While forward-drinking americans have only recently become acquainted with the fiery sugarcane spirit that fuels the Caipirinha cocktail, Brazilians have indulged their taste for cachaça—the requisite spirit in this celebrated lime concoction—since 1532, when the earliest Portuguese colonists sailed to South America from Madeira with cuttings of sugarcane.
Cachaça (pronounced kuh-SHA-suh) is distilled from the unrefined juice of that tropical plant, distinguishing it from rum, which is made from the molasses that results from boiling sugarcane juice. The ever-so-slight difference in preparation yields a liquid with a sweet aroma (a combination of mildly spicy tobacco and green bananas) that belies an incendiary taste not always suited to the unprepared palate. This fire-water quality—and the traditional belief that cachaça was first imbibed 400 years ago by plantation slaves—caused many in Brazil to regard it as a poor man’s drink. Today, however, cachaça enjoys a more democratic image, as pauper and plutocrat alike take pleasure in guzzling it down (albeit in dramatically contrasting grades). The 80-proof liquor is a $500 billion business in Brazil, with about 4,000 different brands sold inside its borders. Still, only 1 percent of the cachaça produced makes its way onto the international market.
This dearth may abate as Brazil’s distillers aim to expand the current $9 million export market. The liquor’s increasing appeal as the exotic drink of choice among the world’s elite has abetted its current, more sophisticated aura, while more elaborate manufacturing processes have lent to this Brazilian export some of the mystique associated with other, more urbane spirits, such as bourbon or malt whiskey. Leading labels such as Ypióca (Brazil’s best-selling brand), Germana, and Toucano now offer cachaças that have been aged for up to five years, fostering—as with aged tequila—mellower, more complex flavors.
In the past, the crushed limes and sugar in Caipirinhas were intended to mask the sometimes pungent flavor of cachaça. But the new generation of releases stands on its own—and is appearing on beverage menus from Manhattan to Los Angeles. “I love a Caipirinha!” exclaims restaurateur Mary Sue Milliken, who, with partner Susan Feniger, runs the Latin-themed Ciudad in downtown Los Angeles. “You get the oils from the skin of the lime as well [as the lime juice]. It’s a great way to get that liquor down.”
Milliken’s affinity for cachaça goes way back. “The first time I had a great number of Caipirinhas was in Santiago, Chile,” she explains. “This was about seven or eight years ago, and I was shocked [when] they said cachaça was the most consumed alcohol spirit in the world.”
Ciudad’s Caipirinha calls for two small limes sliced into eighths, then placed in a muddler and sprinkled with two teaspoons of superfine sugar. These ingredients are then muddled until the sugar dissolves, then placed in a rocks glass, covered with ice, topped with cachaça, and stirred with a stirrer. The beauty of the recipe is that imbibers keep muddling with the stirrer, releasing more flavor as they drink.
While Milliken enjoys the boost cachaça has given her own business, she is also glad to see a broader selection of high-quality brands in the U.S. market. “We could get it from distributors here [years ago], but there wasn’t a lot to choose from.”
The cachaça connoisseur, when making his choice, will select one that is absolutely clear and that has a thick, almost oily texture that causes it to cling to the side of the glass. A variety of exceptional brands can now be found in major-market specialty liquor stores and through online retailers, including the Chicago-based Sam’s Wines & Spirits (www.samswine.com), The Whisky Exchange (www.thewhiskyexchange.com), and TheDrinkShop.com Ltd. (www.thedrinkshop.com).
Of course, as convenient as these sources may be, the best method for acquiring a bottle remains the same: a weekend shopping trip to Brazil.