Every few years the world, and the United States with it, finds a reason to turn its attention to Brazil, whether it’s because of the samba, a certain trick with wax, the Sport of the Gods (or at least Pelé, who is close enough), or this whole Olympics business. One thing the rest of the world has taken away from these periodic opportunities to study.
South America’s largest, and arguably most dynamic, country is the incontrovertible fact that the Caipirinha, the country’s national drink, is delicious, as is the local sugarcane spirit on which it’s based. Up to now, that hasn’t really sunk in here in the States. Maybe this time will be the charm.
Brazil has been turning sugarcane into distilled spirit for at least as long as anyone in the Western Hemisphere and quite possibly longer. Portuguese colonists planted sugarcane there as early as 1520 and by 1535 one Erasmus Schetz, from Antwerp, was turning the stuff into booze. By 1585, there were 192 working distilleries. That number would only go up: in 1629, it was 349. Today, the common estimate is 5,000. Estimate, because nobody knows for sure: Brazil is a very large place, and with few exceptions the cities of any size are near the coast. It doesn’t take long to get into the backcountry, a universe of two-lane highways meandering past Dr. Seuss trees on Dr. Seuss hills, over lazy brown rivers and through scraggly tin-roof towns, stretching on and on under an unquenchable sun without apparent end. Off the highways, there are dirt roads. Down the dirt roads are cane fields. Among the fields, here, there and everywhere, are stills. Good luck counting them all.
Most modern sugarcane-based liquor is made from industrial waste: you crystallize out the sugar, sell that, and then turn the sticky black gunk that’s left over—better known as molasses—into rum. But to get that molasses you need a sugar refinery, and these days that means a hell of a lot of expensive machinery. The low-tech old ways of making sugar yield a product that’s simply too impure and too costly to be competitive.
Down those dirt roads, modern sugar refineries are rare. Instead, Brazilians press and ferment the pure juice of the cane to make their rum, skipping the sugar-extraction stage entirely. Cachaça, it’s called, or pinga, or, well, in 1960 the Brazilian folklorist Osvaldo Ogiar was able to list more than 650 other popular names for the stuff, from “abençoada” to “zunzum.”
Fortunately, the low-tech old ways of distilling, the kinds you find in use down those dirt roads, can and often do yield a spirit that’s pure and subtle and even delicate—an artisanal product in the true sense of that much-abused word. Most of those 5,000 distilleries, or however many there are, are more or less artisanal.
Some of those make a spirit as good as any in the world. Unfortunately, few of the good ones have succeeded in exporting their products to the United States, but that is starting to change. Look for that word “artisanal” on the label; here, it means something, and is worth seeking out. (The cachaça industry, I should point out, also has its industrial wing, which cranks out an extremely cheap, barely mediocre version of the spirit in vast quantities. You can easily find the results here. They won’t say “industrial” on the label, but they’ll be plenty cheap. You can drink them, but you won’t enjoy them.)
That vast Brazilian hinterland is also responsible for the country’s most famous drink, the Caipirinha. Americans north and south have been drinking sugarcane spirit mixed with sugar and citrus juice since the mid-1600s and the same thing cooled with ice since the 1800s. Yet those four simple ingredients yield drinks as different as the Cuban Daiquiri, Martinique’s Ti’ Punch and Jamaica’s Planter’s Punch. Small differences in spirit, technique and proportion yield large results.
Somehow, for whatever obscure reason, Brazil seems to have been a bit slow off the mark in figuring out its own way with the canonic ingredients. By the late 1800s, however, things got going in the rural parts of São Paulo state, where “pinga com limao,” cachaça with sugar and lime, starts turning up as a standard remedy for whatever ails you, from cholera to bad luck. Not, however, in the city itself: cachaça was not what the sophisticated urban Brazilian would drink, no more than a New Yorker would be dosing himself or herself with corn likker; it was for the “Caipira,” the rural cane-chopper, not the suit-and- tie office worker.
Yet the effectiveness of the combination lingered somewhere in the back of those bourgeois brains. In times of pestilence or stress, or even merely when nobody fancy was around, this “Batida Paulista,” as it was known—roughly, “São Paulo Shake”—had a habit of appearing on tables poor and rich alike. The latter would add ice, and sometimes even a splash of gin and the white of an egg (thus one chronicler noted in 1951, anyway). But at its simplest, a glass of cachaça prepared “a Caipirinha” (even more roughly, “hillbilly style”), with the lime chopped up and muddled together with the sugar, thus extracting some of the bitter, piquant oil from the peel, had a way of hitting the spot like nothing else did.
Eventually, this local drink spread to Rio and Bahia and the rest of Brazil. In the 1970s, European tourists picked up on the drink and made it a global classic, but by then it was the Disco Era and stylish Brazilians were making theirs with vodka or white rum. Indeed, for a long time it was probably easier to get a good Caipirinha in St. Tropez than in Salvador. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change as Brazil catches the modern interest in craft and localism.
Ingredients:1 Lime1 tsp Sugar2 oz CachaçaGlass: Old-fashioned
Directions:To make a good Caipirinha, you need good, unaged artisanal cachaça (I’m partial to Avuà and Novo Fogo, two truly artisanal brands; there are others, but they’re harder to find) and you need to prepare the lime properly. It takes longer to explain how to do that than it does to do it, but here goes.
Cut off the ends of a lime and slice it in half lengthwise. Then, make two inward-slanting incisions along the length of one of the halves to remove the pithy white stem. Make one more, deeper cut along the lime half’s length and one or two cuts across its width, creating four or six easily muddlable pieces.
Put those pieces in an Old-Fashioned glass, add a heaping teaspoon of granulated white sugar and muddle it into the lime. Fill the glass with cracked ice, add a couple of ounces of cachaça and stir. Repeat as necessary. (After all, you’ve still got another half a lime, don’t you?)