Food & Drink

Brazil's caipirinha might be our next big drink

It's about time the caipirinha caught on.

For 21 years, I've watched this lovely little cocktail coyly circle the bar, hoping to be noticed. When I married a Brazilian, Otavio Silva, the potent lime-and-sugar cocktail became our house drink.

But it's only in the past year or two that the caipirinha has been showing up on American bar menus.

A kissing cousin of the Cuban mojito, the caipirinha (kai-PEE-reen-yuh) is considered the national drink of Brazil. Loosely translated, it means “peasant's drink,” “little man from the country” or “yokel.”

Like a skimpy Brazilian bikini, a caipirinha has few ingredients to hide behind. The drink is made by muddling a lime with granulated cane sugar, then adding cachaca (ca-SHA-suh), a clear, rumlike spirit distilled from sugar cane.

For most of our marriage, cachaca was not available in our local liquor stores, and though it is possible to make a caipirinha with vodka (known as a caipiroska), it didn't seem authentic enough to bother.

So every trek to Brazil required a stop at the duty-free shop to buy our quota of cachaca. More than once, the bottles broke and perfumed the athletic socks they were wrapped in. Back home we would ration our supply, guarding the bottles like collectible Bordeaux.

When the mojito craze hit, Otavio and I brightened, sure our lonely vigil was about to end. But the marketing ploys as the “Brazilian mojito” irk us. “There's no mint in a caipirinha!” Otavio insists.

The most popular cachaca available in America is Pitu (pitubrazil.com). A leader in the North American market, it is one of the oldest and most traditional distillers, set in the northeast of Brazil. It's been imported to the United States since the 1980s. The last bottle I bought in Kansas City was about $15, a princely sum compared to the pennies Brazilians pay.

North Americans typically get their first taste of a caipirinha at a churrascaria – a Brazilian steakhouse. The caipirinha dovetails nicely, adding a bit of acid to the saltiness of the grilled meats.

Not being in a churrascaria has never kept Otavio from trying to order a caipirinha. He asked for one once in a Persian restaurant in Louisville, Ky.

The bartender apologized for his lack of worldliness. But he had cachaca, so Otavio gave him an impromptu lesson. The bar didn't have a muddler, so Otavio used the handle of a serrated steak knife to mash the limes. The kids and I cringed as we watched the blade bob and weave close to his heart.

But when it was over, the bartender drank the caipirinha and Otavio left happy.

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