What is caipirinha?
According to the definition published in 2003 in the Decree N° 4851, caipirinha is a “typical Brazilian beverage, with alcoholic level of 15 to 36% in volume, at 20 degrees Celsius, that is mixed exclusively with cachaça, with the addition of lime and sugar”.
Caipirinha has acquired an international status and recognition over the past few decades. The International Barmen Association even included the Brazilian beverage among the select few contemporary classic cocktails of the world.
What are the origins of caipirinha?
The word caipirinha is derived from caipira, a Brazilian term that defines a yokel, hillbilly, or more generally a “naive person from the countryside”.
There are several stories when it comes to the origin of this cocktail.
One of the most accepted stories states that caipirinha has originated in the state of São Paulo towards the end of World War I. The original caipirinha recipe consisted of cachaça, lemon, honey and garlic and it was initially prepared as an elixir for patients suffering from the Spanish Flu. Lemon was used for its high vitamin C content and cachaça contained the alcohol needed to facilitate and accelerate the absorption of the vitamins into in the body.
Although it is generally accepted that caipirinha was initially created in the interior of Minas Gerais or Sao Paulo, land of caipiras (countrymen), it is in Paraty, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, that the oldest known record for this cocktail was found.
Indeed, historian Diuner Mello discovered a document dated from 1856, which references a recipe for a similar cocktail in a discussion about an epidemic of cholera in the area. This document describes a recipe, which seems to be the origin of what is now called caipirinha:
“because [of the concern with cholera and water], by necessity we began mixing medium aguardiente with water, sugar and limes, because it was prohibited to drink straight water.” (Official Register of the Mayor, pages 139, 1856)
Other historians state that caipirinha might have an origin in Santos, on the coast of São Paulo, the region where the first distilleries of cachaça were developed.
And yet another theory attributes the caipirinha recipe to Portuguese slave traders who added limes to their cachaça to prevent scurvy, a disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C, on the long trip back to Europe.
At the time of WWI, most of Brazil’s cachaça production was concentrated around the inland town of Piracicaba, where people started drinking caipirinha as we know it today. As soon as the new drink reached the much larger city of Santos, a port in the state of Sao Paulo, it started being called caipirinha.
Over time, caipirinha began to spread throughout Brazil, but it wasn’t until 1922 that it started getting international recognition. That year, Brazilian modernists picked caipirinha to serve as the official drink of Brazil at the Modern Art Week event. The new Brazilian cocktail was then brought to Paris by French modernists and it took on the world from there.
What is cachaça?
Cachaça is indeed the primary ingredient in a caipirinha, but also in other drinks such as batida, a mixture of cachaça and fruit or fruit juice mixtures, as well as the winter drink called quentão, the Brazilian version of mulled wine.
Like rum, it is a distilled spirit made from sugarcane. However, the major difference between cachaça and rum is that rum is typically made from sugarcane molasses, while “Brazilian rum” or cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice that is fermented and distilled.
The word cachaça may have been originally derived from the word cachaço, which was used to pickle or preserve pork.
Other sources also attribute the name to African captives who worked in sugarcane mills. They gave the name to the foam that collected at the top of the kettles where sugarcane was boiled. This foam, which was then fermented it, was called cachaça.
Cachaça is definitely an institution in the country known for partying hard! There are more than 2,000 words to refer to the spirit, like água-benta (holy water), limpa-olho (eye-wash), bafo-de-tigre (tiger breath) or even abre-coração (heart-opener).
Sugarcane first originated in the South Pacific. It was then was brought to India. It is there that around 500 BC, sugar would be extracted from it for the first time. From India, it migrated to the Middle East before arriving in the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands and other Atlantic islands. From these islands, it was brought to Brazil, where it transformed the northeastern region of the country into the kingdom of sugarcane. From the sixteenth century on, sugarcane became the main export product of the colony. Brazil is nowadays the first sugarcane producer in the world with 739,300 thousand metric tons, more than twice the production of India, #2 producer in the world.
The earliest reports of cachaça production date to about 1610 in the state of Bahia, although cachaça production probably began soon after the introduction of sugarcane into Brazil around 1550. Initially, cachaça was used medicinally but also as a special treat for slaves during festivals.
For centuries, cachaça was produced almost exclusively for slaves, natives, sailors and the lower classes of Brazil. The Brazilian upper class regarded cachaça as a poor man’s drink, preferring instead imported wines, whiskeys and cognacs.
It eventually became popular, even among the masters, and was finally transformed into an export product.
The Brazilian term for cachaça, pinga (drip), originated from the vapor produced by the slow process to ferment the liquid, which condensed as it went up and dripped. The pinga would hurt when it fell on the slaves, which explains the origin of another name for it: aguardente, a combination of the words água (water) and ardente (burning). Yes, the same origin as firewater in English!
How to make caipirinha
The recipe for the caipirinha drink is quite simple. The caipirinha ingredients are lime, sugar, cachaça and ice. However, there are a few tips to follow to perfect this easy recipe:
- Always discard the upper and bottom caps of the limes, as they introduce a bitter taste.
- Split the lime in half and cut out the middle pit from both pieces, as they also contribute to the bitterness.
- Always muddle the lime with sugar. The abrasive sugar crystals will help with grinding the lime.
- Don’t muddle the lime too hard. Squeezing too much will also make the drink too bitter.
- Muddle the limes face down with the green skin facing up.
Caipirinha, Brazil's national cocktail, is a refreshing alcoholic beverage prepared with cachaça, lime, sugar and ice.
- In a double Old Fashioned glass, muddle the sugar and lime.
- Fill with ice and add the cachaça.
- Stir and garnish with a slice of lime.