some long-overdue diplomatic and bureaucratic recognition for its native spirit. However, the overreach of the federal government and the unwillingness of the detailcrats to bother with details are still very much on display.