Friday, April 15, 2011

Steve Luttman - The American Behind Brazil's Leblon Cachaça

I recently returned to Brazil from a three-week visit to Canada and the USA. I'm always looking for things that might appear on Flavors of Brazil when I travel, and one thing that I noticed is it is becoming increasingly possible to order a caipirinha in bars and restaurants. The caipirinha, of course, is Brazil's most famous cocktail, made with cachaça, a distilled sugar-cane liquor, limes and sugar. Ten or fifteen years ago caipirinhas were nowhere to be seen on the North American bar scene, but now they're popping up all over the place. Casual taverns, bars in airports, contemporary-gastronomy restaurants, even a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver - they all have caipirinhas on their drinks menu.

Steve Luttmann
I also noted that many times the brand of cachaça specified on the menu was Leblon (especially in bars where the vodka is likely to be Grey Goose and the gin Bombay Sapphire). It was not a brand that I was familiar with here in Brazil, and upon my return to Brazil my curiosity got the best of me and I did a bit of research on it. It turns out that Leblon (named after a chic neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro) is a relatively new brand which distills its product in the small city of Patos in the state of Minas Gerais. It also turns out that the CEO of Leblon is an American, Steve Luttmann, who has made it his own personal crusade to spread the good word about cachaça and the caipirinha around the world. Leblon's "Legalize Cachaça" campaign is classic 21st century marketing and seems to be doing what it's meant to do - increase consumer awareness and thereby increase sales.

Steve Luttman was recently interviewed by Brazilian gastronomic magazine Prazeres da Mesa. In the interview he detailed what he is attempting to do, and where he hopes to take the cachaça market outside Brazil. Here is a translation (mine) of that interview:

What is the image that most North Americans have of Brazil?
It's still considered an exotic place. Some still think, for example, that the capital of Brazil is Buenos Aires. But they know that Brazil has the most beautiful women and the best party in the world - carnaval.


And how are they reacting to cachaça?
One good point about Americans is that they like to try new things. Besides, the best-selling cocktail in the USA is the margarita, a [Mexican] classic that combines lime juice, tequila and Cointreau and which is very similar to the caipirinha. That's the key, in my opinion, to market innovation. In order to gain strength in the cocktail market, you've got to have a firm footing in familiarity.

What about Brazilians? Do you think they will accept having their national drink distilled by an American?
The problem is that the true Brazilian has a prejudice against cachaça, because he sees it as a low-quality product. A good cachaça can be as high-quality as a wine - it's the Brazilian "champagne." It's important that the consumer understands this. Our team is working round the clock to change this. We're now found in the most elegant hotels in São Paul and Rio de Janeiro and in restaurants such as those of Alex Atala, Claude Troisgros and Roberta Sudbreck plus the Fasano group.


The master-distiller of Leblon is Gilles Merlet, from France, and also responsible for other products such as Hennessy Cognac. Does he come to Brazil or work at distance?
Gilles spends three or four months in Brazil, at harvest time. Outside this period, we send samples to him almost daily so that he doesn't miss a single step in the production process. It's an honor, for us, to have him on the team. In the world market, Gilles is for distilled products what Michel Rolland is for wines.


In your opinion, what makes Leblon different from other cachaças?
Our product is a blended cachaça, resulting in a product with complex aromas and flavors.


Finally, does the average American know how to make a good caipirinha?
The traditional recipe for a "kuai-pur-een-ya" (as Americans tend to pronounce caipirinha) has been demonstrated [by Leblon] in videos and in our consumer marketing campaign. However, certain adaptations have been put into practice, too. Americans are always in a hurry, so they sometimes mix a caipirinha with boxed or bottled lime juice, or even lime soda! But the good bartenders use the traditional recipe, and are learning to experiment with exotic modifications such as strawberry with basil, or cucumber with jalapenos peppers and dates, for example.


Luttmann can prove his point about the continuing acceptance of Leblon in the international market merely by pointing to his company's sales growth. In their first year of business, 2005, Leblon produced 20,000 9-liter cases of cachaça. Last year that number was 100,000 cases. According to Luttmann, American consumer awareness for the caipirinha is currently about 30% and cachaça itself about 20%. He is intent on increasing those percentages significantly in the years to come.

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