This story was originally published on MUNCHIES UK.
It was almost impossible to hear Cida Zurlo over the thumping beat of the marching band at her door.
It was Brazil's Independence Day and from her shop facing the historic Tiradentes Square in the colonial town of Ouro Preto, she had a front row view of the parade.
It was entirely fitting that her boutique store selling the Brazilian liquor cachaça was in the corner of the plaza named after the revolutionary leader who fought for full independence from Portugal in the 18th century.
The sugarcane spirit, which has been distilled in Brazil for 500 years, was once banned by colonial rulers in 1649 to try to stimulate the Portuguese wine market.
But instead, the humble liquor became symbolic of Brazil's struggle against the Crown—a Latin American Prohibition that guaranteed cachaça's place in Brazilian history.
Older than Peruvian pisco, Mexican tequila and Caribbean rum, cachaça is a quintessential Brazilian drink, originally coming from the sugarcane plantations in the north. It is estimated that it was first made some time between 1516 and 1532 in Itamaracá, on the northeastern coast, marking five centuries of sugar-based liquor.
The fermented juice of the sugarcane is distilled to produce an alcohol content of 38 to 48 percent, unlike Caribbean rum, which is made from molasses.
Together with the abundant farm staples of sugar and lime, it makes the national cocktail caipirinha, which has a life of its own as high end bars reimagine it with blended fruits and shavings of cane sugar, or rapadura.
And one of the most notable cachaças is Milagre de Minas, produced by Zurlo in Ouro Preto, a town at the heart of Brazil's journey to becoming an independent republic.
Its name—Miracle of Minas—refers to the state of Minas Gerais, where award-winning producers are concentrated.
Technically, the pale golden product is an aguardente, or a cachaça derivative because along with the distilled sugarcane juice, Milagre de Minas is made from a blend of 15 different herbs that give it a distinctive aromatic flavour.
The recipe was developed more than 40 years ago when Zurlo was a botany student.
"I went out to the field a lot with my professor, who specialised in medicinal plants," she says. "I always saw these plants, and this teacher always had a cachaça. I started to mix cachaças in 1975. And I went on doing these mixtures until I reached this method. It's a selection of aromatic plants because I think the drink has to taste good. I chose the plants with pleasant flavours."
Among the herbs is a Brazilian aphrodisiac known as nó-de-cachorro and infusions of tree bark along with more common flavours including basil and clove.
Gathered in a bouquet, they are left to infuse for three months, giving Milagre de Minas its depth of flavour and golden colour.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of claims of its other benefits.
"Some say it helps build you appetite or it can be used if you have a cold or flu—there are many stories," says Zurlo.
Cachaça aficionado Silvio Luiz de Oliveira, who owns Adega restaurant in Ouro Preto, describes it as "the perfect drink."
"I like cachaça from small farm producers," he says. "Cachaça invigorates the energy and makes for a great caipirinha. It's consumed at all social levels, as much by men as women. And it's common in our region for farms to have their own sugar mill for distilling cachaça for their own consumption."
Nevertheless, Zurlo was one of the first women cachaça producers when she entered the industry in the 70s, becoming president of the Women's Cachaça Association.
Since then, more have entered the business, taking back what was traditionally a woman's trade while men worked in the mines that gave the state its name.
"I was one of the first women to go into cachaça, now there are many. It's changed a lot," she says. "Originally, in the colonial period, the cachaça trade was for women. The men looked after the mines, and when that ended, they took back the cachaça mills. There are many producers and it generates a lot of jobs. It's a very Brazilian drink, it's our national drink."
It is now considered a denomination d'origine controlee, which means the name is restricted to cachaça produced in Brazil.
Yet while the caipirinha remains a regular feature on cocktail menus, cachaça has struggled to break into the international market.
Of the 800 million litres distilled by 2,000 producers every year, only one percent is exported.
Last year, export receipts totalled $13.3 million compared to $1 billion for Mexican tequila, according to the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça.
For Zurlo, one of the issues is that artisan cachaça is more expensive but even the top ranked Cupula da Cachaça prize-winning bottle—Porto Morretes from the state of Paraná—is sold for just $30.
From aged cachaças to the clear spirit most commonly used for caipirinhas, the drink remains inexpensive and as unpretentious as its beginnings, with a bottle of Milagre de Minas costing around$12.
"All kinds of people drink it, men, women, people buy it for presents. There's no customer profile," Zurlo said. "It used to be just from the farm but not any more. You can make great cocktails with it."
Her best tip? Enjoy a true Brazilian spirit mixed with passion fruit.