The Caipirinha is a simple yet excellent classic cocktail from Brasil. Along with the Pisco Sour it is the second truly great cocktail originating in South America. However, when researching this post I was amused to learn that it only officially became the national drink of Brasil in 2003. It has been widely known and popular around the world for a lot longer than that.
The Caipirinha is a very simple drink. It consists only of lime, sugar and cachaça – a spirit native to Brasil distilled from sugarcane. As such it has a lot in common with the Daiquiri. Both are simple drinks which rely on attaining the correct Balance of Sour to really work. Both come from tropical regions using products which are locally commonplace. Lime, sugar and a sugarcane based spirit. And both arose independently of one another.
Before I go into greater detail I’ll simply state that a Caipirovska is merely a Caipirinha made with vodka instead of cachaça. For that reason I’m comfortable linking the two in the same post.
It should also be noted that the Caipirinha is on paper a very strong drink. Arguably an Alcoholic Powerhouse. But serving it over crushed ice as is traditional dilutes it to instead fitting the Short and Serious Taste Profile.
To talk about the Caipirinha we first have to talk about its spirit base, cachaça. On my first draft of this post I did just that. But trying to cram too much information into a single post is never wise, and the whole thing quickly became too ungainly. So, I cut out the vast majority of what I had written about cachaça and made it its own post.
So I’ll only include a brief primer about cachaça here.
Cachaça is the national spirit of Brasil and by law can only produced there. It is distilled directly from sugarcane juice. Unlike rum, which is instead distilled from molasses – what remains when sugar is crystallized out of sugarcane juice. Due to this, it is often thought of as a Brazilian version of rum. Or occasionally as Brazilian firewater, as it is potent stuff. Neither of these descriptions are entirely accurate. But both holds enough truth to serve as entry level knowledge about cachaça. For most people, entry level knowledge is all they want or need.
It has only been in the past few decades, due to the worldwide rise in popularity of the Caipirinha, that cachaça has begun to be exported in significant volumes. Due to this fact it has never really broken into the top tier of spirits used in the cocktail world. But propelled by the success of the Caipirinha, it still might. Tequila also took a long time to become fully established, and that lent itself in no small part to the popularity of the excellent Margarita.
No one claims credit for creating the Caipirinha. Which to my mind is quite refreshing. After all, creating an alcoholic beverage consisting of three easily obtainable local products is hardly rocket science. Yet in most other parts of the world there are often multiple competing claims for the creation of something so simple. Each claimant implicitly stating that they deserve a special status for their “genius”.
But this need to be first doesn’t seem to be part of the Brazilian character. According to legend, no-one had ever climbed the world famous Sugar Loaf mountain in Rio de Janeiro until a British nanny did in 1817. Centuries after the city was founded. But waking to see the affront of a British flag flying on top of the iconic mountain, the Cariocas were spurred to action. By the very next day the British flag had been replaced by the flag of Brasil.
But while a desire to be first does not seem prevalent in Brazilian culture, there is a desire to be best. While no-one claims to have created the Caipirinha, everyone seems to be an expert on it. And everyone seems to think that their recipe is the best. When I was over there I honestly lost track of how many people offered me their “expert” opinion on making a great Caipirinha. Much of their advice seemed to be contradictory.
Below I offer you my Caipirinha recipe. It is a result of plenty of research and experimentation. But it should not be thought of as the only way to make a Caipirinha. Or even the right way. There is simply no such thing.
But if no-one claims to have created the Caipirinha, where it was created is known. As you might expect, it was created in the region where most of Brasil’s cachaça was produced. An inland, rural area of São Paolo state around a town called Piracicaba. For all we know, the Caipirinha could have been made locally for decades before it emerged into the rest of Brasil.
Brasil entered the First World War on the side of the allies almost exactly 100 years ago as I write this. At some point after this the Caipirinha made its way from the rural heartland where it originated to the state capital, São Paolo. Every great, cosmopolitan city has a similar relationship to its rural hinterlands. So it should come as no surprise that the urban people named this new arrival from the countryside “Caipirinha“.
In Brazilian Portuguese, Caipira is a slang term for rural dwellers unused to life in a big city. The meaning is similar to “country bumpkin”. And “-inha” is a feminine diminutive suffix. Adding it to the end of a Portuguese word is similar to using the adjective “little” in English. Though it may also imply “sweet” or “cute” as well.
So, the word Caipirinha actually has several potential translations into English. Among my favourites are “little country bumpkin”, ” naughty peasant girl”, or “sweet naïve girl”.
Some words just don’t translate well. Whatever its meaning, the Caipirinha hit the big time in 1922 when it was selected as the drink representing Brasil in an international Modern Art Week. It was a hit and was taken back to Paris by enthusiasts. Which was, of course, where many top American bartenders had set up to escape Prohibition. Thus the Caipirinha entered the cocktail world.
This means that we really need to use a type of sugar which will slip into solution quickly and easily. My go-to sugar for this scenario is muscovado. It dissolves in minimal liquid at room temperature, and also has enough molasses content to really add to the flavour of a cocktail rather than just effect the Balance of Sour. It makes the best Caipirinhas I have ever tasted. However, as muscovado is on the dark side, using it will effect the colour of a Caipirinha. Making it darker than others may make it.
Personally I find that making a better tasting cocktail at the cost of slightly altering its colour is a good deal. But if you disagree, feel free to experiment. But take it from me, granulated sugar doesn’t work as it doesn’t dissolve easily enough. Sugar syrup doesn’t taste right. And icing sugar just makes a mess. You’ll need something different to make a great tasting, light coloured Caipirinha.
Typically we use limes to make a Caipirinha. But you’ll see many authentic Caipirinha recipes calling for “green lemons”. This is because there are far more varieties of citrus fruit in the world than most of us are aware of. And some of the varieties that grow in South America do not adhere to a simple view of “limes and lemons”. Or even oranges. The best freshly squeezed orange juice I have ever tasted was in Brasil. But the oranges were green!
The Pisco Sour traditionally makes use of a local citrus fruit called Limón de Pica. In flavour this lies somewhere in between lemons and lime. For both Pisco Sour and Caipirinha, the consensus is that, without access to the locally grown, authentic citrus fruit, commercially available limes produce a better result than lemons.
Actually making a Caipirinha is very easy indeed. As promised, here is my recipe.
I use a relatively harsh silver cachaça; muscovado sugar; and a whole lime.
Take a sturdy short glass. An Old Fashioned glass is far more suitable than a delicate crystal whiskey tumbler. Slice your lime into about eight chunky pieces. Add a generous two to three bar spoons muscovado. This is both to taste, and depends on how big your lime is. Muddle them so the juice comes out of the lime and dissolves the sugar. Fill your glass with crushed ice. Add two shots of cachaça, and then churn to mix. If you like you can top it up further with ice and garnish with some lime. But remember, this isn’t supposed to be a highly refined drink, so don’t let it put on airs.
Instead, stick a straw into it and suck it dry.
One thing that may seem strange about the Caipirinha is that is best made with a relatively harsh, fiery cachaça. I’ve experimented with using higher grades of cachaça but they just didn’t work as well. Despite being clearly superior products, they made a worse Caipirinha. I believe that something more like firewater is needed to stand up to the lime and sugar to make a really great Caipirinha. It is also in keeping with its origins.
Caipirovska and other variants
This requirement of a harsh spirit to stand up to the lime and sugar may account for the development of the Caipirovska. As I said, cachaça has only really been exported in quantity for a few decades. Yet the Caipirinha entered the cocktail world in the Prohibition Era. So it stands to reason that there have been many bartenders over time trying to replicate a Caipirinha without having access to cachaça. It is telling that their solution was to use the often harsher vodka rather than the more closely related rum as a cachaça substitute. This despite the fact that rum was ubiquitous, yet vodka only really entered the cocktail world post WWII.
Finally, a word on variants. At some point I’ll get around to writing posts on some top Caipirinha variants. But for now I’ll just state that the Caipirinha (or Caipirovska) style is an excellent base for experimentation. Muddle some fresh fruit in with the lime and sugar and you’ve got fruity variants. Fruits which can easily be pulped like raspberries are especially good for this.
Or you can add fruit purees or liqueurs. Or even start using flavoured vodkas to add extra fruit options. Just be sure to adjust your sugar content when needed to maintain the correct Balance of Sour.