Virga was launched in July 2016, making it the first craft Brazilian gin and starting a new category named by Virga’s producers as Brazilian Dry or Gim Seco do Brasil. Following the path of other gin brands produced recently in Europe, Virga fits the profile of a contemporary gin, highlighting local flavors and distancing itself from the classical London Dry style. In other to understand more about the concept and flavors of Virga, the producers had to go deep not only into the history of gin, but also into the beginning of spirits making in Latin America and Brazil.
Distilled in a Cachaça copper pot still:
Virga is produced in Pirassununga, located 2h30m by car from São Paulo city. In that part of the countryside of the state of São Paulo the flat landscape, the warm and humid climate surrounded by the Atlantic Forest benefit the growth of sugarcane, the source material for the region main income activities: sugar, ethanol and brandy. It is in Pirassununga where is located Cachaça 51, one of the world biggest spirit industry, and many other smaller craft cachaça producers like Foltran.
At Fazenda Guadalupe, in the rural area of Pirassununga, Foltran makes craft cachaça since the beginning of last century and is also the home where the gin revolution started in Brazil. Using a tradition cachaça alembic, the master distiller Gabriel Foltran makes small batches of cachaças Patrimônio and Engenho Pequeno, and since 2016, gin Virga in partnership with Felipe Jannuzzi, Joscha Niemann and João Lucas Leme from Espíritos Brasileiros.
Although the geometry of the cachaça alembic is different from the common copper pot usually used in Europe, technically the equipment is fit to distilled other spirits like rum, whisky, grappa, vodka and gin. In a country with thousands of alembics there is a huge potential for a craft spirit rise with many cachaça producers starting to make other spirits as well. This benefits the artisanal craft spirit market in Brazil in general, in the past overwhelmed with many cachaça brands and now discovering different categories manly represented by industrial brands.
And for the craft cachaça producers there is another advantage for heating up their pot stills: cachaça is a seasonable product that is only produced when sugarcane is mature and has enough sugar to start the fermentation process. That means that many smaller producers have their alembics idle for many months – so why not start making different spirits?
Since Virga, other traditional cachaça brands, craft and industrial, started to produce gin as well. And the market in getting ready to produce whisky and rum in the upcoming months of mid. 2018.
Pacová (Renealmia sp) – Brazilian botanical:
The main botanical used in Virga is a Brazilian plant from the ginger family called Pacová, a name in tupi-guarani that means “rolled leaf”. There are 7 endemic types of pacová in Brazil and Virga uses one specie called Renealmia alpinia, which is commonly known as “cardamomo brasileiro” (Brazilian cardamom) because of its resemblance in taste with cardamom mixed with other complex flavors like woody, mint, ginger and black pepper.
Sadly in Brazil, many native botanicals are not well known by its population and so it lacks of gastronomical and economical value and in some cases are in risky of extinction. Although there is substantial academical literature documenting the uses of pacová leaves, ryzoma, roots, seeds and fruits by native Brazilians and by traditional communities as an ingredient for tea, soups and spices, the plant has lost its values as an ingredient in the urban centers. To find pacová in a specialized market in São Paulo is almost impossible! In other to solve that, in 2018, Virga producers started to plant pacová in an agroflorestry in Pirassununga and to work with a community in Ubatuba, in the coast of São Paulo, aiming to preserve, cultivate and create another source of income for the locals.
Cachaça (Brasil) x Genever (Holland)
This may come as a shock but gin is not an English invention but it was actually originated in Holland in the mid 17th century. Gin was developed based on an older Dutch liquor, jenever – a juniper flavored spirit produced by distilling malt wine, a blend that contains a percentage of non-neutral alcohol. One of the main characteristic of jenever is its aromatic taste with malty flavors. While the London Dry style gin uses neutral taste alcohol, like vodka, jenever has a full, complex and rich flavor of grains that comes from the alcohol base, like whisky.
Joscha Niemann, one of Virga’s producer, comes from Schiedam, a city in Holland where is located Onder de Boompjes distillery, one of the oldest in Europe and the home of one of the best jenevers in the world. Understanding the origins of gin and the tastes of different alcohol bases was an important part for developing the flavors of Brazil’s first gin.
The Dutchmen also innovated in the spirit industry in South America. One version that tells the origins of cachaça, America oldest spirit, says it was an entrepreneurship between three Portuguese and one Dutchman in 1532 at Engenho dos Erasmus in São Vicente – São Paulo when sugarcane was used to create liquor. Since the 16th century, sugarcane is Brazilian main source of sugar and is the raw material of Brazilian national spirit, cachaça. To honor Brazilian tradition as a spirit producer and to use an abundant and rich source for potable alcohol, Virga is produced using sugarcane. However, there is another reason to use sugarcane as base material: taste!
Flavours are not only in the botanicals
Like jenever, Virga has a percentage of extra-neutral alcohol blended with a non-neutral base. The flavors and richness of Virga comes from infusing the botanicals in extra-neutral sugarcane alcohol, technically 96% ethanol, distilling it in copper pot still and later blending with 15% of non-neutral sugarcane alcohol: cachaça.
In 2014, in partnership with the Ministry of Culture of Brazil, Felipe Jannuzzi, one of Virga’s producers, created a “Cachaça Aroma Wheel” to show the complex flavors achieved by creating a high quality craft cachaça. The different types of sugarcane, and fermentation and distillation technics can result in a spirit that has floral, fruity, vegetal, spicy tastes.
Cachaça, rum, jenever, mezcal, tequila, grappa, whisky are spirits that gain complexity by highlighting the flavors of the raw material and the fermentation process. Virga innovates by being the first gin in the world that uses cachaça as part of its alcohol base to enrich the flavors. In the gin market, we see other brands that uses this concept of blending different alcohol bases to create authentic and unique spirits. For example, there are brands like Ferdinand’s, a German gin blended with Riesling, Jinzu, a Scottish gin blended with sake or Mezcal Gin, a Mexican gin that uses agave as its source material.
Tasting: Virga Gim Seco do Brasil: 45%
In the noise vegetal, hints of vanilla, spices like nutmeg and cardamom, pine, dried banana and after diluted in ice brings up some citric aroma. In the month well balanced sweetness with spice flavours, warm and long aftertaste. A multi-layered and unique gin. During a blind tasting it was not hard to spot this Brazilian gin with a lot of personality which may surprise the traditional gin drinker used to the London Dry style.