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).
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.
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 capetåo, 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!