Posted by: Ernest Barteldes | April 8, 2010

Caipirinha with Vodka? I don’t Think So.


Brazilian Cachaca Brand Defends its National Spirit

By Ernest Barteldes

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 caipirissima 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 s a result ‘sophisticated’ drinkers opting 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.

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Responses

  1. Dear Ernest,
    your article is clear, delicious and perfect as it is a genuine and real caipirinha made with good and artisanal cachaça , as premium Leblon.Thanks for helping people get to know the real taste of this lovely and adorable brazilian most famous cocktail !
    cheers and a big hug from Brazil!

  2. Geat article. Perfect in all senses !
    I am studyng about cachaça since 2002, and I love the pure cachaça artesanal, and caipirinha.
    Nothing (vodka, tequila or rum) can substitute the “terrific taste of cachaça” joined with lemon and sugar cane.
    But, it should be done with Artesanal Cachaça not Industrial.
    They are 2 completely differents products.
    The main problem is that the Brasilian people don’t know “nothing about” this important difference.
    Imagine the foreigners !!!!

    • Actually here in the US there is a steady supply of premium brands… The problem is getting Brazilians to pay 2 reais for a shot of good cachaca when you
      can get the cheap stuff for 50 centavos…

  3. Dear Ernest,
    For sure…. the price makes the market.
    A a bottle (700ml) of Industrial brands like 51, Ypióca or Pitú the brasilians pay here R$ 5,00 or U$ 2,50. (Bleargh! … untasteful)
    While a good Artesanal Cachaça like Webber Haus, Cachaça do Rei, Serra das Almas or Magnífica we pay about R$ 30,00 to R$ 50,00 (U$ 15,00 to R$ 25,00) (Hummmmm …)
    Or the best cachaça from Brasil: Anísio Santiago (ex-Havana) it cost near R$ 200,00 or U$ 100,00. Prices similar a very good whisky.
    But, the taste of this products are completely diferent and the principal is that: there is no hangover in the day after.
    Tears!

    • True. I tend to like the new line of organic cachacas from Ypioca and also their Ypioca 150 and 160 (the latter aged in whiskey barrells). Sagatiba is fine too, I found it in a shop in Rio for about $ 20. Leblon has been doing a great job here in the US, I just dont know how far they have reached the Brazilian market. Here in the US there are several “Americanized” brands – produced and bottled in Brazil for the export market. Examples are Beleza Pura and Beijo.

      Years ago I went to Cachacaria Alambique in Fortaleza (does not exist anymore), they had a great list of artisanal cachacas priced at 3-5 reais a shot (and this was like ten years ago) at a time when a shot of Colonial went for about 25 centavos. The last time I visited a cachacaria in Brazil was in Fortaleza, the cachacaria Ypioca in Shopping Iguatemi — great experience, I wrote an article on Brazzil.com about it…

  4. Sorry, for me Sagatiba is like 51 or Ypioca, poor taste, industrial mass made. Sagatiba have only a beaultifull bottle.
    I can’t find Leblon to sell here in Brazil. So, I couldn’t try it yet.

    • Well I went to some Sagatiba tastings here and they assured me it was a premium brand. I actually like its flavor, its a good one
      despite being more industrialized than the artisanal cachacas in Rio and MG.

  5. Dear Ernest,

    I dont think so.
    If you compare it with Industrial made 51, you will see that the taste and smell are the same. (multiditilled with 38%)

    The making process of Artesanal and Industrial is completelly different.
    I have a course where I explain the differences:

    1) In the hand made process the sugar cane is manually cutted and they not put fire to cut.
    2) The fermentation is natural and has no quimicals. Takes ~24 hours. We ussualy say, in the Life Speed.
    In the industrial made, it takes 6 hours.
    3) During the destilation the “head” (the beggining of the destilation
    process) and the “tail”(the end of the destilation process) are takened off, keeping only the “heart”, this is what makes it taste so good and does not give “headaches”. No hangover.

    In the industrial process don’t throw nothing so….. I dont drink anymore.

    Tears.


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