Those who witnessed the opening ceremonies of the Olympics - a dizzying array of costumed performers in a spectacle that's part art, part gymnastics, part propaganda - saw Rio's pageant strikingly depict the encounter between colonists and indigenous people, slavers and slaves, immigrants and immigrants who happened to get there earlier.
That patchwork of national identity - both prides and shames - is represented in Cachaca, the Brazilian sugar cane spirit that's probably hitting peak sales in the United States as people toast the Games with Brazil's most famous cocktail, the caipirinha.
Cachaca has been around since the 1500s and is inseparable from Brazil's brutal history in the slave trade. The word "Cachaca" originally referred to the foam that formed when cane was boiled to make sugar; slaves fermented the foams from later boilings to make a beverage, which they drank and traded. Over centuries, the spirit has achieved a ubiquity in Brazil that has made it the third-most-consumed spirit in the world (although over 95 percent is still consumed in Brazil itself).
Many Cachaca makers saw Brazil's hosting of the World Cup in 2014 and now the Olympics as opportunities to introduce the spirit to a wider audience. But it's still an uphill battle, made a little easier after the United States recognized Cachaca as a distinctive product of Brazil in 2013 and allowed it to be sold under that name. Until then, Cachaca sold here was labeled "Brazilian rum."
I was puzzled at first about why the change would be preferable. Because many Americans at least know what rum is, was the recategorization really doing sales any favors here?
Steve Luttmann, founder of premium Cachaca Leblon, says the problem was consumer expectations: Someone who bought Cachaca expecting the flavors of rum was likely to be unhappy. Although some industrial versions taste like harsh rum, premium Cachaca is more vegetal, reedier, delicate - closer to the sugar cane it's distilled from than it is to many rums, which often are distilled from molasses and hint at its sweet vanilla notes. Cachaca is closer to rhum agricole, which is similarly distilled from pure cane juice.
In a way, Cachaca has gone from one problem to another: No longer misled by a "Brazilian rum" label, most American drinkers still don't know what Cachaca is. Even those who know, and know how to pronounce it (kuh-shah-suh), don't always know how to use it in drinks.
Any spirit seeking a foothold will find it helpful to have a popular, easy-to-make cocktail to carry it to the mouths of drinkers. The caipirinha - muddled lime, sugar and Cachaca - is everywhere in Brazil and has made it north, but it's not exactly the new margarita in terms of its popularity. Two others - the batida (spirit, fruit juice, and sugar) and the rabo-de-galo (basically a Cachaca Manhattan; literally translated, it means "cock tail," the chicken appendage) - are well known in Brazil but not stateside.
In Brazil, "if you go into a bar and ask for a caipirinha, the first thing they'll tell you is what fruits they have today, what's fresh," says Luttmann. Though the lime and sugar are constants, they often meet other tropical fruits. The accompanying Cachaca cocktail recipes from Adam Bernbach of 2 Birds 1 Stone and Gina Chersevani of Buffalo & Bergen use summer fruit in a way that allows the spirit to speak: Bernbach's employs the coolness of watermelon, Chersevani's the brightness of cherries. Both drinks highlight a common characteristic of good silver Cachaca - its fresh, grassy element. In the Basiado, a riff on the caipirinha by Tobin Ellis of BarMagic consulting in Las Vegas, the cucumber and herbs take the spirit toward its vegetal roots.
Cachaca consumption has followed economic and cultural trends of Brazil in fascinating ways. According to JoĆ£o Azevedo Fernandes' chapter on Cachaca in "Alcohol in Latin America," before the 20th century, the spirit's association with slaves and indigenous people often caused wealthy "elites" (who wished to be more European) to scorn it. There's a thread of prejudice mixed into the story of Cachaca, not only in its origins but in who drank it, who didn't and why; the early disdain by the elites was not because the spirit was connected with the repugnant slave trade but because it was associated with the slaves themselves, and later with agrarian workers and the poor.
In more recent times, Luttmann says, "higher-income people started drinking more caipirinhas with vodka - [called] caipiroskas - because there was this trend of 'everything in Brazil is bad and everything from outside of Brazil is good.' . . . In the past five years, that's changed dramatically. You have a new generation coming in, local pride, this resurgence of craft Cachacas. . . . You have a new generation saying, 'Why would you ever put imported vodka in our national drink?'"
Still, the notion of Cachaca as "poor man's milk" remains common, says Thiago Camargo, a co-founder of spiritmaker Yaguara. Even many Brazilians have to be reintroduced to the spirit after unpleasant early encounters with more-industrial versions; the lime and sugar in the ubiquitous caipirinha often conceal a headache-inducing, rocket-fuel quality in lesser iterations.
There is good stuff being made now, though; some of it is terrific, and the aged variations produced by craft distillers are especially worth exploring. For centuries, oak has been the standard wood used to age spirits, and the majority of Cachaca that undergoes wood aging still goes into oak. But some brands are now aging distillates in native woods or a combination of oak and native-wood barrels.
Oak aging was the preference of Europeans who once ruled Brazil, says Erwin Weimann, master blender at Yaguara and author of "Cachaca: A Bebida Brasileira" ("The Brazilian Drink"). But as Brazil has come into its own, he explains in an email, "we really began to branch out further and discover our own native flavours. . . . It is now common practice to see Cachacas in all types of woods, and distillers around the country continue to experiment further."
Some of those native woods impart flavors similar to oak; others bring something new. Camargo notes that where oak is known for imparting vanilla, amburana wood can bring cinnamon, and cabreuva brings anise. (The Yaguara Ouro is a blend representing all three woods.) You can sample other native-wood-kissed Cachacas in (among others) those produced by Novo Fogo (its Tanager spends time in zebrawood, its Graciosa in Brazil nut); Cuca Fresca's Ouro, which is aged in jequitiba; and Avua's Amburana, which suggested flavors I'm not sure I can name: thyme, wintry spice, rye bread?
It's a cliche by now to refer to "history in a glass," but seldom has the phrase been more true than it is with Cachaca. It's a drink that reflects Brazil's multicultural society and its history, good and bad. Like the limes and sugar in a caipirinha, it's muddled.
Tobin Ellis of BarMagic Consulting tops this drink - a riff on the caipirinha - with a nitrous-oxide-powered coconut foam. If you have an iSi whipper, you can do the same: Combine 16 ounces of dessert whip with 5 ounces of coconut syrup, 2 ounces of cachaĆ§a and 5 ounces of egg whites, and charge it in the whipper, then shake it and keep it chilled until ready to top the drink; in the drink, omit the coconut cream and substitute 1 tablespoon of sugar.
For those who don't have an iSi whipper (or don't want to use it), this version is adapted for tools the casual home bartender will have on hand. It doesn't have the delicate coconut fluff on top but retains much of the flavor of Ellis's version. He uses Leblon brand cachaĆ§a.
Adapted from a recipe by Tobin Ellis, owner of the BarMagic Consulting firm in Las Vegas.
• 1 tablespoon cream of coconut, such as Coco Loco brand (may substitute 1 tablespoon sugar if creating the coconut foam in headnote)
• Several inch-long pieces of fresh lemon grass (the tender inner stalk)
• Several leaves fresh cilantro
• 2 lime wheels (optional), plus 1 for garnish
• 2 cucumber wheels (optional), plus 1 for garnish
• 2 ounces silver cachaca
Fill a rocks glass with ice.
Combine the cream of coconut, lemon grass, cilantro and the lime wheels and cucumber slices, if using, in a cocktail shaker; muddle vigorously.
Fill the shaker with ice, then add the cachaĆ§a; seal and shake for 30 seconds. Pour into the rocks glass and garnish with a lime and/or cucumber wheel.
Nutrition | Per serving: 190 calories, 0 g protein, 11 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar
CHERRY AND THE CANE
SERVING: 1 (makes about 2 cups syrup)
Bright and refreshing, Gina Chersevani's soda for grown-ups takes the grassy notes of cachaĆ§a and melds them with the sweetness of summer cherry and a dark undernote of spice. The mixologist likes to use Avua or Yaguara brand cachaĆ§a for this drink.
MAKE AHEAD: The cherry mixture needs to sit for 12 hours (overnight) before it's cooked. You'll have leftover syrup, which can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.
From Washington mixologist Gina Chersevani of Buffalo & Bergen in Union Market.
For the syrup
• 8 ounces fresh black cherries, pitted
• 1 cup pinot noir
• 1 1/2 cups sugar
• 1/4 cup brandy or pisco
• 2 whole star anise
• 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
• 3 green cardamom pods
For the drink
• Half a lime, sliced into wheels, plus more for garnish
• 2 ounces silver cachaca (see headnote)
• Seltzer or club soda
• Brandied cherries, for garnish
For the syrup: Place the cherries in a bowl. Cover with the pinot noir and 1 cup of the sugar, stirring to incorporate and making sure the cherries are submerged. Let sit for 12 hours, then transfer the mixture to a saucepan and add the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar, the brandy or pisco, star anise, peppercorns and cardamom.
Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, then remove from the heat and cool. Strain out the fruit and spices, reserving the syrup. (Discard the spices; the fruit makes a nice topping for ice cream.) You'll need 1 ounce for this drink; reserve the rest in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
For the drink: Fill a highball glass with ice.
Muddle the slices of lime in a shaker, then add the ounce of syrup and cachaĆ§a. Seal the shaker and shake vigorously, then strain into the glass. Top with seltzer or club soda, stir gently, and garnish with the brandied cherries.
Nutrition | Per serving: 220 calories, 0 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 10 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 19 g sugar
STRIPES AND PLAIDS
This is a simplified version of a highball by Adam Bernbach. It uses the fresh notes of summer watermelon to soften Bruto Americano, a bitter red liqueur from St. George Spirits. (You can substitute Campari if you can't find the Bruto, but the Bruto has cinnamon and piney notes that make it quite different from the Italian classic.)
At 2 Birds 1 Stone, Bernbach carbonates the watermelon juice into a delicious house soda.
Bruto Americano is available at Batch 13 in Northwest Washington.
Adapted from a recipe by Adam Bernbach, bar director of 2 Birds 1 Stone in D.C.
• 1 1/2 ounces silver cachaĆ§a
• 1/2 ounce Campari
• 1/4 ounce fresh lime juice
• 1/2 ounce simple syrup (see NOTE)
• 2 to 3 ounces fresh watermelon juice
• Pinch salt
• Club soda or seltzer
• Basil leaf, for garnish
Fill a Collins glass with ice.
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the cachaĆ§a, Bruto Americano, lime juice, simple syrup. watermelon juice (to taste) and salt; seal and shake well for 30 seconds. Strain into the glass, top with a little club soda or seltzer and stir gently.
Garnish with the basil leaf.
NOTE: To make a simple syrup, combine 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a low boil, then cool. Transfer to a heatproof container. Once it has cooled to room temperature, cover tightly and refrigerate until chilled through; store indefinitely.
Nutrition | Per serving: 190 calories, 0 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 13 g sugar