Amherst Magazine

The Search for the Perfect Spirit

Matti Anttila '01

Cachaça is a liquor relatively unknown in most of the world, but because it is so popular in Brazil, it is one of the world’s top three spirits in terms of quantity produced. Matti Anttila ’01 is bringing cachaça to a U.S. market.

Matti Anttila ’01 sees a big opportunity in a pricy Brazilian liquor. Will it become the next “it” drink?

By Anthony Dias Blue ’62

I was sitting in one of my favorite watering holes choking on a mojito. “Do you want me to do the Heimlich on you?” my less-than-concerned and not highly motivated companion asked, without taking his eyes off his own cocktail. “No,” I coughed, “I’m okay.” I regained my composure and my breath. I had choked on a piece of mint leaf, a prime ingredient in the cocktail du jour (and nuit) around Los Angeles. “I hate mojitos,” I sputtered. I’m always either spitting out the mint leaves or choking on them. It’s like drinking swamp water.

“Why don’t you have a caipirinha?” my friend suggested. “It’s kinda the same thing, without the flotsam.” I asked for one, not letting on that I really didn’t know what I was ordering. As I sipped the cool, mellow cocktail with a refreshing hit of crisp citrus, I was intrigued by an exotic note of herbs and vegetation, sort of like the damp ripeness of the rainforest (not that I have ever been in a rainforest, but this is what I imagined one would taste/smell like).

Now, for you cold weather types, a little primer on tropical and sub-tropical cocktails: The very first such blend was a mixture of rum and fruit juice created for British sailors to serve a dual purpose—to retard drunkenness and to fend off beriberi. Since the 18th century, the rum cocktail has been a staple in the drinker’s repertoire. Such creations as Cuba libre, daiquiri, planter’s punch, mai tai, navy grog, rum collins, scorpion, piña colada and zombie have mined this fertile area.

Then, travelers seeking the sun in Mexico made an important discovery. They found a spirit made in Jalisco from the roasted hearts of the agave, a hardy, cactus-like member of the lily family. It became a macho thing to drink the fiery liquor named after the little town of Tequila in the agave-growing region. Soon enough, in the first half of the 20th century, a cocktail, the margarita, was created using the same basic formula—fruit juice and spirit. The margarita became the most popular cocktail in the United States.

Enter the mojito, a return to rum with the addition of muddled mint leaves. This high-concept cocktail didn’t dethrone the margarita, but it did become a fixture in the hippest environments. Yet just when it looked like bar hounds would be spitting mint leaves for the foreseeable future, the caipirinha (pronounced “KIPE-er-REEN-ya”) began to gather steam.

After my first encounter with a caipirinha, I did the research (using the valuable empirical thought processes I learned at Amherst). This cocktail involves fruit (lime) and a spirit. What makes it quite different is the spirit used: cachaça (“ka-SHA-sa”). This liquor, relatively unknown in most of the world, is very well-known in Brazil, where it is consumed at a rate so accelerated as to make it one of the world’s top three spirits in terms of quantity produced. Cachaça is similar to rum (which is made from molasses) but unique in that it is made from sugar cane juice and often aged in barrels made from exotic rainforest woods. Instead of tasting sugary like rum, it is more herbal and complex.

Matti Anttila ’01 had an equally epiphanous moment with a caipirinha in his hand. “In March of 2005,” he says, “I was in an Argentine restaurant, drinking a caipirinha with my then fiancée, now wife, Jennifer, and a light bulb went off. I love this drink, and I realized that I wasn’t aware of any premium cachaça on the market in the U.S.”

After graduating from Amherst, Anttila took a well-traveled path to work at JP Morgan in New York City as a fledgling investment banker. “I was in the natural resources department,” he says. “In the next cubicle was a Brazilian fellow who became a very close friend. I took him to the Amherst-Williams game that first year. He was stunned by the whole experience.”

While at JP Morgan, Anttila went to Brazil on business and for the wedding of his office friend. “In the back of my mind,” Anttila says, “I was trying to figure out a way to incorporate Brazil into my business life, what with all the connections I was making there and all the opportunities I saw.”

Anttila left New York and banking after two years to return to his hometown, Santa Barbara, Calif., where he joined his father’s real estate development company. This placed him, a year or so later, with that fateful caipirinha in his hand. “I realized there was a big opportunity in cachaça,” he says, “but it had to be done the right way—stylish packaging, a good name and a winning flavor profile. If it was done right and it captured the essence of Brazil in a premium way and played to the other exciting aspects of Brazil, such as the fashion world and music, it could succeed.”

At first, he considered the existing brands in Brazil. “But I couldn’t find one that looked, tasted, smelled like what I wanted to market in the States,” he says. So he met with about a dozen distillers in Brazil. “I found one outside of São Paolo doing some very innovative things—double distilling in pot stills, doing a lot of quality control.”

Anttila designed the new product to his vision of what could sell in the United States. “We adjusted the proof,” he says, “and mellowed it in oak for six months. I would bring back samples to taste with my friends because they were the market I was going after.”

Anttila moved back to New York in June 2006 to launch his product, Cabana Cachaça. “I wanted to make it premium, exclusive, expensive—and to distance it from the hokey, tropical image.” At more than $30 a bottle, Cabana is a luxury item. In recent years, a few other high-end cachaça brands—among them Leblon and Agua Luca—have also arrived in American markets.

Anttila must be doing something right. He hopes to sell 5,500 cases of Cabana by the end of 2007, mostly to bars and restaurants. In October 2006, The New York Times included Anttila and Cabana in a Sunday Styles feature. Bungalow 8 in New York is among the hot spots now serving the brand. Anttila is a tireless marketer. He makes personal, face-to-face sales calls. This technique is somewhat unorthodox for the liquor industry. Most big companies with a long list of products can’t afford the time to personally sell each one. “One of my advantages is that I haven’t had preconceived notions about this business and about how something like this is done; I’ve learned along the way and kept my perspective as a consumer.”

How did his Amherst experience affect his new business? “I realized the best use of my time at Amherst was to get the broadest possible education and be as well-rounded as possible,” Anttila says. “Amherst gave me the opportunity to grow intellectually, to respond to various environments and to think creatively.” Done, done and done.

Like tequila, cachaça’s initial appeal is based on the growing popularity of a cocktail, in this case the caipirinha. But if cachaça is to become as ubiquitous as tequila, it will have to make it on its own. This is a tall order in a crowded market, but cachaça is a complex, fascinating drink that carries with it the sexy, tropical image of Brazil.

Anthony Dias Blue, winner of a James Beard Foundation award, is the author of Anthony Dias Blue’s Pocket Guide to Wine. He is founding director of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, which awarded Cabana a silver medal in the 2006 and 2007 cachaça categories.