To call someone a cachaceiro in Brazil is to deal a pretty low Portuguese blow. The word translates roughly to “drunkard” and evokes the image of an unkempt alcoholic clutching a plastic bottle of the powerful local liquor known as cachaça. It’s no coincidence that the name of the drink made with cachaça, the caipirinha, comes from the word caipira, roughly meaning “redneck” or “country.” That the national spirit is invoked in insults is emblematic of the poor image the drink has long had, but which has recently been changing.
Like the newly assertive Brazil, the sugarcane-based alcohol is finding its way into chic circles where it was once seen as a bit cheap and rustic. In the past, a posh dinner host in Brazil would offer her guests a uisque (whiskey) or imported wine. But these days, it seems cariocas are finally embracing the truth: the caipirinha is a profoundly refreshing godsend on a steamy Rio summer night. A thriving cachaceiro scene is now budding both in Brazil and among a growing fan base abroad.
“Cachaça used to be a drink for the poor. Nowadays it is becoming known, but you still see Brazilians drinking a lot of vodka,” says Carlos Alves, co-owner of the caipirinha joint Quiosque do Português (“Portuguese Kiosk”), adding that he personally prefers cachaça, which he considers more “full-bodied.”
Popular urban legend says the first caipirinha was concocted by caipiras in the interior of São Paulo state. Farm workers concocted a mix of lime, garlic and honey to ease flu symptoms, and added a dose of cachaça when they really needed a kick. Upon getting well, they realized the drink tasted mighty fine without the garlic and honey. A contemporary caipirinha mixes the two main ingredients with ice and sugar – ask the bartender to go light on the latter if you like tasting the tang of the lime. The cheapest sidewalk stands in Lapa, Rio’s grungy nighttime party district, make it with 51, a cheap cachaça that buys you a straight shot to a killer ressaca (hangover, which translates literally as “undertow”).
The recently opened Casarão Ameno Resedá is a two-story restaurant, bar and dance floor that takes its name from a traditional Carnival party block that was once based in the same location, on the dividing line between the poorly maintained but charming colonial-era Catete and Glória neighborhoods. The upscale venue seeks to promote pride in a back-to-the-basics Rio culture, hosting a monthly cachaça tasting and feijoada, a traditional meal of Brazilian black beans stewed with fatty pork parts, said to have been a meal for slaves and the poor made with cast-off cuts of meat.
Casarão partners Pedro Rodrigues and Frederic Monnier recommend drinking caipirinhas made with clear, minimally aged cachaças, which have a stronger taste of sugarcane. Look for a cachaça prata, such as the local brand Petisco da Vila, which Rodrigues and Monnier said stunned judges by winning a blind taste test in 2012, despite being distilled in a shopping mall in the working-class neighborhood of Del Castilho. Alves of Quiosque do Português, which has made the caipirinha chic among Rio’s more well-heeled, recommends the Santo Grau brand from the colonial coastal city Paraty, the mecca of cachaça loyalists about three hours from Rio de Janeiro.
Beyond the classic lime, Brazil – which occupies a mighty half of the South American continent and a gamut of ecosystems – offers dozens of fruits for flavoring caipirinhas. Strawberry or kiwi are good mixers that are sweet enough that you won’t need to add any sugar. Tangerine, pineapple and lima da pérsia (something of a cross between a lemon and an orange, mostly sweet with the tiniest hint of sour) are crisp options for a citrusy experience. Cariocas love maracujá, which comes with the crunchy passion fruit seeds (ask if you want them removed, though most drinkers grow to like them), while our personal favorite is cupuaçú, a smooth and tart yellow Amazonian fruit. An advanced caipirinha maker might offer jabuticaba com manjericão, a sweet fruit that’s something of a cross between grapes and basil. Caserão Ameno Resedá offers a particularly tasty option: lemon (called a limão sicilano) with pimenta rosa (reddish-pink peppercorns).
The next level, for those seeking a return to caipira roots, is to sip the stuff pure. Brace yourself: Many Brazilians can’t even handle their own national firewater. A good sipping cachaça is usually aged between two to eight years and takes on the tinted color of the barrel in which it was stored, often made of oak. The Magnifica Envelhecida, one of the slightly sweeter aged cachaças, and the delicious, smooth Werneck are among the best choices. A representative flavored cachaça is the Gabriela, made with cloves and cinnamon; we’re particularly fond of the Petisco da Vila brand’s spicy version. Meanwhile, Werneck makes a Licorelle with laranja (orange) as a sweet dessert option.
With local producers bringing greater variety to the market each year, the term cachaceiro might soon very well turn into a badge of honor.