While living in Brazil, I remember ordering caipirinhas, the famous national cocktail made with muddled lime, sugar and cachaça, at restaurants and bars, and I was hit with the inevitable question: “de cachaça ou de vodka?” (“Do you want it made with cachaça or vodka?”).
At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Although I did prefer the spiciness of the Brazilian national spirit, I also often recalled the hangovers I’d get from drinking the (mostly) mass-produced stuff they had there at the time, and most of the time ended up having the drink made from vodka.
The problem is that muddling lime and sugar and adding anything other than cachaça is not a caipirinha, but an imitation (some bars list the alternatives as caipiroska – with vodka – or caipiríssima when made with rum). But since the general public was not complaining, they got away with it – until now.
Just recently, a group of purists led by the producers of Leblon cachaça have been making an effort to “save” the caipirinha by calling for the public to sign a list (http://salveacaipirinha.com.br) that would regulate not only the cocktail itself but also to let the public now if the cachaça is artisanal (like today’s premium brands) or mass-produced like the vast majority of brands available in Brazil.
I first heard about this on this controversy on UK’s Guardian (you can read the original piece at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/apr/06/brazil-caipirinha-cocktail-carnival-vodka ), and I left a comment stating that there are two reasons for this problem. The first is that in Brazil there is a stigma that cachaça is a poor man’s drink, and as a result ‘sophisticated’ drinkers opt for vodka-based drinks out of pure prejudice. The other is the general acceptance of the alternatives in bars, restaurants and other locations (yes, you can have one made right by the beach there).
Curious about the origins of the campaign, I contacted Leblon’s US representative, Steve Luttman, who told me via email that “our Salve a Caipirinha campaign in Brazil is focused on educating consumers and bartenders on the high quality of cachaça, particularly the batch alembic cachaças from Minas Gerais, and to reconsider cachaça instead of particularly vodka when ordering a caipirinha.”
He added that “In Brazil, 60% of caipirinhas are now ordered with vodka amongst high income consumers. This figure was only 10% a little over 5 years ago.”
“The issue is the perception of cachaça being a low-quality spirit, and particularly low consumer awareness about the differences between an industrial mass-produced cachaça, and a batch alembic cachaça,” he stated.
“The problem is magnified by the labeling laws, which don’t allow the batch alembic cachaças to explicitly communicate alembic production methods on their labeling. As part of our campaign, we are supporting with other alembic producers legislation proposed in Brasilia by two Congressmen to revise the labeling laws, allowing alembic to be placed prominently on cachaça labels.”
I believe I couldn’t help but agree with Luttman on this one. Cachaça makes a whole lot of difference in a caipirinha. Make a caipiroska and you taste lime and sugar, but the flavors inherent to the original spirit are completely lost. The same goes with rum, when the taste of molasses simply overpowers the other flavors. Not that I would forsake the non-Brazilian spirits altogether, for everything has its place in our drinking world.
As Luttman later told me, “I would never put cachaça in a cosmo, or rum in a margarita, nor would I put low-quality tequila in a margarita or cheap vodka in a martini. It’s kind of like making mashed potatoes from instant flakes versus real potatoes (but then again, for some people, flakes are fine.)”
“It just seems to me that cachaça can be as good as all the other spirits, and like Brazil, it deserves some respect,” he concludes.
I couldn’t agree more.
Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.