What to Drink During the World Cup: A Guide to Cachaça, Brazil’s National Spirit

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June 12 2014 8:41 AM

What to Drink During the World Cup: A Guide to Cachaça, Brazil’s National Spirit

travolta_cachaca
John Travolta enjoys a shot of cachaça with some Brazilian friends.

Screenshot from Ypóica commercial

What do people drink in Brazil?
Not the tap water, if they can help it. Popular refreshments include coffee, coconut water, cashew-fruit juice, guaraná-flavored soft drinks, and Xingu black beer. The national spirit is cachaça.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Say again?
Cachaça.

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How do I pronounce that?
kə-shä-sə

What is cachaça?
Cachaça is often referred to, crudely, as Brazilian rum. There is some justice to this, because both rum and cachaça are made from sugar and because the majority of the cachaças consumed in Brazil are pretty crude themselves, which is why the liquor’s countless nicknames include cat choker, tiger’s breath, and dog piss. However, most rums are made from molasses, and cachaça (like rhum agricole) is distilled from sugar-cane juice.

What’s it taste like?
There is an earthy quality to it. You will detect grassiness and a rustic vegetality in many fine cachaças. You will notice that many less-fine cachaças taste like dirt and are, correspondingly, dirt cheap—$1 per liter or so in Brazil, where consumption is sufficiently heavy that this liquor ranks, behind vodka and soju, as the third-best-selling in the world.

The very best cachaças tend not to reach the U.S. On the bright side, the very worst cachaças do not reach us either, which is a blessing, considering that its innumerable sobriquets also include gasolina and petróleo. According to the Instituto Brasileiro da Cachaça, less than 1 percent of cachaça is exported. Predictions that it might emerge as “the next tequila” have not yet come to pass, but the booze biz remains hopeful. In 2012, the conglomerate Diageo paid $453 million to acquire Ypióca, which is regarded as the leading premium brand in Brazil.

Who is America’s most famous Ypióca enthusiast?
That would be John Travolta:

I would like to watch that ad again while drinking some cachaça. How should I drink it?
Very carefully. Strive to avoid too direct an understanding of why Brazilians call it fighting water and the evil one and that which killed the cop.

Aged cachaças are generally sipped neat or on ice. They also work nicely mixed with sweet vermouth, and perhaps a splash of Cynar, to make a cocktail called the rabo de galo, the name of which translates as tail of the rooster.

Any brand recommendations?
Novo Fogo is investing a lot of energy in becoming hip, and is not bad. Avuá makes a spicy number aged in casks of amburana. Leblon’s Reserva Especial makes good on its promise to deliver notes of honey and caramel. For further insight, I suggest scouring the blog Cachaçagora or, for a more personal touch, lurching into the nearest churrascaria, as I recently did, encountering a bartender who subscribed to the (widely held) belief that the state of Minas Gerais produces the finest stuff: “They have the best cachaça, the best cheese, and the best women.” I closely studied the label of the cachaça he poured for me, but its name did not stick in my memory: Its taste was so undistinguished that I have to assume the cheese of Minas Gerais resembles Cracker Barrel past its sell-by date and that the women do not give Gisele Bündchen’s agent reason to lose any sleep.

What can the history of cachaça teach us about Brazil?
Quite a bit. Looking through the glass of a cachaça bottle, we catch a complicated glimpse of the play of race and class in the collective identity of our hemisphere’s second-strangest nation.

Cachaça originated early in the 1500s. Sugar was the cash crop, and the word cachaça originally referred to “the foam that arose from the cauldrons when the sugarcane was boiled.” The African captives consigned to the sugar mills fermented this foam, and they traded it among themselves and with the natives. Soon, on the coast of Africa, Portuguese slavers were exchanging distilled cachaça for human chattel. The slave presence at the founding of the cachaça tradition inspired a folk story of grotesque pungency. A history of Brazilian food hands down the legend that cachaça was discovered by a soul who, while tied up next to a cauldron in punishment, “found himself under a point where the distilled sugar alcohol was condensing and dripping onto his back or arm.” The origin story connects, perhaps, to the most common of cachaça’s teeming nicknames—pinga, meaning drop.

And so cachaça entered history and myth as an outcast beverage—“the principle means by which the degradation of the Indians has been brought about,” the alleged incentive for “the very lowest order of Negroes” to commit a hired murder, the undoing of many a foreign sailor. In 1920, a travel writer supposed that a well-dressed stranger, ordering a glass of it in Rio café, would excite astonishment from his waiter, “for it is the drink of the lower stratum of society.”

But this dividing line of thought has, over the centuries, reversed itself, halfway, more than once, looping into knots of paradox. This World Cup opens on International Cachaça Day, which commemorates June 12, 1744, when the colonial powers of Portugal banned the stuff—just the sort of edict to help transform cachaça into “a sign of patriotism and national conscience.” In the early 1800s, when the rural elite toasted to the promise of anti-colonial revolution, they filled their glasses with the medicine of the poor. It was a gesture of keen ritual significance. But it was just a gesture, according to Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History:

The new condition of cachaça did not transform it into an item of habitual consumption of the elite, who continued to be faithful in their daily use of wine and port. Rather, it became a symbol in a moment when, at least in the socially dominant discourse, the term Brazilians seemed, for the first time, to unify in spite of enormous social differences.

In 2014, cachaça still inspires national pride, but its stigma still affects national consumption habits. Domestic sales are flat because many an upwardly-mobile citizen quits drinking judgment-stripper as soon as he can afford to. Out on the town, he asserts his prosperity by ordering a caipiroska, a vodka-based variant on the most famous cachaça drink, the caipirinha.

The caipirinha?
kī-pə-rēn-yə

Sounds familiar.
This refreshing beverage has been cachaça’s foremost ambassador.

Why?
Because of its pretty simplicity. It is easy to make: You just muddle lime wedges with sugar, slosh in some hooch, mix with ice. It is easy to drink: You just sit there admiring its undemanding delight while occasionally airily wondering at how the lime and sugar polish the liquor’s rough edges. It is especially popular in Germany, as evidenced by a recent stunt conducted aboard Lufthansa’s Frankfurt–Rio flight, “The World’s Highest Caipirinha Party.” I expect that bars across the U.S. will run caipirinha specials for the duration of the World Cup. I expect that no Brazilian companies experimenting with extra-special branding gimmicks will lower the bar set by caipirinha-flavored condoms and massage gels.

TMI.
Sorry.

No worries. Anyway: What makes a good caipirinha?
There is a popular Brazilian saying: Quanto pior a cachaça, melhor a caipirinha—the worse the cachaça, the better the caipirinha. The bartenders in Manhattan’s Little Brazil, a stretch of 46th Street where the air is rich with the scent of feijoada, are adhering to this principle when they reach into the well and grab a bottle of Pitú to prepare your order, so try not to take it personally.

I’m aware that, as a North American, I bring certain cultural biases to this discussion, but I also bring a functioning set of sensory organs, and I believe that the popular Brazilian saying is trumped by a less famous adage: Popular industrial brands such as Pitú (and the slightly less unrefined Cachaça 51) constitute “the liquified form of getting hit in the face with a shovel.” You would be better off, in any establishment, calling for any other cachaça in stock. This is most likely to be the No. 3 brand—smooth, soft Leblon—but some connoisseurs prefer Ypióca and Sagatiba as superior types of saint’s urine.

Do you have a caipirinha recipe to share?
Well, I’ll tell you how I made the one I’m drinking now. I cut half of a fine lime into eight wedges and placed them in a well-chilled double old-fashioned glass. I muddled the limes with two teaspoons of simple syrup, poured in 2½ ounces of eye wash, added three cracked ice cubes, stirred briskly, and tossed a couple more ice cubes in.

There are at least half a dozen ways to vary, and perhaps improve upon, this basic scheme. For instance, some caipirinha experts prefer to use not simple syrup but superfine sugar, while others will insist upon demerara sugar. Adherents of each of these philosophies will understand the revulsion that passed through my innards, recently, as I watched a bartender fix one for a lady who wanted hers with Sweet’N Low.

How long should I muddle?
Long enough to express the lime oil that will fuse with the funk of the turpentine. Thirty seconds should do the trick.

Let the record show that the New York TimesJohnny Apple held a different view of this muddling issue. He once reported that “the best pros in Rio ... keep at it for five minutes,” which is not believable unless we understand that the work of these bartenders is less about making a drink than about attending to a ceremony, which I hope you’ll agree is somewhat believable. Historians tell us that members of both the Roman Catholic Church and Afro-Brazilian religions mixed cachaça into their ceremonies as early as the 1600s. It goes without saying that Brazilian secular culture brings a high degree of ritual to the consumption of the Virgin’s tears.

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