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…
- 2 heaped teaspoons of white sugar
- 1 medium sized lime (see directions for cutting)
- 1 good pour of Cachaça (21/2oz – 3oz)
- Chop the ends off the lime. Cut through the lime slightly off-centre and then diagonally to make quarters.
- Remove the white ‘stem’ from the apex of the slices and halve the slices again to make a total of 8 pieces of lime.
- Place the lime pieces and sugar in a glass (preferably a lowball or rocks glass) and muddle with a wooden pestle.
- Add ice to the glass and pour over the Cachaça.
- 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.
- Sip the drink! Slowly.
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.