Perfecting the Classic Brazilian Caipirinha – Cocktail Recipe.

Perfecting the Classic Brazilian Caipirinha

In our years of being semi-professional barflys and checking out bars, purely in the name of research of course, we’ve developed a repertoire of favourite cocktails that we always order to test out the skills of a barman. One of them is a Latin American classic so during our recent time in Rio de Janeiro we set ourselves the task of perfecting the classic Brazilian caipirinha.

The drink I use as a test of a good barman is a martini, often ordered without specifying whether I want gin or vodka (which, according to the world’s best barman is a vodkatini, and who am I to argue), or whether I want it shaken or stirred. For the record, I’m really favouring gin these days, with a dash of vermouth and two olives.

Lara usually goes for something inventive and local to test out their creativity, but if they don’t have something that tickles her taste buds, she defers to a mojito (white rum, mint, sugar, lime, and club soda) or a caipirinha. She has her reasons.

Most bartenders fail our caipirinha test. Given that Brazil’s national cocktail is made just a few ingredients, Cachaça (an alcoholic beverage made from fermented sugar cane), sugar and limes, how can it be so hard? And while it is simple, it’s simply brilliant when it’s done right. And it gets done right everywhere in Rio, from neighbourhood bars to nightclubs.

Unlike drinks such as limoncello, which is best sipped in the southern Italian sun after a long lunch, the caipirinha does travel well. So let’s get cracking that ice and see what makes a good caipirinha!

Firstly, it’s all about the Cachaça. There are two main types, industrial and artisanal. It’s easy to tell the difference as the industrial Cachaça is generally clear and cheap and the artisanal Cachaça is dark and relatively more expensive. Cheap industrial Cachaça is not aged, while the more expensive varieties are aged for a short time, and the artisanal varieties can be aged for several years.

Like many spirits, the cheap variety goes into mixed drinks and the more expensive aged variety is taken straight up. It’s the same with Cachaça and you’ll see locals taking a shot of dark Cachaça followed by a beer chaser. In a small bar, the Cachaça can be a home-made artisanal one – well worth a shot, so to speak!

For our cocktail recipe, we’re looking at the industrial variety of Cachaça. The most popular brand you’ll see outside of Brazil is Cachaça 51. In many countries it’s the only brand you’ll find in your local bottle shop. Derided by aficionados in Brazil, they’ll grudgingly agree that the export version is good enough to make a decent drink with.

Cachaça 51 and Pitú brands dominate the market at the low end in Rio and given the roots of Cachaça – it was thought to have been invented by slaves working on sugar cane plantations, and the name of the cocktail translating to ‘little peasant girl’ –getting too fussy about Cachaça when there’s probably only one brand on the liquor store shelves seems redundant!

The limes you use should be vibrant and fresh – if they’re not, make a different cocktail. If you’re lucky enough to get a choice of limes where you live, the best variety to use is what is known as the Persian lime. While the sugar (always white sugar, thanks) sweetens the drink, what you’re after from the limes is the sour taste, but if the limes are too bitter, the drink will be too. Top and tail your limes and cut out the white parts (they’re the most bitter) before making the drink.

One of the phrases that bartenders love to toss around is ‘muddle’. It’s not referring to your state of mind after a couple of caipirinhas (although that’s pretty accurate!), it’s referring to the action of pressing down ingredients in the bottom of a glass to combine them, usually with a wooden pestle. With the limes and sugar, you’re mudding them together, but not crushing the lime pieces too much as this will induce bitterness into the drink.

The balance of sweet and sour is important, so you can adjust the mix of sugar to lime after you’ve made the first drink. Just don’t try too many in one session…

Classic Brazilian Caipirinha
The balance of sweet and sour in a Caipirinha is so important, so you can adjust the mix of sugar to lime after you’ve made the first drink. Just don’t try too many in one session…
Cuisine: Brazilian
Recipe type: Cocktail
Serves: 1
Prep time: 
Total time: 
  • 2 heaped teaspoons of white sugar
  • 1 medium sized lime (see directions for cutting)
  • 1 good pour of Cachaça (21/2oz – 3oz)
  1. Chop the ends off the lime. Cut through the lime slightly off-centre and then diagonally to make quarters.
  2. Remove the white ‘stem’ from the apex of the slices and halve the slices again to make a total of 8 pieces of lime.
  3. Place the lime pieces and sugar in a glass (preferably a lowball or rocks glass) and muddle with a wooden pestle.
  4. Add ice to the glass and pour over the Cachaça.
  5. It’s best to mix the drink by placing a cocktail shaker head over the glass and shaking, but you can just stir it as well.
  6. Sip the drink! Slowly.
Nutrition Information
Serving size: 1 Calories: 119 Fat: 3g Carbohydrates: 18g Protein: 4g


If you’re in Rio and you want to learn to make a caipirinha and learn a few food recipes at the same time, you might like A Cook in Rio cooking class we did, where we also made caipirinhas. Our review here.

There are 8 comments

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  1. forest

    great post as always!

    i wouldn’t argue with Colin, either! 🙂 but just an addition….i’ve always understood that a vodka martini was called a Kangaroo. Looking at a few reputable online cocktail sites, I see it’s ‘officially’ called both. I’m now curious about which name came first (my guess is Kangaroo, but I’m not sure…perhaps I’ll ask the Twitter gods!) 🙂

  2. mvmaithai

    Catching up on reading your blog. Really enjoyed your posts on both Brazil and Argentina. As a jack of all trade, I was at one time a certified bartender (hence Mai Thai as the name of my boat). I learned that a martini is made with gin, dry vermouth and garnished with 3 olives. These days, there are so many variations.

    Didn’t particularly care for the Argentinian mate tea drink but enjoy the Caipirinha every now and then (I’ve seen this drink in a BBQ joint in Atlanta, believe it or not).

  3. Lara Dunston

    Thanks, Forest! I missed this one – sorry, so busy!

    You know, I’ve read and heard stories about a vodka martini or vodkatini being called a Kangaroo but as long as I’ve been drinking (eek, a long time now), I’ve never actually seen ‘Kangaroo’ on a cocktail list. I’d love to know where exactly they call it a Kangaroo, if they still do, or was it a name once used that’s not so popular anymore.

  4. Lara Dunston

    Thanks for the kind comments. Yes, you’re right, traditionally – and the purists still believe – a martini is made with gin and vermouth though the number of olives is often disputed I think (!), but, yes, these days there are countless variations and vodka seems to be used as often as gin. Terry and I tend to like gin for traditional variations of the martini, but for flavoured martinis, like lychee martinis, for example, we prefer vodka, as gin is so aromatic, it doesn’t need anything else.

    I remember when I first returned to Australia from a yearlong trip to South America that took in Brazil some 17 years ago or so, the only place you could get a caipirinha was at the Brazilian restaurants. Now they’re everywhere and they’re absolutely everywhere around the world. I saw a Pisco Sour at a bar in Bangkok recently – that truly astonished me.

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