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Cheers – “The Other America”

Jack Robertiello

Cachaça and Pisco, South America’s main spirits, are making their way up north.

When the Mojito first swept U.S. bars and restaurants a few years ago, that rum-mint-and-lime tropical cocktail encouraged bartenders who longed to serve drinks by muddling the ingredients, smashing them in the bottom of the mixing glass with sugar and spirit. Soon, the muddler went from curiosity to an essential tool behind any cutting edge bar. It also meant that another lime based drink from south of the border, the Caipirinha (made from the Brazilian rum-like spirit cachaça, sugar and muddled limes) suddenly had a chance to break through.

Bartenders, especially those working at South American or Brazilian restaurants, picked up on the popular drink, and another classic international cocktail became part of the contemporary professional repertoire. Now, cachaça is starting to appear behind the bar at many restaurants without a direct South American connection.

According to Eveliny Bastos-Klein, director of public relations for the Four Seasons Hotel Miami, the appeal of cachaça has spread well beyond the many versions of the Caipirinha. “Batidas were put on the menu of our outdoor bar, Bahia, because they fit into the overall Latin/tapas drink concept.” The coconut, strawberry and kiwi versions of the drink served at Bahia are prepared using a traditional Brazilian recipe where the fruit pulp is blended with cachaça.

Bahia Bar and Lounge is located on the seventh floor pool terrace of the hotel overlooking the Miami skyline and Biscayne Bay. A lively outdoor setting, it features Latin American and Spanish tapas and other specialty drinks.

Batidas are traditional Brazilian blended fruit cocktails made with cachaça, but the bar also sells traditional Caipirinhas, as well as passion fruit and strawberry versions of the drink. “Because of our Miami location, many of our customers are from Latin American descent and thus such drinks are part of their heritage. Other customers are curious and willing to try them, too.” These days, Caipirinhas and Mojitos are the best sellers at Bahia, with Pisco Sours coming on as well.

Every ten years or so, pisco, the national spirit of Chile and Peru, gets rediscovered in the U.S., only to see a handful of new importers retreat from the enormous market, licking their wounds. But once again, a few importers are hoping that the new yanquí interest in all things South American will help them do well. (See sidebar.)

Some operators are helping. Last year, Omni Hotels introduced its staff to the wonders of pisco as part of a broader Chilean food and wine promotion. New interest arrived earlier this year, when the participants in the International Bartenders Guild competition where given pisco to work with in the contest.

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NEW KIDS

Cachaça importers are finding lots of interest lately in their products, and are increasing their on-premise profile. In late September, spirit consultant Tony Abou-Ganim, whose spirits program recently debuted on Fine Living TV, hosted an event in conjunction with the San Francisco chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild that included a Pitú cachaça recipe and mixing competition for leading S.F. bartenders. At restaurant Rosewood, Caipirinhas, Batidas and Brazilian hors d’oeuvres preceded the competition.

“We know bartenders who use Pitú for Mojitos, as they believe it makes the drinks taste like the original Cuban Mojito when they could import Cuban rum years ago,” says Pitú rep Dan Dolgins.

But Pitú and 51, two of the leading brands in Brazil, are getting plenty of competition in the U.S. Preiss Imports brings in Toucano and Ypioca, and new importers are concentrating on the category as well. Suddenly in New York, the Beleza Pura® brand is making inroads, even at Asian inspired restaurants like Sapa, and is sponsoring Brazilian-themed video events at places like Monkeytown, a newly opened fusion restaurant in Brooklyn’s uber-trendy restaurant neighborhood Williamsburg, as well as Caviar and Banana, and B.E.D. in Manhattan. Brand rep Karyn Riegel says the importer, Excalibur Enterprises, will soon import a ready-to-drink Caipirinha as well.

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THE REST OF THE STORY

It’s unclear when cachaça was first produced, but sometime after sugar cane was introduced to Brazil in the late 16th Century, salves who harvested the sugar cane were often given the fermented cane juice. Boiling the fermentation yielded a more potent libation, and cachaça was born. Always considered a poor man’s drink, cachaça became an integral part of Brazilian culture. It is estimated Brazilians consume close to 350 million gallons of cachaça per year- about two gallons per person. There are roughly 30,000 small producers along with a few handfuls of large cachaça producers in Brazil.

Cachaça is made from the juice of the first pressing of sugar cane. The filtered juice is fermented for up to three days, distilled, cooled and refiltered. Cachaça is usually bottled soon after distillation but cachaças are aged (Excalibur brings in a few aged and single barrel varieties). Brazilian laws require that aged cachaça be kept in barrels for at least one year in a variety of woods, including cedar, American and European oak and indigenous woods.

And the name Caipirinha? The word comes from the Portuguese word caipira (hick or country bumpkin) with the diminutive -inha, and is usually translated as “little hick.” But judging by the way customers are spending $8 and up for one, it looks like the little hick has come to town to stay.

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