Enjoying a tall, cold one in São Paulo, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)It was only a matter of time until I devoted a blog post to my favorite Brazilian drink. Traveling in Brazil, they are unavoidable (not that I tried very hard). For the uninitiated, caipirinhas, (pronounced Ki-pri-eenyas) which many consider the national drink, are cocktails similar to mojitos but without the mint. They are the essence of simplicity to make: a very refreshing mix of cachaça (a sugarcane-based alcohol similar to rum, known by locals as Pinga or Aguardente de Cana), muddled limes, sugar and ice. Telling nicknames for cachaça (pronounced ka-sha-sa) include white lightning, moonshine or cat choker. Interestingly, many younger Brazilians prefer the drink made with other alcohols, such as vodka, gin, whiskey, even sake and they name the drink variously: Caipira Vodka, Caipira Whisky, CaipiGin, etc. Because it's so cheap and readily available, cachaça has been traditionally viewed as the "poor man's drink", less sophisticated or of lower quality and was therefore left to the tourists or working class to drink (the name, caipirinha comes from "caipira", the Portuguese word for hillbilly or country person). Recently, however, many higher quality brands have been developed and introduced, not only in Brazil, but internationally, which has helped to drive the drink's recent popularity.
Most historians date the origin of cachaça to the early 16th century, much earlier than the first rum, which was most likely developed in the 17th century. While rum is generally distilled from molasses, a by-product of sugar production, cachaça is distilled directly from the juice of sugarcane. In the centuries following its introduction, the Portuguese tried to outlaw cachaça, in part because they wanted to protect their own production of grappa from being usurped and in part because the alcohol was readily available to slaves, which the Portuguese feared would lead to drunkenness and diminished productivity. Despite their efforts, the popularity and availability of cachaça continued to grow and today is well-established and is the most consumed alcohol in Brazil. Cachaça has also developed a following abroad, especially in the United States and Europe and hence has been elevated from a cheap drink for the working class to an expensive, chic cocktail for the cool and hip. In Brazil, it's still possible to buy a caipirinha for a couple of dollars, while the same cocktail in a swank NYC bar can cost upwards of $20.
Mixing caipirinhas on the top of the world, Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro (photo by Luis Bastardo)
The majority of distillers of cachaça are located in the state of Minas Gerais in the southeastern part of Brazil and it's possible to arrange for a tour including samples. As of 2003, over 1.3 billion liters of cachaça are produced each year. There are over 4000 brands of cachaça currently sold in Brazil and other countries are hot on their trail. Brazilian bars specializing in cachaça are called cachaçarias and Brazilians drink about 396 million gallons (about eight liters per capita annually). Even though less than 2% of cachaça is exported, the number of countries discovering the joys of the alcohol are growing, with Germany and the United States in the lead. Here are some recipes to try caipirinhas at home: