Brazil’s getting a lot of flack these days. There were those sorry-looking athlete rooms in the Rio Olympic Village. The Zika story keeps getting worse and worse. Infrastructural and political instabilities still plague the country. And then there was the sewage leak that led to drug-resistant super-bacteria being found in waters off some Olympic beaches. Not a great start for the home of the 2016 Summer Olympics.
But whatever the bad press it’s gotten—kind of a pre-Olympics tradition, right?—Brazil’s plodded on, setting up beach volleyball nets and doing whatever it is they do to prepare for canoe slalom. And that’s gotta take some serious national strength. Everyone’s looking at Brazil to fail, at structures to falter, at sickness to spread. But then the spirit of the games themselves might take over, not least because at its core are a lot of extremely talented people dedicated, despite all the setbacks, to rally their spirits, prime their bodies, and absolutely crush their opponents.
And if that inspiring competitive spirit isn’t enough to smooth over the wave of Olympics hiccups (Olympiccups), there’s always one reliable national remedy: the Caipirinha.
Even if you’re not a cocktail aficionado, by this point you’ve probably heard of the Caipirinha — and not just because it isn’t the kind of drink kept in idyllic secrecy in the South American mountains. It’s got major selling points, especially in warm weather: simplicity, fresh lime juice, a little hint of sweetness, and a generous chill. In a way, it’s kind of kindred to a classic Margarita or Daiquiri (the no Sour Mix/machine kinds). Except unlike those cocktails, Caiprinha’s marquee spirit, cachaça, has just started making serious inroads in the U.S. market.
There’s a chance things could get just a bit confusing, since cachaça actually has a certain kinship with rum. But don’t tell that to the Brazilian government. It’s adamant that cachaça not be qualified as a rum, and with good reason: cachaça is made exclusively by fermenting sugarcane juice. Rum can be made with sugarcane juice — like Rhum Agricole — but it’s often the product of fermented sugarcane byproducts like molasses.
And then there are the very specific, very grim local origins of cachaça. Much like Egyptian slaves drinking an early form of beer, cachaça was first regularly consumed 400 years ago, not by the moneyed landowners but by slaves from Africa who worked the Brazilian sugarcane fields. And while the beer rationed to the Egyptian slaves was arguably nutritional, the cachaça, which was also rationed to the African slaves, was a bleaker remedy, simply meant “to dull their pain and give them energy during their arduous work days.” In 1663, a sugar producer named João Fernando Vieira actually insisted his slaves “were only to begin a day’s work after they had drunk their daily ration of cachaça.” The term itself comes from what the African captives called “the foam that collected at the top of cauldrons” used to boil the cane. That early, rougher fermented product evolved into cachaça.
Modern cachaça can vary in terms of refinement. As we said, the spirit’s made with sugarcane juice, which gives it a certain similarity in flavor profile to Rhum Agricole, which is arguably (pleasantly) bulkier than cachaça. Not that it doesn’t have a rustic flavor profile, which can tend toward fruitiness and vegetal depth, which can also be altered by aging the spirit for short periods in local Brazilian wood barrels. And both wood-aging and caramel coloring can give certain brands a hint — to a generous dose — of golden color. Of course, among the many brands out there, you’ll notice most are clear, or subtly colored like Leblon, which is actually aged briefly in used Cognac casks in France before it goes into the bottle. It’s a bit smoother, thanks to the oak, but still green, roundly vegetal, and even a bit spicy with some not unpleasant muskiness on the nose. In a way it’s almost closer to a younger tequila than a rum, which is probably why Brazil doesn’t want it confused with the brown sugar-molasses flavor profiles of aged rums.
The confusion can spread when cachaca is either wood-aged or caramel-colored, making it look like rum at alcohol levels that can legally range anywhere from 38% to 54%, which is a huge variance (a lot of mid-50% ABV alcohols are actually cask strength), but you’ll generally find most in the 40% ABV range. There is “old” cachaça, but that only requires half the spirit be aged a minimum of a year. Fresh, green, even husky flavors — with a subtle sugarcane laced through — are what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for cachaça. Which you should be, since you’ll want to make this perfect Caipirinha recipe to toast the games, and Brazil. The country did a lot to get the Olympics and will probably lose a lot of money, but for a while at least, Brazil has a global supply of elite athletes who will do some pretty amazing stuff. That’s enough for a cheer. Or five. However many Olympic Rings there are.