I remember the first time I tried a Caipirinha. A friend had returned from a trip to Rio de Janeiro proudly clutching a bottle of cachaça, the Brazilian spirit distilled from sugarcane juice, the main ingredient in a Caipirinha.
Assembling his ingredients and tools with zeal, my friend proceeded to slice a lime into chunks, plopped them into a highball glass, generously sprinkled on sugar, muddled it together with a stumpy bit of wood, filled the glass with ice and topped it up with an immoderate quantity of cachaça. A quick swizzle and he handed me the glowing green concoction.
Before I even brought the drink to my lips my senses were flooded with an intense punch of lime lifted directly into my nostrils by the vapours from the Spirit, followed by a shockwave of amplifi ed citrus and rich sweetness that bounced around my mouth after a sip. It's not difficult to see why such a boisterous, joyful drink would be a big hit on the streets of Rio in summer, saturated in sound and movement.
Cachaça is to Brazil what single malt is to Scotland or Cognac is to France: a spirit intrinsically linked to cultural identity. Ever since the Portuguese established sugarcane plantations in the country in the early 1500s, the juice of the sugarcane has been turned into an alcoholic drink: fi rst a simple fermented "wine" - called "cachaço" by the slaves who worked on the plantations - and then a spirit, distilled from that raw base. Brazil produces well over a billion litres of cachaça each year, of which more than 80 per cent is consumed locally.
Mauro Ribeiro moved from Brazil to Sydney 14 years ago and has been in the drinks trade for more than a decade, most recently selling the outstanding cachaças by Germana for spirits importer Cerbaco. "Not every Brazilian plays good soccer, just like not everyone in Australia is a good swimmer," says Ribeiro. "But every Brazilian is passionate about cachaça."
Ribeiro says there are two distinct types of cachaça: industrial (produced by a handful of large companies using mechanisation and continuous stills) and artisanal (produced by thousands of smaller companies from hand-harvested sugarcane using copper pot stills). Within each category you'll also find different styles, from fresh colourless cachaça that's bottled soon after distillation (the most common style), to ambercoloured, or even deep golden-coloured cachaça, aged in various types of wooden barrels before bottling.
"Most of the top artisanal cachaças come from Minas Gerais, inland from Rio and São Paulo," says Ribeiro. "There's a great diversity of ethnic peoples in this region, some of the best food, and lots of sugarcane."
In the name of rigorous research, I tracked down a few diff erent examples of Minas Gerais's finest to broaden my appreciation of cachaça beyond that fi rst limy cocktail. Germana's Soul is a great example of the unaged artisan style: it's a punchy spirit, with some characters of fresh sugarcane and hints of a herbal earthiness. Perfect for a Caipirinha. Another top clearcachaça available here is from Leblon, a highly regarded artisan producer owned by drinks giant Bacardi: in style it's quite diff erent from the Germana - fresher, cleaner, with an almost melon-like fruitiness.
The Caetano's cachaça is different again: aged for two years in barrels made from amburana - local Brazilian cherrywood - it has a faint buttercup hue, a perfume of almond kernel and more weight on the tongue. Less a cocktail ingredient and more of a lovely sipping spirit - a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, perhaps.
And although it's regularly named as one of Brazil's top cachaças, and is undeniably a powerful and complex dark spirit, Germana's Heritage - aged for eight years in French oak and then two years in Cabreúva or balsam barrels - is a little too heavy and woody for my taste. But perhaps if I tried it again, late one sultry evening, in a big brandy balloon with a good cigar and some tall tales, I might be persuaded.
Ribeiro believes cachaça is perfectly suited to Australia's climate and lifestyle. He also mounts an intriguing historical argument. "We know that Captain Cook on his first voyage stocked up in Rio. I like to think that when he arrived down here he raised a glass to Australia with cachaça."
If you're in Sydney, you can discover a wide variety of cachaças at Braza Churrascaria restaurants in Darling Harbour, Leichhardt and Miranda. braza.com.au