The Miami Herald / May 2, 1997
By Larry Luxner
PIRASSUNUNGA, Brazil -- Few liquor-industry executives know this, but the Western Hemisphere's best-selling spirit isn't Jack Daniels, or Johnnie Walker, or even Bacardi. It's Brazil's Pirassununga 51 -- a potent cachaša liquor distilled from fermented sugar-cane juice and sold throughout this vast nation of 160 million people, from corner markets in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to the farthest fringes of the Amazon.
Known widely as a drink of the middle and lower classes, cachaša (pronounced ca-CHA-sah) has been around ever since 1543. That's the year Erasmus Scheltz, a Swiss immigrant, developed the fermenting process at one of Brazil's first sugar-cane mills near the port of Santos. Today, a one-liter bottle of cachaša retails for $2 or less, putting the liquor within reach of even the poorest Brazilians.
Peter Carl Armstrong is sales and export director at Industrias Muller de Bebidas Ltda., the family business that owns 99.968% of Pirassununga. The Canadian-born executive says Brazil's total cachaša market comes to 654 million liters worth around $745 million, with Pirassununga enjoying a 33.1% share of that market (given last year's sales of 216.6 million liters). Other popular brands include Pitu (which sold 6.6 million cases last year, and Ypioca, which sold 2.8 million cases).
"This industry is extremely competitive. Our price margin in Brazil is extremely small," said Armstrong. "The export market allows us to have a slightly higher margin, though on a much smaller volume."
Industry newsletter Impact International says Pirassununga 51 -- with sales of 27.2 million cases last year -- now ranks as the world's fourth-largest distilled spirit, and the most popular in Latin America. According to Impact's annual survey of the world's top 100 liquor brands, released Feb. 1, only Russia's Stolichnaya vodka (53 million cases), Moskovskaya vodka (32 million cases) and South Korea's Jinro soju (43.8 million cases) outsold Pirassununga.
"Pirassununga benefitted from the healthy Brazilian economy in 1996, rising by 12.1%, while experiencing some moderate export growth in Western Europe," the report said. "In general, the aguardente category in Brazil has become increasingly branded as economic circumstances improve."
Industrias Muller, established in 1959, has 1,048 employees and 2,744 clients (including distributors, wholesalers and supermarkets). Its annual sales have risen from $145.0 million in 1993 to $201.3 million last year, with a single brand -- Pirassununga 51 -- generating 88% of the company's total revenues. A second brand, Pirassununga 29, is produced in 600-milliliter bottles for distribution in a few interior states and accounts for 2% of company sales, while third-party products bring in the remaining 10% of sales.
To tour Muller's sprawling operations, one has to visit the town of Pirassununga, some 235 kilometers north of Sao Paulo, along the main highway that crosses the Tropic of Capricorn and links dozens of cities in the interior of Sao Paulo state.
The Pirassununga distillery sits in the middle of a 4,000-hectare sugar-cane field dotted with tall ipe amarelo trees, their distinctive yellow flowers visible from miles away. The company-owned field, known as Fazenda Lageado, generates 350,000 tons of sugar cane a year and supplies 25% of Industrias Muller's raw material; the remainder comes from about 100 other suppliers.
"The plant operates from May to November. The rest of the year it's closed for maintenance," Armstrong said, donning a hardhat as he made his way through the labyrinth of pipes, vats and stainless-steel tanks that employ 100 workers in three shifts. "Our factory is entirely self-sufficient, using bagasse energy to run the plant. Bagasse is the residue left over after all the sugar is extracted. We even sell excess bagasse to the state electric utility."
From there, the fermented cachaša is transported to the bottling plant in downtown Pirassununga (population 60,000), which churns out 36,000 bottles an hour of Pirassununga 51 -- so named, according to a company official, because Barrel No. 51 happened to produce the best-tasting cachaca. The drink is a main ingredient in caipirinhas, a powerful lime-and-sugar drink popular throughout Brazil.
Many Brazilians say cachaša represents one of the three pillars of their society, along with soccer and carnaval. And the beverage figures prominently in John Updike's 1995 best-selling novel, "Brazil" -- the story of a forbidden romance between a street-smart black slum boy and a spoiled white girl from one of Rio's wealthiest families.
Armstrong, who has lived off and on in Brazil since the age of three, is a former broadcast editor and correspondent for Canadian Press. He joined Brahma -- Brazil's largest brewery -- in 1972, spending 17 years at that company's Rio de Janeiro headquarters before joining Industrias Muller.
Pirassununga 51's slogan, repeated on countless park benches and street signs from Brasilia to Belem, is "Uma Boa Ideia" (A Good Idea). Yet exports still constitute less than 1% of Pirassununga's total revenues, and the liquor is relatively unknown in the United States.
Even so, following the adoption of new packaging materials in 1990, the company began exporting "Cachaca 51" to markets such as Japan, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Belgium. Other promising markets include nearby Latin American nations such as Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. It can also be found, in lesser amounts, in the United States, Great Britain, Greece, Lebanon and Israel.