Drink of the Month October: Cachaça

When you think of Brazil what do you think of? Is it the lazy sway of coconut palms, golden beaches, beautiful, bronzed people, a back-drop of Sugar Loaf Mountain, and soundtrack of relaxing bossa nova? Is it a throbbing samba rhythm, huge, garish paper-mache heads, and crowds of people dancing at carnival? Is it the magnificent graceful style of Brazilian soccer players, shimmying around in their famous yellow jerseys? Is it swampy, vibrant, old-growth rainforest echoing with bird and monkey calls, and the slow, muddy peregrinations of the worlds’ longest river? Or is it, perhaps, scenes of horrific murders and kidnappings, grinding poverty and deprivation?

It could well be all of the above. Brazil is the world’s fifth largest country in geographical area and in population, and has staggering diversity in environment, culture, ethnicity, and geography, as well as staggering economic disparity. In fact, some would argue that perhaps the only things that all Brazilians can agree on are the national soccer team and cachaça (pronounced, more or less, Ka-shass-a).

Cachaca 51

The former represents the country more famously than perhaps any thing else, as Brazil has won the World Cup 5 times - more than any other nation. But, even more famous than their success is their style of play. The free-flowing, wonderfully skillful, attacking game has endeared a Seleçåo not just to their own people but to millions around the world too. The latter, cachaça, the national drink of Brazil, is less widely known to non-Brazilians, but it’s fame too, is increasing through the successful export of the most popular drink made with it, the caipirinha.

And, for me, it’s the style of the drink that I find so attractive. The rawness of the cachaça, the sharp tang of lime, the sweetness of the sugar, the muddling it all together – all these different flavors and textures speak to me of a vibrant, diverse culture that retains a sharp bite. Meaning (literally) “little hillbilly” (the diminutive form of caipira, or redneck), the caipirinha is Brazil’s most popular cocktail, and is drunk on virtually every occasion in bars, restaurants, and in the home. Of course, there are several other ways to enjoy cachaça, which we’ll get on to shortly.

A Little History

But, before that, let’s learn more about cachaça itself. Basically, it’s a spirit distilled from the cane sugar for which “The Brazils” were primary producers of during Portuguese colonialism, being first produced in the town of Sao Vicente in the state of Minas Gerais (north-west of Rio de Janeiro) in the mid-1500s. The name is derived from the word cagaça, a kind of sour ‘beer’ made from fermented cane juice, first brewed by African slaves brought to work on Brazil’s plantations.

By the seventeenth century, its popularity had grown so much and there were so many distilleries in Brazil, that cachaça was officially banned in order that it not compete with imported Portuguese bagaceira, or grappa. However, in 1755, following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Lisbon, the Portuguese decided to legalise it and tax it, and in fact, much of Lisbon was rebuilt with this cachaça tax.

While cachaça was widely popular, it was not considered to be refined enough for consumption by any but the lowest classes, including slaves, peasants and urban working class. However, these days that has changed dramatically and all classes of Brazilian society consume cachaça with a passion some might call reckless abandon. Indeed, the average annual consumption in Brazil is around 8 liters. That’s 8 liters of forty head-splitting percent alcohol. Of course, there are different grades of cachaca, in the same way that there are better or worse cognacs or whiskeys, and while there are several large producers (Pitu, Cachaça 51) there are many hundreds of artisanal producers also making all kinds of interesting versions that are either mixed with flavorful botanics or aged in barrels made from exotic tropical woods. Much of the former kind is drunk as a caipirinha or one of several other mixed drinks, whereas the artisanal versions are sipped in the same was as scotch or cognac.

Heady Concoctions

Other than the hugely popular caipirinha, other liver-busting cocktails can also be made with cachaça, including: the bombeirinho combining it with red gooseberry syrup in a popular beverage; the caipifruta mixes cachaça with muddled fresh fruits, condensed milk and crushed ice into a refreshing milkshake-type cocktail; and the capeta or capetÃ¥o, meaning “devil”, which is a mix of cachaça, vodka, grape or strawberry juice, cinnamon, red wine and sugar, and is usually served hot. The fumes coming of this latter drink must be intense. The name tells you everything you need to know, I guess.

What does cachaça taste like?

Well, since it’s more or less a colorless rum, it tastes like what it is, and even then it doesn’t really have a massive amount of it’s own flavor. Like vodka in that respect really, although perhaps a little sweeter. However, the aged varieties are allegedly as good as a fine brandy and can be enjoyed as a great digestivo after a meal. That said, artisanal cachaça is hard to find in the United States so you’re much more likely to only be able to find the mass-produced brands mentioned above. Do not despair, as these are pretty good in their own right, and given that they are best drunk diluted with lots of lime juice, sugar and, occasionally, soda water, you don’t need to worry about the taste too much. And, if you’re not looking for a drink that’s as cocktail-ish as a caipirinha, then I would also encourage you to try the confusingly-named rabo de galo, (literally tail of cock), which despite its name is just a mixture or equal parts of cachaça and sweet vermouth. This feels like more of an aperitivo and a little less “hectic”.  

Even the name cachaça is exotic and cool-sounding – just rolling it around in your mouth, like most words in Brazilian Portuguese – it sounds soothing and somehow sexy.  Drinking a caipirinha is a similar experience, and they are as much fun to make and pronounce as they are to drink! Saude!

27 thoughts on “Drink of the Month October: Cachaça

  1. When I think of Brazil… I think of perfect ________ shaking to the rythmm of the Samba!
    Amazing that in Catalan Cachaça (Catxassa) means: apathy, passivity. I bet that after a few drinks this is the general feeling ;D

  2. Brazil is one of those magical places I would love to visit some day. Thanks for this great post, the history of the drink and the pics. I always learn something new on here 🙂

  3. Sadly, the extent of my Brazilian knowledge is their soccer team. I would love to travel there some day, but alas I have other life plans first. Thanks for the super informative post. I got excited when I saw gooseberries in here… love them dude 🙂

  4. Jonny,
    Although not much of a cachaça drinker, being Brazilian gives me some kind of ‘authority’ to tell you and your readers that this is a great post!! 🙂

  5. Yes, I’m also Brazilian.. and while most of the time posts about Brazil are biased and just plain wrong, this was very informative and correct. The traditional cachaça version is a little to strong for most women so what we’ll normally drink at a bar on any given day is a ‘caipiroska’ (made with vodca and fruits) or a caipisake (made with fruit and sake). However the cachaça version is undoubtly the most tradional and the first one you should try if you haven’t had any yet. 🙂

  6. Mmmmm…..had the pleasure of both this past summer on a nice hot day and wow, refreshing!! And strong!! Last year’s Mojito is now the Caipirinha, but the best experience was my fluent Spanish pal who ordered one with the right accent. If she was a guy I would have mouth-kissed her.

  7. It’s a shame that all people think about as far as Brazil is concerned is people on the beach, soccer, violence and asses shaking to music. There are tons of other things here, modern places, art museums… And people who don’t go to the beach.

    I’m glad you like caipirinha (I do too, but will always have a milder version of it). Your text is very informative.

  8. A very good “show and tell”. I really enjoyed the post and the photos…as I enjoy an occasional caprinha.
    P.S. I visited Brazil only once (about 20+ years ago) and the descent into Rio at night with the Christ figure looming and lighting up the night is one of the travel highlights of my life. It’s an unbelievable sight.

  9. I picked up a bottle of cachaça last summer and would make caipirinha by the pitcher for barbecues. Alas, they taste of summer to me, and I’ve moved on to vodka with ginger lemonade. 🙂

    Great post!

  10. Can you send me your address? I’m stopping by your house later for an after work drink. 🙂 I haven’t had Cachaça in years and now I’m craving it. Great post! If I was a Cachaça producer I would send you a few cases. 🙂

  11. thanks all for your comments, as always.

    Fernanda/Dadivosa – there is no higher compliment than to have natives tell us that we’re not butchering their traditions or making up lies about them. We always try to be as thorough in our research as time allows and it’s nice to see that it pays off.

    Patricia – I’m sure there are countless things I could have mentioned that are typical of Brazil. I could have mentioned, as you did, the magnificent modernist architecture of Brazilia, or instead, the wonderful mortadella found in Sao Paulo, the breathtaking natural beauty of Fernando de Noronha, the intense rhythmic gymnastics of capoeira, or the great new music coming out of Brazil that takes the spirit of greats like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso and blends it with electronic beats. I didn’t do any of these things though, but thanks for pointing out that my comments may have been biased, naive and misleading. And thanks for visiting our blog!

  12. Very good post! Nothing to shame about what you just wrote. Brazil has huge diverseness from one place to another. But cachaça and caipirinha are communal sense at all.
    The last paragraph describes exactly what means cachaça is.
    Well done!
    By the way, I’m brazilian, too.

  13. When I think of Brazil, I think of capoeira! I studied it for two years and had to stop due to a bad shoulder, but it rocks as a sport. Although I was terrible at it, I don’t think anything I have ever done made me feel so badass.

    I do love a good caipirinha whenever I can get one.

  14. That was some great information and its nice to see there are people like yourself taking the time to educate consumers on what cachaça is all about. I wanted to pass along a great video to show your readers how to make a great caipirinha now that you have gotten their mouths watering.


  15. Any post involving some sort of alcohol is going to get a positive response from this girl!!! Leave it up to Jonny to be SUCH HISTORY BUFF! Another great post!

  16. Hi Guys.
    I love Capirnhas……..a bit too sweet at times, but I love any fancy cocktails (not a big Negroni fan yet).

    Are you coming to the foodbuzz NYC dinner on 10/18?
    I am hosting it, and I am hoping to meet you both!

  17. odete: we really appreciate you giving the stamp of approval. that’s what we’re always aiming to do – stay as authentic and true as we can and expressing the history and culture of the drink or dish. Thanks and please visit again!

    Rachel: You bad-ass! we’ve been wanting to do capoiera for YEARS. it’s so beautiful and graceful and looks so friggin’ difficult. i imagine the body and arms i would have as a result of doing it – or maybe the injuries. you go girl! inspiring! i’d need 10 drinks after a try.

    jamie: thanks for the link. just checked it out and even bought myself a muddler! if you’re interested in sending us a bottle of that fabulous cachaca, i’d definitely drink it and write about it (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). thanks again.

    ali mama: HA HA HA HA – you know i love your comments. and yes, of course jonny would go crazy w/ the history lesson.

    stacey: ask your barman to use a bit less sugar. it shouldn’t be super sweet – if it is he may be making it wrong. of COURSE it’s a bit sweet, but the acid in the lime really balances it if it’s made perfectly. check out jamies link above to see how the drink really should be made and test your barman!

    lo: thanks, girl!

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