New takes on cachaça

Sorrel Moseley-Williams finds bartenders experimenting to expand the use of Brazil’s national spirit beyond the Caipirinha.

Cachaça, Brazil’s favourite spirit – freshly-pressed sugarcane juice that’s fermented and distilled – is more commonly known as the base to the popular Caipirinha, but in fact Rabo de Galo is the Brazilian drink on everyone’s lips following a recent push to get it included on the International Bartenders’ Association classic cocktails list. Originally a two-ingredient concoction first created with cachaça and sweet vermouth in São Paulo, the additional measure of artichoke-based amaro Cynar has had a positive effect on the beverage that translates in Portuguese as Cock Tail, making it more acceptable to serious drinkers.

While Caipirinha will always be globally viewed as Brazil’s cocktail, Rabo de Galo offers a new take on Brazil and cachaça, says Peter Banks, founder and chief executive of Cachacier. “Rabo de Galo uses aged cachaça, which is something that many consumers aren’t familiar with, proving it isn’t just for Caipirinhas but that it’s more complex and has more to offer in terms of diverse flavours. It’s an exciting opportunity for aged cachaça to expand across the world and for drinkers to experience it in a different way.”

A bar essential

Pinga, as cachaça is also known, doesn’t just start and end with these two drinks, however. Prata (silver) or white cachaça is a bar essential in Brazil, and at Tan Tan in São Paulo, which ranked in the 51-100 list of The World's 50 Best Bars in 2022, head bartender Caio Carvalhaes makes plenty of space for it.

“Our traditional spirit was rejected for many years in high-end cocktail making, so our decision to work with cachaça provides welcome opportunities in the creative process. White cachaça enhances the sugarcane’s fresh notes with lightness and elegance, while those aged in amburana barrels bring out the spiced notes I like in some cocktails.” His go-to brand is Princesa Isabel’s white label, and he uses it in Mr Olympia, which includes açai fruit, honey, lime juice and tonic water.

At just-opened Elena in Rio de Janeiro, Alex Mesquita opts for Magnífica’s white label as a flexible base, mixing it with Brazil’s native fruits for Carioca consumers who adore sweet and tropical flavours. “Specifically in Rio, this spirit is being used more frequently and increasingly being included on drinks lists,” says Mesquita. The profile of his Cajueiro proffers a light profile while keeping those with a sweet palate happy. “I made every effort not to make it overly sweet, so this recipe reflects the powerful fruity and citrus flavours of cashew nut syrup, passion fruit and pineapple juices backed by aromatic white cachaça,” he says.

Aged in native wood barrels

Brazil’s top mixologists are seeking out the complex aromas and flavours that ouro (gold) or cachaça aged in barrels – usually in native Brazilian woods – allows their creativity to flourish. It’s important to have a wide variety to appeal to all consumers, says Fabio La Pietra, creative director at Sub Astor in São Paulo.

“Having a versatile and sharp white cachaça is the first priority for bars and restaurants and not just because Brazilians have a habit of kicking back a dram, mostly unaged and fridge-cold, before meals,” he says. It’s also important for bars to showcase cachaça’s versatility. La Pietra adds: “Sugarcane definitely isn’t dead in terms of presence in Brazil’s cocktail bars, and fortunately brands with vision are coming up with new wood-aged styles that include blending different woods. A jequitibá wood-aged cachaça doesn’t add colour and we use it to deliver a crispy aromatic body with a persistent and dry finish. Jaqueira, meanwhile, is aged in jack fruit wood and at Sub Astor we use it in complex cocktails thanks to its fruity and floral characteristics.”

One of Sub Astor’s more composite creations is a classic Batida, which La Pietra calls creamy and boozy: cachaça, condensed milk, coconut milk and paçoca, a traditional peanut crumble sweet. “It’s interesting as I make the creamy ingredients even smoother and while using 50ml of jequitibá-aged cachaça, which gives the right amount of alcohol while adding plum notes at the beginning with light horseradish notes, it becomes way softer; the creamy components keep the kick of the spirit lower,” he says. “If I want to play with more layers, I’d choose jaqueira wood, however.”

Around South America

While Brazil’s domestic market consumes much of its cachaça, 2022 proved positive for external markets, according to the Brazilian Cachaça Institute, with 8.6 million litres exported between January and December, a 30.4% uptick. At Punta Mona in Buenos Aires, Argentina, owner and bartender Mona Gallosi says she’s always considered cachaça to be a versatile product. “It deserves to have a life outside Caipirinha,” she says, “although [Argentinian] consumers today aren’t choosing it because they don’t know how to consume it. I work with different techniques such as sous vide at 60°C for two hours, to add flavours. For example, I might put plums in caramel in a sous vide bag then mix it with the cachaça – preferably an aged one whose wood note collaborates with processed flavours. Another technique is fat-washing Yaguara or Sagatiba cachaça with pecan or peanut butter, enhanced by their unctuousness.”

At Enigma in Santiago, Chile, owner and bartender Pablo Prufer Prats takes the challenge of putting Brazil’s favourite spirit in the spotlight seriously. “While it has exceptional characteristics, Chilean consumers don’t consider that to be enough as they still remember poor-quality cachaça and sugary cocktails that sought to hide its ‘imperfections’. I see cachaça as a misunderstood distillate for misunderstood bartenders who look to go above and beyond on their menus.”

Like Gallosi in Buenos Aires, Prufer Prats fat washes bourbon barrel-aged Capucana but with wild mushrooms, then mixes it with a damp earth hydrolat cordial. “We bartenders are obliged to innovate and with Petricor, I take cachaça to new extremes. It’s the only way I can put it on the podium where it deserves to be.”

Also in Buenos Aires, Pablo Pignatta at Chintoneria takes both scientific and spiritual approaches to cachaça, paying tribute to Mother Earth with his Pacha Mama Sour. “This cocktail is inspired by sugarcane juice with rue, which is traditionally drunk on 1 August, Pacha Mama day. Cachaça works perfectly with the herbal freshness and bitterness of the rue and the smoothness of coconut and cachaça prepared in the sous vide at 63°C for 120 minutes.”