Novo Fogo’s cachaça is more than just a sustainable spirit. It’s at the heart of the fight to save Brazil’s future, too.
Alcohol production, from whiskey and wine to tequila and mezcal, are steeped in tradition. Old ways are often the best, perfected over centuries, with slight tweaks along the way.
The latest tweak? Sustainability.
And that’s perhaps needed nowhere more than in Brazil, where the Amazon rainforest and the Atlantic Forest face daily threats from the livestock industry, logging, and more under the outgoing Jair Bolsonaro administration that relaxed many of the regulations protecting the forests.
For Novo Fogo Cachaça founded by Dragos Axinte, bringing sustainability to the brand’s sugarcane-based alcohol is more than just good business, it’s the only way forward.
Ethos caught up with Axinte via email to discuss Novo Fogo’s sustainability commitments, the threats to the Amazon, and how a liquor brand plays a bigger role than you might think in changing the world.
This article is edited for length and clarity.
Ethos: How did the idea come about to create a sustainable cachaça?
DA: The impetus for Novo Fogo came from the realization that Brazil holds one of the key answers to the world’s future. It is a big country with a gigantic amount of fertile agricultural land, plus the world’s top two most diverse biospheres—the Amazon Forest and the Atlantic Forest.
Brazil can feed the entire planet for a hundred years without having to cut down a single tree—if its people make good decisions. For decades the world has been telling Brazil how to manage these resources, but there is no quicker way to alienate a Brazilian than by claiming that the Amazon is a global asset.
Unlike public opinion holds, Brazil has a significant number of environmental protection laws and the right idea for preservation, even though temporary leaders sometimes detour from that. But it lacks resources for enforcement, and thus it depends on incentive.
This is where we can participate and the strategy is simple: find those Brazilian businesses that are already working the land in positive manners and help them become economically successful. The lesson that you can do well by doing right is the best incentive, and this way foreigners can refrain from acting as unwanted teachers. Positivity spreads, and we prefer leading by example than by activism because we think that action is stronger than words.
Ethos: Can you speak about the conventional practices that needed overhauled to meet this goal?
DA: There was nothing to change. We carefully chose partners who were already model citizens in a model community, the rainforest town of Morretes, in the state of Paraná, the home of “the simpler life.” All we had to do was empower and amplify the existing business and team. At some point we even merged the two companies—the South American distillery and cane plantation with the North American brand ownership—into a single company, and then we changed nothing again.
But the evolution from partnership to one family did help accelerate some of our goals. For example, we improved our regular USDA organic certification to 100 percent organic; we progressed from zero-waste to zero-waste and carbon negative; and we set up The Un-Endangered Forest project, where we seek to remove 36 species of native Brazilian trees from the threatened list.
Ethos: There are other sustainable commerce streams in the Amazon like açaì—what type of similarities are there with the cachaça for both local communities and the rainforest?
DA: We’re in the Amazon’s lesser known sister, the Atlantic Forest, which has sadly lost around 90 percent of its original mass, compared to the Amazon’s 20 percent loss. Both are significant and worrisome, but the livelihood of the people living in these areas is just as critical. What’s more important: the survival of the forest or the survival of the people living in it? Entire communities are at risk if they can’t farm, and their farming practices may come at odds with environmental preservation. This is where the idea of agroforestry can help.
Agroforestry is a combination of agriculture and forestry science where the two components are interdependent. i.e. they make each other better. On our property we employ a number of agroforestry techniques, including this extremely basic one: by having fruit trees everywhere, we attract large populations of birds, who like the fruit in the trees but also eat the insects in the cane fields. This means that we do not need insecticides and can stay true to organic production requirements.
Agroforestry often seeks to earn income streams from positive forestry engagement; for example, we could sell the fruit from the trees and earn additional income. But like everything, this can be done right or wrong. Açaí production started as a sustainable practice, based solely on harvest from açaí palm trees found in the wild; but, with its growth in popularity, açaí palm tree farms are now being developed, and this is starting to endanger native tree and plant populations. In turn, this can have a negative cascading effect on natural life and eventually on the existing farming too.
In our area in the Atlantic Forest, we have a tree similar to the açaí palm, named palmito juçara; this tree is currently harvested mercilessly for its heart of palm and does not regrow after its singular harvest. But its fruit strongly resembles the açaí superfruit and can be sold as a replacement for it year after year; if perpetual fruit commerce can keep this tree from being harvested for its heart just once, then we’re gaining something. The palmito juçara recently joined our list as the 37th species that we are trying to work with, though we’re still figuring out the long-term strategy.
Ethos: Can you speak about your Tree-Keeper initiative? What does that look like? Which celebs are involved? What work are they doing? Why is this so important?
DA: Tree-Keeper is our collaboration with legendary Seattle Sounders goalkeepers Stefan Frei, Kasey Keller, and Marcus Hahnemann to promote our environmental stewardship practices. We contribute $3 per case of bottles sold and $100 for every save made by Stefan Frei and his teammates during official games to The Un-Endangered Forest project. Stefan is also a talented artist and has designed vibrant packaging for our caipirinha kits and Sparkling Caipirinha RTDs that combine our worlds on both sides of the equator. The three keepers are equity partners in the company and spokespeople for this program, dedicating time to speak to their fans about it and urging involvement from both trade and consumer audiences.
Ethos: There’s a rise of women-led spirits businesses but it still seems like a male dominated industry—what changes do you see women bringing?
DA: Both these statements are true; it is a work in progress. As a society, we are going through a phase of transformation and a lot of good things are happening, as we are fixing some long-running wrongs. We’re also seeing some of loud opposition to change, but progress is inevitable.
I am energized to see the field of opportunity in our industry become increasingly more open to all; perspectives that were previously marginalized are becoming normalized. This is right, it’s past due, and it’s cathartic. It also leads to a new era of innovation because, with more women as leaders, we’re seeing the industry landscape through more lenses, so we’re seeing much more and we’re seeing much farther.
This can help everyone in the industry by extending our limits. Product and job fluidity are hugely important in this journey, and those companies putting them forth should be rewarded. We should seek to escape categorization, break the lines between groups, and eventually eliminate the need for the word “minority.” I do think that all this is happening, though it will require a continued push from those rising and a continued pull from those supporting them.
Ethos: You create a range of cachaça varieties from unaged to aged. What are the differences in taste and function for these?
DA: Our core spirits are the Silver, Chameleon, and Barrel-Aged. You can think of them as similar to the concept of blanco, reposado, and añejo tequilas. The Silver is rested for 12 months or more in stainless steel tanks, which seeks to let the liquid rest without altering its color or flavor, since steel is chemically inert; this product is the truest representation of our rainforest terroir, highlighting the naturally sweet and salty profile or our cane: bananas, lime blossoms, and sweet red peppers, influenced by the sea salt that comes up the coastline from the Atlantic. Chameleon is the maven: slightly aged in repurposed oak barrels, it keeps much of the funk of the clear liquid, but some of the nuttiness of the oak shines through to make this spirit multifaceted, hence the name. You’ll taste green olives, spicy citrus, and hazelnuts. The Barrel-Aged expression is the legacy of the Brazilian south: it is more heavily oaked in repurposed bourbon barrels, though in our hot and humid rainforest environment, two years in the small barrel are plenty. This liquid is very approachable, with banana bread, chocolate, and cinnamon bark readily present in aroma and palate.
We also have a Two-Woods line of three expressions that are meant to educate our fans about the native Brazilian wood issue. They are extremely limited runs of a few hundred cases a year and sometimes we have none, because our native wood barrel count is very tiny. We insist on a barrel sourcing process with a page-long checklist to ensure that our legal, ethical, and sustainable considerations are all met, and we do it very rarely, so that we don’t pressure the system.
We start by aging the liquid in the traditional American oak barrel, then give it a short finish in one of three native woods. Our Graciosa expression uses the delicate and sweet Brazil nut wood (we have three barrels of that), Tanager uses the spicy zebrawood (we have a single 300-liter barrel, repurposed from a demolished house), and Colibri uses Brazilian teak, a wood with a heavy cinnamon-like aroma. We have 30 barrels of teak, and before we bought them, we insisted on inspecting the mill source, their business, and their certifications ourselves, choosing not to rely solely on the paperwork handed to us by the cooperage supply chain. These two-wood expressions are not revenue makers, they are educational tools, meant to accompany our stories that blend environmental stewardship with cultural relevance.
Our Single Barrel program relies solely on the broadly-available American oak (ex-bourbon) barrels, which are a staple in cachaça production and represent over 90% of the cachaça labels produced in the Brazilian south. We sell the contents of an entire barrel to individual accounts (usually around 200 bottles) and we customize them with engraved logos and presentation materials. This year we also have a special Tree-Keeper edition of the Single Barrel program that will be a larger, shared pool of these high-proof liquids by Seattle-area accounts.
Our product line is certainly skewed towards the more approachable aged cachaças and specifically American oak, which are representations of Brazilian culture. We are a bi-continental company that continually seeks to bridge geographical gaps without rupturing culture, so this makes sense for us.
Learn more on Novo Fogo’s website.
Related on Ethos: