After being punched in the face by my first whiff of Brazil’s national dram, cachaca, I was mystified as to why anyone would want to ingest something that bore such an intense olfactory parallel to rubbing alcohol; something that once, according to legend, powered up an automobile (a Ford Fairlane, to be exact). Then, I was taught how to make a caipirinha — a strong and simple mixture of muddled limes, sugar and cachaca — and everything started to make sense.
The caipirinha’s central ingredient dates back hundreds of years, when Portuguese settlers in Brazil discovered that sun-baked sugar cane dregs naturally produced the spirit. Today, cachaca is identified by hundreds of native pet-terms and has been elevated to a symbol of Brazilian national identity. It remains the single most popular spirit in its home country, where 1.5 billion litres are guzzled annually.
Unlike its more nebulous, molasses-based relative, rum, cachaca is distilled from the first press of fresh, high-quality sugar cane juice. So refined is this hot-blooded spirit that some of its best producers will carefully discard up to 80 per cent of a batch in order to filter out impurities and ensure excellence. Aging of what is traditionally known as aguardiente de caña can take over a decade, taking place in casks of oak and various indigenous woods. The result is a clear, rather ether-esque spirit (many cachacas boast an alcohol content upwards of 40 per cent) that stars in Brazil’s (in)famous national cocktail.
The simplicity of the caipirinha speaks to its name, which translates loosely to “country bumpkin,” a reference to its unrefined preparation, which takes place in the same glass in which it’s served. It’s refreshing, with an obvious kick, while fresh fruit like berries, pineapple, orange and sometimes splashes of tropical juice are often added to enhance she sipping experience. Crushed ice is key not only for its cool, slushy effect, but for steady dilution of this extremely stiff cocktail.
If you’re looking for a great excuse to try something new, Pitú ($24.95) and Leblon ($30.15) cachacas — full-blown liquors at forty per cent alcohol — are on promotion at the LCBO. If the thought of crushing your own ice seems too daunting in the thick of Toronto’s mid-summer mugginess, enjoy caipirinhas at Souz Dal, College Street’s comfy, ambient watering hole ($7.25), or at Queen West’s Brazilian eatery, Cajú ($8).