Steve was away for the weekend so when PR spirits queen Hanna Lee invited us to the Spirits of Brazil seminar at the Astor Center, I jumped at the chance. A while back, our friends Renato and Flavio brought us a bottle of cachaça from Brazil, one you can’t get in the States, and we were hooked. So, the prospect of sipping five cocktails along with a flight of cachaças and nibbling on a host of sweet and savory apps could not be passed up.
The seminar started a little late, so Paulo, a Brazilian man at my table, and spirits writer Carmen Operetta both agreed that we were officially on “Brazilian time.” But it was worth the wait. Vincent Bastos Ribiero, Master Distiller of Fazenda Soledad, proclaimed, “Like soccer and samba, cachaça is an expressive part of the Brazilian Soul.” And he wasn’t kidding. This spirit, made from the fermented juice of sugar cane, is drunk on a vast scale; many families in the fourth largest nation on earth make their own, and their are thousands of bottled expressions across the land.
But don’t confuse Cachaça with rum, in which molasses, the remnants of sugar refining, is used in the distillation process. According to Steve Luttmann, Founder and CEO of Leblon, cachaça needs its own internationally recognized geographical spirits designation, such as the ones held by tequila, cognac, and champagne. (You can learn more about this at Legalize Cachaça.)
Steve shared the floor with Olie Berlic, tireless cachaça champion and expert, and Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, chef and author of The Brazilian Kitchen, who uses cachaça in many of her recipes. Brazilian cuisine is a mix of Portuguese, Native American, and African cuisines. We were treated to some traditional and riffed-on Brazilian amuse bouche such as pao de quejo, a pop-in-your-mouth-sized doughy cheese puff, paired with Brazil’s traditional drink, the Caipirinha (which Olie says is probably the most widely drunk cocktail in the world). To be a Caiparinha, you must contain only three ingredients: cachaçca, sugar, and limes. No more, no less. How you make it though is up to debate, and, as Olie pointed out by having people raise their hands in the room, some of us are shakers and some of us are stirrers. (We’re stirrers, if you needed to know. We don’t like too much pulp in our Caipirinhas.)
3 ounces cachaça
1/2 lime cut lengthwise, with ends cut off and middle pith removed
1 teaspoon sugar
small ice cubes or crushed ice
Cut a deep cross into the pulp side of the lime, but not all the way through the peel. Add to a old-fashioned or rocks glass, peel side up. Add sugar. Gently muddle (about five twists). Add ice, then pour cachaça. Stir.
Following that was a croquette de carne (meat croquette), which was paired with a Spiced Batida de Maracuja, a brunch cocktail made with cachaça, passion fruit, and a bit of habanera. Sweet, spicy, tart . . . delicious. Laticia expressed her strong desire to separate Latin and South American cuisines by region and nationality instead of the common practice of just lumping them all into one generic category. “We don’t do this to European cuisine. Each one is distinct in its own right. Why do this to the cuisines of the Americas?”
In between these pairings was a flight tasting of different cachaça, some unaged, and some slightly aged. Many cachaças are aged to mellow the alcoholic heat and to give the spirit a distinct flavor profile by aging in not just oak, but casks made from native Brazilian trees. The unaged Beleza Pura was a favorite, as was the Fazende Soledad, which is slightly aged. The Leblon is very clean and smooth, and makes a great mixer.
Steve made us a drink called Baseado (Brazilian slang for marijuana joint), that was sweet, but complex, redolent of coconut with flavors of lime and lemongrass. Exquisite, and perfect with the salty yucca sticks Leticia had prepared for us.
My favorite drink made me feel a little guilty: a Batida de Coco. It’s a simple rocks preparation of 1 part cachaça shaken with 2 parts coconut cream, and fortunately it landed right in front of me the same time as the Brazilian chocolate truffles known as brigadeiros. Mercy, they satisfied my sweet tooth and put a big ol’ smile on my face.