Those who witnessed the opening ceremonies of the Olympics — a dizzying array of costumed performers in a spectacle that’s part art, part gymnastics, part propaganda — saw Rio’s pageant strikingly depict the encounter between colonists and indigenous people, slavers and slaves, immigrants and immigrants who happened to get there earlier.
That patchwork of national identity — both prides and shames — is represented in cachaça, the Brazilian sugar cane spirit that’s probably hitting peak sales in the United States as people toast the Games with Brazil’s most famous cocktail, the caipirinha.
Cachaça has been around since the 1500s and is inseparable from Brazil’s brutal history in the slave trade. The word “cachaça” originally referred to the foam that formed when cane was boiled to make sugar; slaves fermented the foams from later boilings to make a beverage, which they drank and traded. Over centuries, the spirit has achieved a ubiquity in Brazil that has made it the third-most-consumed spirit in the world (although over 95 percent is still consumed in Brazil itself).
Many cachaça makers saw Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup in 2014 and now the Olympics as opportunities to introduce the spirit to a wider audience. But it’s still an uphill battle, made a little easier after the United States recognized cachaça as a distinctive product of Brazil in 2013 and allowed it to be sold under that name. Until then, cachaça sold here was labeled “Brazilian rum.”
I was puzzled at first about why the change would be preferable. Because many Americans at least know what rum is, was the recategorization really doing sales any favors here?
Steve Luttmann, founder of premium cachaça Leblon, says the problem was consumer expectations: Someone who bought cachaça expecting the flavors of rum was likely to be unhappy. Although some industrial versions taste like harsh rum, premium cachaça is more vegetal, reedier, delicate — closer to the sugar cane it’s distilled from than it is to many rums, which often are distilled from molasses and hint at its sweet vanilla notes. Cachaça is closer to rhum agricole, which is similarly distilled from pure cane juice.
In a way, cachaça has gone from one problem to another: No longer misled by a “Brazilian rum” label, most American drinkers still don’t know what cachaça is. Even those who know, and know how to pronounce it (kuh-shah-suh), don’t always know how to use it in drinks.
Any spirit seeking a foothold will find it helpful to have a popular, easy-to-make cocktail to carry it to the mouths of drinkers. The caipirinha — muddled lime, sugar and cachaça — is everywhere in Brazil and has made it north, but it’s not exactly the new margarita in terms of its popularity. Two others — the batida (spirit, fruit juice, and sugar) and the rabo-de-galo (basically a cachaça Manhattan; literally translated, it means “cock tail,” the chicken appendage) — are well known in Brazil but not stateside.
In Brazil, “if you go into a bar and ask for a caipirinha, the first thing they’ll tell you is what fruits they have today, what’s fresh,” says Luttmann. Though the lime and sugar are constants, they often meet other tropical fruits. The accompanying cachaça cocktail recipes from Adam Bernbach of 2 Birds 1 Stone and Gina Chersevani of Buffalo & Bergen use summer fruit in a way that allows the spirit to speak: Bernbach’s employs the coolness of watermelon, Chersevani’s the brightness of cherries. Both drinks highlight a common characteristic of good silver cachaça — its fresh, grassy element. In the Basiado, a riff on the caipirinha by Tobin Ellis of BarMagic consulting in Las Vegas, the cucumber and herbs take the spirit toward its vegetal roots.
Cachaça consumption has followed economic and cultural trends of Brazil in fascinating ways. According to João Azevedo Fernandes’ chapter on cachaça in “Alcohol in Latin America,” before the 20th century, the spirit’s association with slaves and indigenous people often caused wealthy “elites” (who wished to be more European) to scorn it. There’s a thread of prejudice mixed into the story of cachaça, not only in its origins but in who drank it, who didn’t and why; the early disdain by the elites was not because the spirit was connected with the repugnant slave trade but because it was associated with the slaves themselves, and later with agrarian workers and the poor.
In more recent times, Luttmann says, “higher-income people started drinking more caipirinhas with vodka — [called] caipiroskas — because there was this trend of ‘everything in Brazil is bad and everything from outside of Brazil is good.’ . . . In the past five years, that’s changed dramatically. You have a new generation coming in, local pride, this resurgence of craft cachaças. . . . You have a new generation saying, ‘Why would you ever put imported vodka in our national drink?’”
Still, the notion of cachaça as “poor man’s milk” remains common, says Thiago Camargo, a co-founder of spiritmaker Yaguara. Even many Brazilians have to be reintroduced to the spirit after unpleasant early encounters with more-industrial versions; the lime and sugar in the ubiquitous caipirinha often conceal a headache-inducing, rocket-fuel quality in lesser iterations.
There is good stuff being made now, though; some of it is terrific, and the aged variations produced by craft distillers are especially worth exploring. For centuries, oak has been the standard wood used to age spirits, and the majority of cachaça that undergoes wood aging still goes into oak. But some brands are now aging distillates in native woods or a combination of oak and native-wood barrels.
Oak aging was the preference of Europeans who once ruled Brazil, says Erwin Weimann, master blender at Yaguara and author of “Cachaça: A Bebida Brasileira” (”The Brazilian Drink”). But as Brazil has come into its own, he explains in an email, “we really began to branch out further and discover our own native flavours. . . . It is now common practice to see cachaças in all types of woods, and distillers around the country continue to experiment further.”
Some of those native woods impart flavors similar to oak; others bring something new. Camargo notes that where oak is known for imparting vanilla, amburana wood can bring cinnamon, and cabreúva brings anise. (The Yaguara Ouro is a blend representing all three woods.) You can sample other native-wood-kissed cachaças in (among others) those produced by Novo Fogo (its Tanager spends time in zebrawood, its Graciosa in Brazil nut); Cuca Fresca’s Ouro, which is aged in jequitiba; and Avuá’s Amburana, which suggested flavors I’m not sure I can name: thyme, wintry spice, rye bread?
The Olympics are an opportunity to explore the complex flavors in good-quality versions of this spirit, on your own or at local watering holes. It’s a cliché by now to refer to “history in a glass,” but seldom has the phrase been more true than it is with cachaça. It’s a drink that reflects Brazil’s multicultural society and its history, good and bad. Like the limes and sugar in a caipirinha, it’s muddled.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.