Elements: Cachaca

The first time I tasted cachaça I wasn’t at a Rio disco—I was on Long Island, in New York—but there was a Brazilian and a beach involved. That summer, more than a decade ago, a friend’s girlfriend pulled a bottle emblazoned with a crustacean out of her backpack and introduced our summerhouse group to the magic of the caipirinha cocktail. She demonstrated how to muddle the lime with sugar, added ice, filled the glass with cachaça and stirred. I loved saying the word (ka-sha-sa), but I loved the drink even more (kye-pee-reen-ya). It tasted bright and refreshing, and went down like limeade.

These days, we wouldn’t have any trouble replacing that bottle of coarse, tongue-scalding Pitú or trading up to one of the many premium and ultra-premium cachaças now on the market. The high-end cachaça category was created to appeal to American consumers, with rounder, smoother profiles achieved by a diversity of techniques: extra distillation, charcoal filtration and barrel-aging. The goal of the new importers is to bottle a spirit that’s meant to be mixed in cocktails but is still palatable straight up or on the rocks.

Cachaça, rum made in Brazil from clear, sweet sugar cane juice, rather than the dark, heavy molasses that is the source for Jamaican rums and others, is considered the national spirit of Brazil. It is slightly syrupy in texture, but light and summery on the palate, with a distinctive juicy, floral sugar cane flavor. Some tingle, others burn or leave a slightly jarring vegetal aftertaste, while others are as smooth as honey. Certain aged varieties have a smoky wood and maple syrup aroma and flavor.

Brazil is known for its carnival and dance clubs, but cachaça found its place in the culture beginning in the 16th century when workers on sugar plantations left their allocation of sugar cane to ferment, and liked the resulting hooch. While cachaça may have started out as a laborer’s libation, the range of styles and qualities, including fine, aged sipping cachaças, means there is a cachaça for everyone.

Some brands, such as Água Luca and Cabana, are pushing versatility, recommending the spirit as a substitute for vodka or tequila in cocktails, while others, like Mae de Ouro, celebrate the unique qualities of the sugar cane distillate. Chris Catanesi, beverage director of Ureña, a modern Spanish restaurant in New York City, chooses Mae de Ouro because he likes “spirits that show terroir and reflect culture.”

Perhaps because of its heady sugar cane aroma and complex flavors, cachaça benefits from the interaction between the kitchen and the bar. Catanesi mixes in fresh ingredients, like chef Alex Ureña’s fig-blackberry purée, or clementine juice. Similarly, at Toro, a tapas bar in Boston’s South End, one of the favorite chef-influenced cocktails is a caipirinha made with limes that have been coated in sugar then grilled until caramelized. Las Vegas-based mixologist and consultant Tony Abou-Ganim adds fruit juices like blood orange, pineapple, passion fruit and mango to caipirinhas, but he also uses cachaça as a base for batidas: thick, blended drinks made with milk, coconut milk or condensed milk, fruit purées and ice.” Light-bodied rums don’t stand up to other ingredients as well as cachaça,” he says. “It’s a rowdy dance party in there.”