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Cachaca and the Caiprinha
Cachaca, or cachasa, (pronounced kuh-sha-suh) is often referred to as Brazilian rum, although there are differences between the two. Rum is traditionally made from molasses, while cachaca is made from the juice of the first pressing of sugarcane. Since molasses is a by-product of the process of extracting the sugar from the cane, it would probably be more of a surprise if the spirits didn't have a similar flavor.
Most traditional cachaca cocktails are made with un-aged (or 'white') liquor. For those that prefer a mellower drink, there's also aged cachaca, which is aged for up to ten years in wooden barrels. Aged cachaca is smoother, and like all aged spirits, it picks up some color from the wooden barrels.
Random bit of trivia: In some circles, there's much discussion of whether cachaca is or is not a type or subset of rum. If this sort of minutiae is of interest, Rumdood has an excellent breakdown of the issue.
The History of Cachaca
Cachaca has been around long enough that its exact origins can probably never be known. It appears that it appeared not long after the introduction of sugarcane into Brazil, sometime in the late 1500’s. Somewhere along the way, someone noticed that if sugarcane juice was cooked and left standing, it would ferment and produce an alcoholic beverage. The fermented juice was known as cagaca, and it was largely a product for slaves and the working class.
It’s probably not a surprise that eventually someone caught on to the idea of distilling the cagaca, and so cachaca was born. It was not only born, it exploded. Cachaca distilleries multiplied like the proverbial rabbit during the 16th and 17th centuries, and the liquor was so popular that Portugal tried to ban its manufacture and consumption.
After roughly a century of attempting to ban cachaca, the Portuguese government threw in the towel. They gave up the ban in favor of taxation, a lucrative move for the treasury. It’s estimated that there are now more than 4000 brands of cachaca in Brazil. The liquor was originally considered to be a drink of the lower classes, but artisanal cachacas, some of them very expensive, are growing in popularity.
Cachaca is versatile enough to use in a large number of cocktails and batidas, but the most well-known cachaca cocktail is the caipirinha. The origins of the cocktail are a mystery, but there is an old saying in Brazil: Quanto pior a cachaca, melhor a caipirinha, or the worse the cachaca, the better the caipirinha. A traditional caipirinha is made with un-aged cachaca, and some experts would say the cheaper, the better.
Forget the lime juice, or even worse, the limeade. To be authentic, a caipirinha must be made with fresh lime. A truly classic Brazilian cocktail is made with the lime known in the States as a key lime (limao galego). Key limes have a lighter aroma and more acidic flavor than the darker green Tahitian limes that most people are familiar with.
The Classic Caipirinha Recipe
- 2-3 key limes cut into small wedges
- 2-3 heaping tablespoons of sugar
- 2-3 ounces cachaca
- Muddle the sugar and lime slices together well in an old fashioned or rocks glass.
- Add the cachaca and stir well to dissolve the sugar.
- Add crushed ice and stir.
- Garnish with a lime pinwheel.
Purists would insist that the sugar must be white cane sugar – no brown sugar, beet sugar, or raw sugar. And as a tip, Brazilian sugar is a finer granule than what Americans or Europeans normally see, more similar to what is known as superfine sugar. Muddling is much easier with the finer sugar!