By ROBERT SIMONSON | JULY 10, 2012
THE short history of cachaça consciousness in the United States goes something like this: The new millennium strikes. Americans discover the caipirinha and like it. (Easy.) Americans learn how to pronounce caipirinha. (A little harder.) Americans learn how to pronounce cachaça, the Brazilian spirit you need to make a caipirinha. (Harder still: it’s kah-SHAH-sah. That cedilla is a toughie.)
And that’s about where things stand. Despite a steady climb in sales over the last five years and an expanding number of available brands, cachaça has a narrow user profile. Few liquors are so tied in consumers’ mind to a single cocktail (and in this case, one that may well be past its zenith).
But cachaça may be ready for its second act.
After a long campaign on the part of some of the spirit’s producers and the Brazilian government, the United States decided in April to start the process that will recognize the centuries-old South American distillate of sugar cane juice as a distinctive liquor. No longer will makers be forced to label their wares as “Brazilian rum.” (In return, Brazil will extend similar recognition to America’s bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.)
Martin Cate making an El Draque, a cachaça drink, at Smuggler’s Cove. Credit Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
And in May, Diageo, the giant liquor conglomerate, put its international muscle behind Ypióca, Brazil’s third-largest cachaça brand, buying the company for roughly $470 million. These votes of confidence in Brazil’s national elixir come as the country prepares for its double close-up: the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.
“I think it will be a big boon for cachaça,” Martin Cate, owner of the San Francisco tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove, said of the dual international events.
But to take full advantage of the moment, the spirit will have to first shake off its one-trick-pony image. “It’s analogous to what rhum agricole has gone through here,” said Mr. Cate, mentioning cachaça’s French-Caribbean cousin, which is also distilled from sugar cane juice. “They have their signature drink, ’ti punch,” he said, referring to the drink made of rhum agricole, lime and simple syrup. “It’s a great lead-in.”
But that isolates the spirit, he said. “I think cachaça producers are now saying, ‘We can lead with the caipirinha, but we’ve got to go somewhere from there,’ ” Mr. Cate said.
One place they’re going is bars like Mr. Cate’s. The tiki-bar boom of the last few years has handed cachaça a new opportunity. The spirit’s makers hate being bundled up with the rum world. “They always joke that rum should be called Caribbean cachaça, not the other way around,” said Steve Luttmann, founder of the Leblon brand.
But there’s no denying that cachaça slips easily into the exotic rum-soaked world of tiki. At Lani Kai, in SoHo, Julie Reiner blends it with lime juice, calamansi (a tiny citrus fruit native to the Philippines), cream of coconut and litchi juice to make a Bermuda Triangle. PKNY, the Lower East Side tiki bar, sells the Don Gorgon, pairing the spirit with Aperol, lemon juice and simple syrup, and crowning the mix with soda water and grated cinnamon. The menu at Smuggler’s Cove includes a batida, a luscious drink brimming with coconut cream and crushed ice that has a Brazilian pedigree that goes back further than the caipirinha’s.
“Most cocktail bars these days have a cachaça cocktail on the menu that isn’t a caipirinha,” said the mixologist Aisha Sharpe. One of her contributions — a mix of lemon-grass-ginger syrup, lemon juice and watermelon juice called Ooh Yeah — was recently added to the cocktail menu at the Breslin on West 29th Street.
Also raising the spirit’s reputation a bit is the improved quality now reaching American shores. “There’s this perception that cachaça is like rocket fuel,” Mr. Luttmann said. “It’s somewhat deserved, because the ones we were seeing at first were more industrial.”
These workhorses performed fine in caipirinhas, where the rule of thumb is “the worse the cachaça, the better the caipirinha,” according to Dushan Zaric, an owner of the West Village bar Employees Only. The lime and sugar effectively smothered the imperfections in the spirit. But raw power won’t work in drinks like Lazy Lover, a popular Employees Only creation made of cachaça, lime juice, jalapeño-infused green Chartreuse, Benedictine and agave nectar.
“The fine cachaças now available on the market are reminiscent of a rhum agricole,” Mr. Zaric said. “They have a strong grassy note, plus they’re clean. When we want to mix and create a 3-D cocktail, the newer brands work.”
Smuggler’s Cove sells another drink, El Draque, that uses a spirit many Americans don’t even know exists: aged cachaça. “Because most bartenders haven’t been to Brazil, they don’t know the big role aged cachaças play in the culture,” said Dragos Axinte, whose aged Novo Fogo cachaça is kept two years in repurposed bourbon casks…
…Mr. Luttmann views the aged version, which in Brazil is sipped neat, as the solution to cachaça’s limited hot-weather image. “It is still seasonal,” he said. “It’s like the margarita and mojito: when it’s summer, sales go up.”
Cachaça: Beyond a One-Note Samba
The New York Times, July 10, 2012