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The Grilling Issue

Spirits: Party drinks as pretty as a pitcher

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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The cocktail query I get more than any other seems elementary, but in reality it is not. Generally, it goes like this:

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I'm having a party. I don't want to spend the whole time playing bartender. Can you recommend a really great cocktail that I can make ahead of time? Something I don't have to worry about when the guests arrive?

I get variations of that request from people young and old, male and female, married and single, city and suburban. Some come right out and say, "We're casual, and I don't want to be that fussy guy with the shaker." Others will plead, "Can I just buy some sort of pre-made mixer?" Even my editor jokingly asked the other day, "Can't you just recommend a drink you serve in a big pitcher?"

There's something about that line of questioning that bugs me. Granted, it is perfectly reasonable to want a fuss-free party, especially during the seasons of alfresco dining. I'm more than happy to help. But I don't agree with its two inherent, misguided assumptions: that making good cocktails is hard or complicated or takes too long, and that nice drinks are sort of secondary, an afterthought to the food at a party.

So in hopes of answering in a way that makes everyone happy, I recently played around with a lot of drinks in pitchers: punches, sangrias and the like. Punch recipes are flexible and forgiving, and so the research was fun and wide-ranging. In the course of that experimentation, I made at least one fortunate discovery. In fact, I might have unwittingly answered a question of my own, something that has been nagging at me for a few years: What do you do with cachaca? The answer, it seems: Make punch with it.

Cachaca, as many already know, is a Brazilian sugar-cane-based spirit whose production is similar to that of rum. In fact, it's often misidentified as "Brazilian rum," in part because the U.S. government has no official category designated for it. Cachaca, due to its popularity in Brazil, is the third-most-consumed spirit in the world. In America, however, it remains a bit of a mystery, even though a number of fine premium brands such as Leblon, Cabana, Weber Haus and Boca Loca have come on the market. Part of the reason for that, I believe, is that people don't know what to do with it.

Of course, cachaca is famously used in the caipirinha, whose recipe is simple and classic: Muddle lime wedges and sugar in a glass, then add crushed ice and 1 1/2 ounces of the spirit. But beyond the caipirinha, can you name another cachaca cocktail? You can if you remember my column from about three years ago, when I suggested a blender drink called the Bossa Nova -- cachaca with Cointreau, amaretto and a couple of juices -- that (perhaps thankfully) never quite caught on.

As I was making several rum punch recipes, I found that replacing white rum with cachaca gave the drinks an interesting twist. Cachaca has a different, sharper flavor from that of most rums because it is distilled from pure sugar cane juice at lower proof. When I substituted cachaca for the white rum, it stood up to the many strong tastes going on and gave the punches a much richer flavor.

During the holidays, I recommended a recipe for Honey Spiced Punch, a blend of cachaca, aged rum and falernum. The accompanying warm-weather punch recipes take things to the next level by eschewing the rum completely. I love how the cachaca mingles with port and lime juice in the unique Thieves' Punch. And who would've thought cachaca would mix so well with Pimm's No. 1, Tabasco and lemon juice in the Cajun Lemonade?

And yes, to answer the inevitable follow-up question, you can make these punches ahead of time and serve them in big pitchers. Just tell the guests to add their own ice and top their own glasses with the ginger beer or lemon-lime soda.

Don't worry; they'll be able to handle it. In fact, if you have them grill their own meat as well, you won't have to do anything but sit back and sip cachaca punch.

Recipes

Thieves' Punch

Cajun Lemonade

Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com.


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