One of the perks of covering the alcohol beat is the occasional complimentary sample that arrives by mail. It’s usually a medium-sized package containing, at most, a 750-ml. bottle. Often it’s smaller: A sample of the delicious Chopin wheat spirit Single was 375 ml. in size, Woody Creek vodka from Colorado measured a mere 100 ml., and Wild Turkey’s Master’s Keep came in a plastic flask (and good to the last drop). So when the interns showed up to my office carrying two enormous cardboard boxes, I was intrigued—as were the interns.
I’d been expecting a sample of Cachaça 51, the leading brand of the Brazilian spirit distilled from fermented sugar cane, but because of a misunderstanding with the distributor, I ended up with an entire case—12 bottles of the stuff. Suddenly I was like those midlevel gangsters handing out swag to my associates. (Next week it’s furs!) Everyone seemed excited and grateful to receive a bottle, but was anyone quite sure what to do with it?
I was reminded of a line from David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948): "From time to time, my friends have said to me, ‘Dave, I have been given a bottle of vodka. What the (mustn’t say the naughty word) do I do with it?’” Embury’s suggestion: “If, therefore, you need grain alcohol to dilute your tincture of iodine or to rub on your back and the corner drug store is closed, just use vodka. Of course the vodka is half distilled water but that won’t harm your back at all.”
Needless to say, he was not a fan of vodka, which, since 1949, has been defined by the government as “neutral spirits distilled from any material at or above 190 proof, reduced to … 80 proof [or 40 percent alcohol], and, after such reduction in proof, so treated as to be without distinctive character, aroma, or taste.” But as it turns out, there are a good many people out there who prefer not to taste the booze in their booze. In that respect, vodka is the most versatile (mixable) of spirits.
Like vodka, cachaça is colorless. On the other hand, it’s distilled at less than 190 proof, lending the spirit more odor, flavor, and character. And, as Smithsonian magazine reporter Natasha Geiling explains, “because cachaça is distilled from raw sugarcane, it retains a grassy, sulfurous, earthy quality that rum lacks—rum, by turn, is sweeter with more notes of vanilla.” So what can we make with it?
The immediate answer is the caipirinha, a distinctly Brazilian concoction involving cachaça, sugar, and lime, served on the rocks. The first one I ever tasted was at the late Café Atlantico here in the District, a South American outpost of the José Andres empire. The lime and sugar were so thoroughly muddled that it tasted like limeade. Three limeades later, and it was Carnival.
More recently at home, I made a caipirinha based on the Cachaça 51 recipe. It calls for practically one lime per glass and I could have added a bit more sugar—then again, the more sugar you add, the more it tastes like limeade, and suddenly the kids are wondering why Dad is trying to get the family to form a conga line.
Only a million or so cases of Cachaça 51 get to the United States each year, whereas 17 million cases are sold in Brazil (the country overall consumes more than 80 million cases). This could, however, change: As noted in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, vodka volume slumped to 0.3 percent growth last year. Perhaps Americans are now seeking a spirit with more flavor, odor, and character? They’ve certainly been turning to bourbon, which grew an astronomical 7.4 percent in volume over the past year.
"I personally think there is a market for cachaça here in America," says D.C. mixologist Fabian Malone. "Bourbon prices will go up soon and bars will look for other alternatives for cocktails." He adds that "cachaça isnt a simple as it appears—they keep most of what they make in Brazil. What most Americans are unaware of [is that] you have industrial-made and artisanal-made cachaça. The former is what most Americans see and perceive as cachaça. The latter is aged in 28 or so different types of wood making flavor profiles that I honestly don't have much experience with, which is exciting."
As always, distribution matters (when was the last time you saw cachaça prominently displayed in your local liquor store?). Spirits education helps, as well: Cachaça is not some newfangled concoction like Skinny Girl. It’s been around since the 17th century, originating as the drink of Brazilian slaves. Plus all you really need is sugar and lime. It couldn’t be any easier.