Tue 30 Dec 2008
Must the world be one big freaking conundrum?
Example. Many authorities say that cachaça (“ka-SHA-zha”), the national spirit of Brazil, should not be called rum, or a kind of rum, because it’s distilled from pure sugar cane juice and not from molasses. Many rums, however, are made from sugar cane juice, and, besides, the bottle of Leblon Cachaça that I used to make caipirinhas (kai-pur-EEN-ya) this weekend says, very clearly, “Brazilian Rum.”
O.K., here’s another. The two books I consulted on making a caipirinha — New Classic Cocktails by Gary Regan and Mardee Haidin Regan (Macmillian, 1997) and Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead (Viking, 1998), each excellent in its way — took different approaches to the drink, the first recommending granulated sugar and the second simple syrup, while each book offered a radically different method of making simple syrup. The Regans call for two cups of granulated sugar and two cups of water, and the water is not to boil. Harrington and Moorhead call for two cups of sugar and one cup of water that boils. Hmmm, must we do thermal violence to create simple syrup? I chose to follow Harrington and Moorhead’s proportion of sugar to water, but heeded the Regan’s injunction against boiling the water. I allowed the water to simmer and stirred the entire time, so the sugar dissolved and the mixture thickened and clarified. Simple syrup keeps in the fridge, in a tightly closed glass jar, forever.
No Brazilian would make a caipirinha with simple syrup, but granulated sugar in Brazil is more finely granulated than its counterpart in the U.S., akin to what we call superfine sugar, so the simple syrup came in handy. To test a theory, I made two caipirinhas, one with sugar and one with simple syrup. The glass with the cut limes and granulated sugar required pretty strenuous muddling to get the sugar to dissolve. In truth, the caipirinha made with simple syrup was more intense than the one made with sugar.
Thousands of brands of cachaça are available in Brazil, in styles ranging from raw, rustic and fiery to more elegant artisanal efforts. The stuff used to be hard to find in the U.S.A., but “drink-builders” around the country have come to value its versatility in the creation of signature cocktails and its relatively light fruitiness compared to rum, though don’t mistake cachaça for a wallflower; it’s powerful goods.
Leblon Cachaça is a fairly new brand in this country. The distiller is Gilles Merlet from Cognac, and indeed the distillate, after going through the copper alembic pot stills, ages six months in used Cognac barrels. The result is a cachaça that seems smooth and concentrated and slightly spicy. While elegance and seamlessness may be the target, this product still retains something wild and florid, grassy and earthy; it hasn’t forgotten its roots in the sugar cane fields of Patos de Minas.
The caipirinha itself presents a conundrum. The combination of the keen acidity of the limes and the sweetness of the sugar is a paradox of bracing effect, sending the taste buds into search-and-rescue overdrive before you say, “Whoa, that’s incredibly refreshing!”