I look forward to the Olympic Games with an unfettered anticipation. My father is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the sport of shooting (1964 and 1968). Growing up, I always knew it was special that my dad had two Olympic gold medals, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I truly understood how special. My dad always says the Olympic Games are bigger than medals. The elite athletes of the world coming together for two weeks of not just winning, but taking part, is nothing short of awesome.
I started thinking about the best way to toast these Olympic Games, and my first thought (natürlich) was Brazilian wine. Brazil is famous for lots of things, but fine wine isn’t one of them. Most of the grapes grown in Brazil aren’t vinifera grapes, they’re table grapes. It’s a geography issue. Most of the world’s vinifera grapes are grown in the wine belt, between the latitudes of 30 and 50 degrees. Brazil has very little real estate in that range. That said, the sparkling wines coming from the extreme southern region of Serra Gaucha (right at about 30 degrees latitude) have been getting some buzz lately. I found a handful of Brazilian sparklers available online, but I wasn’t in the mood to pay more to ship one bottle of Brazilian bubbles than the cost of the bubbles themselves (maybe I will revisit this after we recover from paying our son’s first semester college tuition bill).
Plan B: The Caipirinha.
The Caipirinha (pronounced kai-per-in-ya) is Brazil’s national cocktail. Translated literally, Caipirinha means little peasant. It’s a beautifully simple drink, made with lime, sugar, ice and Cachaça (pronounced ca-sha-sa), which is a distilled spirit made with fresh sugarcane juice.
Cachaça is sometimes called Brazilian rum, but Cachaça isn’t rum. Rum is made with molasses, or processed sugarcane. Cachaça is made with fresh sugarcane juice. The Cachaça is then aged in some kind of wood (often native to Brazil), for various amounts of time. By law, it must contain between 38 and 54 percent alcohol.
The production of Cachaça dates back to the 1500s, when the Portuguese colonized Brazil, and set up massive sugar plantations as export (because the Europeans were really keen on refined sugar). The Portuguese quickly discovered they couldn’t actually run those sugar plantations without a massive supply of free labor, so they imported slaves from Africa to process all that sugar. During the processing of said sugar, a thick foam forms on the top of the boiling cauldrons. The slaves figured out that if they scraped that foam off the cauldron and piled it into a corner (or wherever), it started to ferment. And drinking the stuff had certain, um, properties. Voila! Cachaça was born.
I ordered a bottle of Cachaça through my local ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) store. Virginia is one of those annoying states that have a government monopoly on the sale of spirits. Essentially, this means you can’t just sashay into the grocery store and pick up a bottle of vodka here in Virginia — you have to make a separate trip to the ABC store. Luckily, the manager at my local ABC store is a really nice guy, and he’s always willing to special order the one-off bottles I request.
Cachaça is supposed to smell like fresh sugarcane. I don’t know what fresh sugarcane smells like, so I’m just going to assume that’s true. I thought the Cachaça smelled like a much tamer version of kirschwasser (a cherry brandy from Germany that you can also use to strip the paint off furniture).
Originally, the Caipirinha was concocted in the years immediately after World War I for medicinal purposes — to ease the symptoms of the Spanish flu. The medicinal version of the Caipirinha was made with Cachaça, lime, honey and garlic. At some point, someone decided to swap the honey and garlic in favor of sugar and ice, and the drink went from medicinal to madness in terms of popularity. Good call, someone.
The best thing about a Caipirinha? It’s a three ingredient drink (four, if you count the ice). I love three ingredient drinks. The Caipirinha reminded me of an herbal margarita. It’s very refreshing, and not nearly as potent as I thought it would be. It’s maybe a little too easy to drink.
The Brazilians make Caipirinha with all sorts of other fruits, but here’s the original (non-medicinal) recipe:
2 oz. Cachaça
2 tsp. sugar (superfine, if you’ve got it)
1/2 of a lime, cut into wedges
Place the lime wedges and sugar into an old-fashioned glass, muddle the heck out of them. Fill the glass with ice and add the Cachaça. Stir. Enjoy.
Here’s to the XXXI Olympic Games . . . Saúde!