As in many large countries, most of the popular stereotypes about Brazil unravel with the slightest tug. A nation of sunny beaches and exquisite tans on svelte bods? Sure, and chilly mountain towns and linebackers in the German enclaves in the south, as well. Dysfunctional politics? In the extreme, but what is functional politics nowadays, anyway?
Yet, in one area the homogeneity holds: the nation’s drink. If you said anything other than cachaça and the caipirinha, you’re thinking of the wrong place.
Across an area the size of the contiguous United States, there are thousands of cachaça stills, many unlicensed, that produce hundreds of millions of liters of the spirit annually.
What is clear is that the vast majority of it is consumed in Brazil and is a cheap variety, lacking in complex flavor, akin to fuel ethanol, and typically drunk neat or as a part of the caipirinha cocktail, said Felipe Jannuzzi, the co-founder of Mapa da Cachaça, which is an amalgam of sorts of sociology, guide and advocacy for high-quality cachaça.
But in São Paulo, the Brazilian metropolis that has always bucked some of the clichés about the nation (there are no beaches, for one), a few bars and bartenders are working to elevate cachaça as a connoisseur-worthy drink and as a key component of the city’s nascent cocktail culture. On a recent visit, I decided to stop in at a few of these to see how such cachaça was being used.
To get a sense of the wide variety of cachaças available, Mr. Jannuzzi and I took a seat at Empório Sagarana, a bar in the Vila Romana neighborhood (there’s also a second location in hip Vila Madalena) that is styled as a traditional boteco of the state of Minas Gerais, a stronghold of cachaça production. Instead of a typical selection of just a few cachaças, Empório Sagarana sports a menu of dozens, many with tasting notes. It also begins with a manifesto of what is good cachaça, which Mr. Jannuzzi helped write.
While Empório Sagarana serves a few pre-bottled cocktails, it is mainly a cachaça and beer place. As we sipped from shot glasses of Serra Limpa, one of the first organic cachaças, and another from Fascinação, Mr. Jannuzzi explained that cachaça comes in two main varieties: industrial and artisanal. Both are made from fresh sugar cane juice (unlike most rums, which are made from molasses), but the former is made on large column stills; the latter, the only type connoisseurs consider worthy to drink, is made on a smaller scale using pot stills. Like rum, cachaça is sold both unaged and aged. Unlike rum, however, cachaça producers don’t limit their aging to just oak — instead they may use barrels made from any of a couple dozen different Brazilian woods. Moreover, a small avant-garde of producers has recently started highlighting different varieties of sugar cane as well as releasing vintage cachaças, Mr. Jannuzzi said. All of this gives the handful of bartenders working seriously with cachaça in craft cocktails in São Paulo a wide gamut of flavors to experiment with and the ability to create cocktails highlighting an individual bottle, he said.
“They are making cocktails thinking of the brands, they use only one cachaça. I really like that. A cocktail custom-made for one brand of cachaça,” he said.
At the bar Guarita in the Pinheiros neighborhood, the bartenders Jean Ponce and David Barreiro said that they often choose a cachaça for a cocktail based on the wood the cachaça was aged in. Amburana wood-aged cachaças, for example, work well in classic cocktails and with vermouth, while white cachaças and those with the almond and anise notes that come from bálsamo wood pair well with lime.
“Bálsamo wood is the future of cachaça,” Jean Ponce said via Greg Caisley, the bar’s owner and chef (Mr. Caisley, an Australian expat, served as translator for my conversation). “It is a very complex wood, it is a wood that speaks, it has minerals, herbs, citrus, it is perfect for cocktails.”
“You’ll understand when you taste it,” Mr. Ponce added, whipping me up a caipirinha made with Canarinha, a bálsamo-wood aged cachaça from Salinas, a city in the state of Minas Gerais and a stronghold of cachaça production. The Canarinha added more complexity than a typical caipirinha with unaged cachaça, as well as some bitterness; overall, it was a drier and, perhaps, a less-beach friendly concoction.
While many of the cachaça cocktails I had in São Paulo that weren’t caipirinhas were riffs on common whiskey cocktails, often with lots of vermouth, at Gaurita Mr. Ponce often creates cocktails that show the spirit’s lighter side.
One, made with cachaça, tonic water and simple syrup, also included turmeric and Rangpur lime and was garnished with the herb rue, known in Brazil as arruda — a nod, popular among the city’s bartenders, to the country’s incredible botanical richness. In São Paulo, I also had cocktails made with the leaves of the pitanga tree, tonka beans (known as cumaru), and the bulbous yellow-orange fruit of the cashew tree, called caju. I also encountered at least three different lime varieties in frequent use, which made decoding which particular variety was in which particular cocktail, maddening. For reference: the standard-issue green Persian lime is the limão-tahiti, the Rangpur lime goes either by limão-capeta or limão-cravo, while a limão-galego is a key lime.
Overall, bartenders say they are eager to craft cocktails that are distinctly Brazilian. However, there are some challenges that are inherent to working with cachaça.
One is that beyond the caipirinha and another cocktail, recently resurgent, called a Rabo de Galo (meaning Tale of the Rooster, or cocktail) that is made from cachaça, vermouth and a bitter, Brazil lacks an indigenous cocktail culture, said Spencer Amereno Jr., the head bartender at Frank Bar in the Maksoud Plaza hotel.
“We are creating a way to mix cachaça,” he said of the city’s ascendant class of craft bartenders. “It is hard because there is no tradition of mixing cachaça in cocktails, unlike in the U.S., which, for example, has had the book ‘How to Mix Drinks’ since 1862.”
At Frank Bar, Mr. Amereno said he turns to classic cocktails to think of how to use cachaça best. However, that doesn’t mean he’s merely recreating the classics with the native spirit.
“I don’t use the simple thinking: I’ll substitute cachaça for bourbon. I like to put tradition in typical Brazilian cocktails,” he said.
For example, for the version of the Rabo de Galo that he made me he turned to the Manhattan for inspiration. The result, made with oak-aged Leblon Signature Merlet cachaça (known in the United States as Leblon Reserva Especial), two sweet vermouths (Carpano Antica and Noilly Prat).
In working with cachaça, Mr. Amereno said, he also must confront perceptions by Brazilians that the spirit, and the cocktails traditionally made from it, are low-quality and unsophisticated.
“We have a number of Brazilian customers who think cachaça is harsh and they don’t like it. I try to surprise them and put value in cocktails with cachaça,” he said.
Nonetheless, it takes only a quick glance at the menus of many cocktail bars, where drinks made from gin and whiskey vastly outnumber those made from cachaça, to understand how far the native spirit has to go before it reaches the prominence of its globalized brethren.
That doesn’t mean you have to shun cachaça in its more traditional iteration of the caipirinha. Far from a relic of a less sophisticated era or an embarrassing marker of an out-of-touch bar and an uninventive bartender, when done properly the caipirinha can capture the qualities the city’s top bartenders are striving for, being both distinctly Brazilian and a showcase of skill. It was a point made clearly when, on my last full day in São Paulo, I found myself 45 minutes from the city center at the restaurant Mocotó, a haven of Northeastern Brazilian cuisine that is so celebrated that it not only spawned more recommendations than any other place in my travels around the city, but also has inspired an haute cuisine spinoff called Esquina Mocotó.
The original remains humble, and when I walked up to the bar with Marcello Gaya, the Leblon brand ambassador, I had the option of ordering a various caipirinhas made from an assortment of the fresh fruit that makes Brazil a produce-lover’s paradise.
At Mr. Gaya’s suggestion, I went with a caipirinha três limões, or a three-lime caipirinha, which includes as citrus the Persian lime, the Rangpur lime and lemon (or limão-siciliano) and was one of the first caipirinha variations to make it big, Mr. Gaya said. When it arrived, it was exquisite — hitting a perfect balance of booze, acid and sweetness achieved by only the best daiquiris (both drinks rely on the same tricky balance of flavors and like the daiquiri, the caipirinha is often served too sweet).
“That’s their knowledge, the muddling, they have different fruit every day, some days this is sweeter,” Mr. Gaya said holding up a Rangpur lime, “some days more acidic, so you have to know what you are doing.”