The base is a pale spirit distilled in Brazil from the juice of crushed sugar cane. Some rums are made in a similar manner, though they are more often produced from molasses, a by-product of sugar refining. Their Brazilian cousin is sometimes known as Aguardente ("burned water") de Cana, diminutively as Caninha, or colloquially as Pinga ("a wee drop", in the Portuguese of Brazil, and properly as Cachaca (pronounced k'shassa, and perhaps deriving from the Portuguese for "juice of the cane").
This spirit actually has a cane-like, woody, aroma and taste, heightened by its being distilled at an unusually low level of alcohol (usually between 36 and 54 per cent). Many other spirits are distilled at higher strengths, to a greater "purity" (and therefore less flavour), then diluted with water.
A Caipirinha cocktail is made from a couple of ounces of Cachaca, a couple of teaspoons of sugar and a fresh lime or two. The fruit is trimmed at the ends, but not peeled. It is cut into quarters, from top to bottom, the central pithy core removed and the hunks of fruit, still in their shells, placed in a chunky tumbler or "old-fashioned" glass, covered with the sugar and pounded with a pestle so that not only the juice but also some of the oils from the skin enter the drink. It is then topped up with plenty of ice cubes, over which the Cachaca is poured. Stir, smell (the combination of the resinous spirit, the lime zest and juice is extraordinarily aromatic), contemplate (you will feel cooler just looking at it) and enjoy.
As well as being refreshing, a Caipirinha with not too much sugar and plenty of lime can be a potent aperitif. The more well-heeled among the Brazilians probably need this, given their taste for a type of restaurant called the rodizio.
The word "rotisserie" hardly does justice to this type of institution, in which as many as 20 cuts of beef, pork and chicken are brandished on sword-like spits by any number of wandering waiters. Each passing server will add a few slices to your platter unless you display a thoughtfully provided sign pleading: "No more, thanks!" Even a carnivore can be grateful for the ubiquitous manioc chips, sweet potatoes and fried bananas.
At a rodizio in Rio, I was also offered variations of the Caipirinha made with passion fruit, kiwi or the yellow, honeyish Persian lime, one of the many unusual tropical fruits grown in Brazil. These versions were sweet enough to accompany a dessert; I had a papaya cream with cassis.
At a bar called Academia da Cachaca, hidden behind a grove of almond trees, I was led through 10 examples of the spirit itself, from a total range of about 50. I greatly enjoyed the resiny character of one called Havana, the peppery flavours of Nega-Fulo, the hints of vanilla and chocolate in Germana and the toffee and mint of Senador.
None of these can be found at the moment without taking a trip to Brazil, but the relatively mass-market, lightly fruity, Cachaca 51 is currently available in Britain, in a box which also contains a pestle and glasses. In case you can find no fruit to attack, this helpful kit also contains sachets of a lime-and-sugar powder.
"You really must have this Brazilian sugar to get the right flavour," the export manager told me, not altogether convincingly, when I visited the Cachaca 51 distillery, amid fields five- or six-feet high with cane, at Pirassununga, about 300 miles inland. As the cane was crushed, its juice fermented and boiled in the still, the whole town smelled of pancake syrup.
Cachaca 51 is made in a continuous process, using a modern, column-shaped still. Some producers persist with the older batch process, in a still shaped liked a kettle or cooking pot. The "pot" still, as used to produce Cognac or malt whisky, allows more aroma, flavour and complexity to remain the product. Cachaca is not usually aged, though that practice is on the increase as it gains a connoisseur following. I visited another relatively industrial distillery, run for more than 50 years by an Italian-Brazilian family called Pignata, where a version was aged for two to three years in fixed vessels of tropical balsam fir which adds a golden colour and a peanut-like aroma and flavour. The sizable Pignata distillery also supplies Cachaca to be blended into a brand called Pit, which can also be found in Britain.
As the three Pignata brothers showed me around, local people would arrive on mopeds, carrying five-litre jugs to be filled. Much the same was happening when I called on Jose Catae, who started distilling at 15 and has been doing it for 55 years. In the surrounding fields, his brothers and sons grow the cane, and harvest it with machetes at the rate of one tonne per day. He crushes the cane in a machine driven through a differential gear salvaged from a tractor. He gave me a glass of the milky-grey juice, flecked with green and black from the skin. It tasted like condensed milk. A tonne of cane will make 2,000 litres of juice.
The juice is fermented in a brick open vessel, employing, at least in part, the wild yeasts of the atmosphere. Jose's "secret ingredient", a loaf of corn bread (he called it polenta), may boost the yeast content, and the juice ferments overnight. Some producers use bread yeasts. Jose runs the fermented juice twice through a copper pot-still fired with orange wood, and allows the spirit to trickle into an old bourbon cask. By now, it tastes like coconut rum. As soon as a batch has been distilled, thirsty neighbours and local bar-keepers call. Next day, it is empty, and he starts again.
Some of his customers age the spirit in their own casks, or put pieces of wood in the jug to replicate that effect. Others will add herbs to make a digestif. Some will use the spirit as the base for a mulled, spiced, fruit punch during the sequence of saints' days that provide an excuse for bonfire parties each June. In certain parts of the country, the Festas Juninas are bigger than Rio's famous carnival.
Jose works hard to provide the spirit. His distillery is housed in an open-sided barn made from eucalyptus, surrounded by chilli bushes and mango trees. While Jose works - as he has for the last 55 years - turkeys, hens and geese strut around the still. It all seems a long way from Park Lane, Hollywood Boulevard or Tokyo's Roppongi.Reuse content