The bustling nightly crowd had not started to gather yet at Rio's trendy Academia da Cachaca, but Paulo Magoulas already had a serene smile plastered across his face as he tasted one of his favorite brands of the sometimes blindingly potent liquor made of fermented sugar-cane juice.
Cachaca enthusiasts such as Magoulas, manufacturers and Brazil's government are making a bid to push the idea worldwide that cachaca represents all that is sensual and wonderful about Brazil.
"We are showing that cachaca is a beverage that is as unique as Brazil is as a country, and it is absurd that we should not promote our own national drink," said Magoulas, who is president of a national group formed to promote the beverage. The aim is to compete successfully in global markets, from the United States to Europe -- and that is a tall order.
These days cachaca (pronounced ka-SHA-suh) is served in trendy bars around the world, but overseas sales still account for less than 1 percent of total production, providing revenue of $9 million. Domestic sales of cachaca are $500 million a year.
A new international strategy entails marketing the higher-end brands of cachaca, made in smaller quantities and aged in wood barrels to provide a smooth, mellow flavor.
Dirlene Maria Pinto, president of a cooperative of cachaca producers in the central state of Minas Gerais, is one of the leaders of the movement to promote high-quality cachaca, which is being sold in major European cities, such as London and Lisbon, and in the United States, mainly in Florida and New York.
"We want people to see that cachaca is a quality drink, just like single malt whiskey or cognac," said Pinto whose family owns the Germana brand of cachaca.
"When made properly, you can get tastes of fruit, a hint of flavor from the aging in wood barrels and the care of the process," Pinto said. "It is a taste of Brazil."
The 62 small producers in the Minas Gerais cooperative founded the Samba & Cana brand of cachaca in 1999 and sold 1.8 million quarts of their product in 2001.
But while Brazilians can buy a cheap brand of cachaca for the equivalent of $1 here, that same cachaca -- after import taxes and other costs -- fetches up to $20 a bottle in the United States.
And because of its low price and sometimes moonshine-like quality at home, cachaca was long considered a poor man's drink, too down-market for the upscale tourist bars and posh hotels in Rio's Copacabana and Ipanema neighborhoods. But in recent years, cachaca has been served with considerable pride even at the Copacabana Palace, Rio's top hotel. A big part of the success of cachaca are restaurants such as the Academia da Cachaca in Rio's Leblon neighborhood.
There is also the Brazilian Academia da Cachaca, founded in 1993, a 40-person group of connoisseurs who include some of the country's top journalists, artists and musicians. The group is modeled after the Brazilian Academy of Letters, and those nominated are members for life and meet monthly to discuss ways to promote Brazil's national drink.
"The only difference between us and the Brazilian Academy of Letters is that they meet to have tea and talk about literature, and we meet to drink cachaca," Magoulas said with a smile.
Helcio Santos, one of the owners of the Academia da Cachaca restaurant, which has two locations and countless brands, including Full Moon and Pain Reliever, said it is about promoting the drink and Brazil.
"It has long been a country that had a sort of inferiority and looked to other countries for validation," he said.
Brazilians, indeed, are embracing cachaca at a time when the country's national pride is surging after the nation's fifth World Cup soccer victory and a revival of everything Brazilian, from its cachaca to its music.
The history of cachaca is as tainted and rich as the story of the nation.
The liquor's origins are debated, but it is known that at least four centuries ago, African slaves on sugar-cane plantations discovered its intoxicating effects and produced it in homemade stills. A century later, it was used as currency in the slave trade.
The Brazilian drink that has made some inroads abroad is caipirinha, a cocktail of cachaca, crushed ice, lime juice and sugar, a sweet and sour concoction that is on the must-do list of almost every tourist in Rio.
And the liquor's promoters are optimistic about its future.
One of Chicago's newest eateries, Fogo de Chao, is a Brazilian-style restaurant where the meat comes in huge portions -- and cachaca helps wash it all down.
"People love the cachaca," said Selma Oliveira, general operations manager for the Brazilian chain, which has four U.S. locations.