After a five-hour drive from Rio de Janeiro through the lush mountains of Brazil’s Costa Verde, I arrive in Paraty, a pretty seaside town shrouded by clouds. But I don’t mind the grey sky, because I’m not really here for that nature stuff anyway. So I duck into a restaurant to order a caipirinha — the deliciously limey, boozy concoction so popular at swish North American cocktail bars, which is also Brazil’s de facto national drink.
Paraty (pronounced para-chee) was founded in the 17th century, and it looks like it never left it. With its unmarred colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, pristine nearby beaches and hillside waterfalls, it’s a popular tourist destination. Of course, some people (like me) come for the cachaça, too.
A fresh sugarcane liquor with a fruity flavour, cachaça was first popular with Brazilian landowners who gave it to slaves to “increase vigour.” Due to Paraty’s sugarcane-friendly climate and abundant water supply, the town became so famous for its production that one of the liquor’s scores of (sometimes off-colour) nicknames was “parati.” Today, the area is home to many distilleries, and due to the efforts of the APACAP (Associação dos Produtores e Amigos da Cachaça Artesanal de Paraty) it’s the only place where cachaça can claim a Geographic Indication of Origin.
There are definitely similarities between cachaça and rum: both come in young (white) and aged (gold) varieties — and if you’re really a liquor snob, you can opt for artisanal cachaça over the industrial sort; the latter is churned out by the gallon by large producers, while the former is lovingly made by small distilleries.
Producers here have worked hard to distinguish cachaça as a premium drink. For centuries, rich Brazilians preferred imported bevvies like wine and cognac, leaving domestically produced liquor for the lower classes. And so cachaça got a reputation as cheap hooch, which, despite the proliferation of high-end brands, some residents still clearly remember — while doing tastings at several distilleries around Paraty, I watched Brazilian tourists back off and watch with amusement (or horror) as foreigners happily knocked back samples. To wit: the word “caipirinha” comes from the word “caipira,” meaning “backwoodsman” or, less politely, “hillybilly;” the suffix “inha” means little. So, that sophisticated cocktail you’re ordering at cocktail bars is actually a “little hillbilly.”
Despite its checkered past, cachaça is still by far the most popular alcohol in Brazil. Ordering a caipirinha here is about as difficult as finding a rum and coke in Canada: it’s not. You can get one anywhere, from tiny beachside bars to fancy restaurants. Refreshing and easy, there’s no reason why it can’t be a go-to drink for your cocktail bar at home. The formula is simple: muddled limes, sugar, cachaça, and ice. There are also other variations, like the caipivodka (which substitutes vodka for cachaça), and the caipifruita (which substitutes any other fruit for lime). The best caipifruita I tried in Paraty was the maracuja (or passion fruit) caipi, but you can try any fruit; I’ve had successful experiments with pineapples, raspberries, and even cranberries. So experiment away, but be warned, parati packs a punch.
1 generous handful fresh cranberries (crushed)
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 oz cachaça
Mix cranberries with maple syrup in a short glass, stir in cachaça, add ice, and enjoy.