Fresh lime adds zing to Brazil’s national cocktail
The Caipirinha (pronounced kai-pee-REE-nyah) has been popular in Brazil for a century. But the rest of the world has only heard about it in the past decade or two.
Why the time lag? Mostly because the main ingredient in the drink — a rum-like spirit called cachaça (pronounced ka-SHAH-suh) — was only rarely sold outside Brazil. That’s changed now, so the Caipirinha (and cachaça) are becoming better known.
What does it taste like? Well, imagine a cross between a Mojito and a Classic Daiquiri, though with a bit more presence. If you like either of those drinks, you’ll probably like the Caipirinha.
In fact, you might like it even better.
Recipe: The Caipirinha Cocktail
If you want to make a Caipirinha, you’ll need to buy some cachaça. Every well-stocked liquor store carries at least one brand (and many offer several to choose from). I suggest a couple of options below. But if in doubt, discuss the pros and cons of the various brands with the store’s staff — most are knowledgeable, and you can learn at lot from talking to them.
Cachaça is similar to rum, but it’s made from cane sugar. By contrast, rum is made from molasses (a by-product from the making of crystallized sugar).
Like rum, cachaça comes in light (white) and amber versions. You want the light version for the Caipirinha. It’s a bit rougher and less mellow than the amber — which makes it perfect for combining with lime. It’s also less expensive (a bottle of light cachaça can be had for under $20; you could spend more, but there’s no need to).
Making this cocktail requires muddling sugar with lime wedges. It’s the same process we used when making the Mojito and the Mint Julep. It’s important to use granulated sugar (not a dissolved-sugar sweetener, like Simple Syrup) when making this drink. The sugar granules help abrade the lime peel as you muddle, releasing some of its volatile oils.
You can use a “muddler” for this purpose (it looks sort of like a small baseball bat — every liquor store stocks them). If you don't have a muddler, a long-handled spoon will work. Just make sure your glass has a tempered (or at least thick) bottom, so you don’t risk cracking it when you muddle the lime and sugar.
This recipe serves one, and takes a few minutes to prepare.
- ½ of a lime, cut into 4 or 6 wedges (see Notes)
- ½ to 1 teaspoon sugar (this is very much to taste; some people prefer much more sugar than this, but I find that somewhere south of a teaspoon is appropriate; see Notes)
- 2 ounces light (white) cachaça (I use the Ypióca brand; see Notes)
- lime slice or wedge for garnish (optional)
- Cut the lime half into wedges. Add the wedges to a rocks (old-fashioned) glass, along with the sugar (make sure the glass has a thick bottom so you don’t crack it when muddling the drink). Muddle the lime and sugar together for a good half minute or so — you want to create a sweet juicy mess.
- Add ice cubes to fill the glass, and pour in the cachaça. Stir with a spoon or drink stirrer to combine the lime juice and cachaça.
- Add a pair of short straws and the lime garnish (if using), and serve.
- Limes come in various sizes, and their juiciness also varies. So feel free to add more lime if you find that the amount specified in the recipe isn’t sufficient.
- BTW, in Brazil this drink is made from a lime that closely resembles what we call “Key limes” in the US. So you may want to try using those instead of regular (Persian) limes.
- Some people say raw sugar is traditional in this drink, while others insist on white cane sugar. I’m fresh out of raw sugar, so I just use white granulated sugar. You could also try brown sugar, though that will give the drink a slightly different flavor (some mixologists swear that brown sugar is authentic, though that’s not actually the case, as far as I can tell).
- Balancing the amount of sugar in this drink is tricky. I like it slightly under-sweetened. And I suggest you go light on the sugar at first, too. It’s easy enough to add more if you want — just stir it in.
- Cachaça has a sweetish (almost fruity) and herbal flavor with a slight aftertaste that reminds me a bit of tequila. It’s a tad harsh, so I wouldn’t want to drink the white version neat or on the rocks. But it mixes quite well. I’ve never tasted the amber version of cachaça, but I understand it has a much smoother flavor.
- Brazil is a huge country (fifth largest in the world by both population and land area), and Brazilians drink a lot of cachaça. As a result, according to Brazil-Help.com, cachaça is the third-largest spirit category in the world.
- The brand of cachaça I used (Ypióca) works well in this drink. But many others are now available in the US. For instance, I’ve heard that Pitú is good, but haven’t tried it yet.
- If you can’t find cachaça, you definitely need to find a better liquor store!
- That said, you could substitute vodka for cachaça. In which case, the drink would be called a Caipirosca. It wouldn’t be nearly as good as a Caipirinha, though.
- I’d be more inclined to substitute white rum if I couldn‘t find cachaça. The resulting drink would be called a Caipirissima. But again, it’s not as good as using cachaça.
- There are versions of the Caipirinha that add grapes or cherries (either sour or sweet). I suppose I need to try these variations someday. Thus far, however, it’s been quite easy to resist the temptation.
- Bottom line: The Caipirinha takes quite well to experimentation, so it’s a drink you can play with a bit. Though the original is so good, I’m not sure I’d bother.
Workers of the World, Drink Up!
“Wow,” said Mrs Kitchen Riffs. “Great drink. Can’t believe I’d never heard of the Caipirinha until we decided to research it for the Summer Sippin’ Series.”
“Well, cachaça was hard to get in the US until relatively recently.” I said. “Maybe they didn’t think it was worth exporting.”
“Why would they deprive us?” she asked.
“It had a down-market rep for a long time,” I said. “And the Caipirinha was considered a farmer’s or worker’s drink in Brazil. In fact, the name apparently comes from the Portuguese word caipira, which kinda sorta translates as ‘country bumpkin.’”
“The snobs strike again!” said Mrs K R.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s the same with the Mojito — which originally was a farmer’s drink in Cuba.”
“Well, I say we strike a blow for the common people,” said Mrs K R. “Let’s show some working class solidarity here!”
“What are you suggesting?” I asked.
“Mix us another round, of course!” exclaimed Mrs K R.
Works for me.
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