BACKDROP COCKTAILS HISTORY
CAIPIRINHA: FROM PORTUGUESE MEDICINE TO BRAZIL’S NATIONAL COCKTAIL
27
OCTOBER, 2017
Despite its popularity, only in 2003 did Brazil’s elected president pass the law to turn caipirinha into the official drink of Brazil, standardising the recipe along with it (75 ml cachaça, ¾ green lemon, 3 tsp white sugar and crushed ice).
Cachaça is the base spirit used for making the caipirinha. It is commonly mistaken for rum ever since the 18th century. But if you look into how it is made, you will understand it is very different.

Rum is made from sugarcane molasses: a by-product, created in the process of refining sugar. On the other hand, cachaça is produced from fresh-pressed sugarcane juice. Botanists believed that the sugarcane was cultivated in New Guinea as early as 6000 BC, with it appearing in a five-volume medicine book named De Materia Medica. It was described as a sweet grass that had only been known in Europe since about 325 BC when Alexander the Great brought it from India.

The production of cachaça was the most expressive at the beginning of colonisation and in subsequent years.
Photograph by Eduardo Jaunsem via the Ijuí Formation

Sugarcane juice was distilled on the Islands of Madeira, under the name aguardente de cana: a generic Portuguese term for clear spirits or brandy which, in Latin American countries, refers to “sugarcane-based spirit”. In April of the year 1500 AD, the Portuguese Empire claimed the land that now is called Brazil. Once colonised, Brazil started growing sugarcane brought by their colonists, and the production was moved from Madeira to Brazil. The Spanish-named aguardiente de caña was now called cachaça in its new homeland. Since 1532, sugarcane has been the most important export of the national economy.

The humble beginnings of the caipirinha cocktail, begins in 1918, in the region of Alentejo of Portugal, at the end of World War I. A popular antidote of lemon, honey, and garlic was prescribed for patients with Spanish flu, known even today as a cure for the average cold. It was common practice to add a distilled spirit to the liquid remedy, in the hope of expediting the therapeutic effect. And many a time, aguardente de cana was added. At the time, Brazil was still colonised by Portugal and the recipe was passed on, across the ocean.

“From its creation in São Paulo, caipirinha began to spread throughout Brazil and was supplied at civilised, high-end events after slavery was banned and the monarchy ousted.”

The Brazilians adopted the syrup used in Portugal with aguardente de cana for 11 years, until the birth of cachaça. Cachaça was born around 1543 by Erasmus Scheltz, a Swiss immigrant who developed the first process of fermenting the sugarcane juice in the nearby mills at Port of Santos. Sugarcane plantation owners served the once-medical drink established in Portugal with cachaça to their working slaves for motivational uses. Then “one day, someone decided to remove the garlic and honey”, explains Carlos Lima, executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça). “They added a few tablespoons of sugar to reduce the acidity of the lime. The ice came next, to ward off the heat.” This occurrence happened in Piracicaba, a medium-size city with the main stronghold in sugarcane production, within the Campinas region of São Paulo. This town was deemed the birthplace of what we know as caipirinha.

The word caipirinha is the diminutive of the word caipira. In Brazilian-Portuguese, caipira refers to someone from the countryside (specifically, someone from the rural parts of south-central Brazil, peasants of the in-land), of equal meaning to the American hillbilly or redneck. The word “caipirinha” literally means “small caipira” or “little peasant”. Whoever named the freshest invention at the time was linking it back to its Piracicaba roots.

Novo Fogo is located on the edge of Brazil’s coastal rainforest, the Floresta Atlântica, producing two styles of organic cachaça.
Photograph by Novo Fogo via Website
From its creation in São Paulo, caipirinha began to spread throughout Brazil and was supplied at civilised, high-end events after slavery was banned and the monarchy ousted. By 1922, Brazilian modernists selected caipirinha to serve as the official drink of Brazil in a local cultural festival, inspired by the Modernist movement. The basic recipe soon became an international hit, initially taking off in Paris by French modernists. With cachaça increasing its availability outside of Brazil, the caipirinha is now included as a classic menu item in almost all restaurants and bars around the world.
Today, in Brazilian bars you can find the drink in several versions. One of them, that took in the capital of São Paulo, is the caipilé – besides the chopped fruits, the caipirinha takes a popsicle that gradually dissolves and gives colour and flavour to the drink.

In summer, the variety of fruit increases and makes possible unusual combinations. At Bar Veloso, for example, the options vary from traditional, with lemon, to jabuticaba, pomegranate and mandarin with pepper. For six years in the bar, the barman Deusdete Souza has a 20-year history in the preparation of the drink. “On a Saturday, I make 600 caipirinhas.”

Originally, cachaça is not aged. Nowadays handcrafted, wood-aged artesian cachaças are available in Brazil and abroad, in shades ranging from gold to amber. Their age is from 2 – 16 years, with earthy, spiced and oak flavours similar to a fine tequila and deserves to be sipped.

Alex Bostan © Photo Credits: RistorazioneCachaça MagnificaMapa da CachaçaThe Nicaragua Photo/Testimony Project

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