The spirit of the Olympics

Brazil, the fifth-largest country in the world measured by both population and area, and has a rich cultural history. Part of it is Cachaca (pronounced ka-SHAH-sah) and caipirinha. And now the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero, which began with the opening ceremony, is poised to give the biggest shot in the arm to Brazil’s most popular alcoholic spirit: Cachaça. Brazil’s unique distillation of sugarcane juice into a clear liquor and national cocktail and are poised for the kind of worldwide exposure enjoyed by tequila after the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and Australian wines after the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.

Indeed, more than 217 million television viewers are expected to watch the Rio Games; 3.6 billion global viewers.

That’s tremendous potential interest in Brazilian culture, in which cachaça plays a large part.

“It’s a great platform to get more exposure for the category and the country,” said Thiago Camargo, co-founder of Yaguara Cachaça, maker of Brazil’s first blended white organic cachaça. “We’ll be able to ride that wave.”

Artisan cachaça brands such as Yaguara, Avuá, Novo Fogo and Leblon stand to gain most from new focus on the spirit because the companies are carving out a niche for premium cachaça.

“A new generation is discovering cachaça and everyone wants better, higher quality,” said Steve Luttmann, founder and president of Leblon Cachaça.

Luttmann added that cachaça is a way to enjoy Brazilian culture even if you can’t make it to the Rio Games.

“If you want a taste of Tuscany, try some Chianti,” he said. “For a lot of people we’re their first foot in the waters of Brazil. We’re Brazil in a bottle.”

Originally distilled sometime between 1516 and 1532, it was the first distilled beverage to be made in Latin America, before pisco and tequila, according to the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça. Cachaca, by definition, must be produced in Brazil with fresh sugarcane juice and contain alcohol by volume of 38 to 48 per cent. Rum can be made anywhere, and it’s usually made from molasses and distilled at higher percentages of alcohol by volume.

Much like Egyptian slaves drinking an early form of beer, cachaça was first regularly consumed 400 years ago, not by the moneyed landowners but by slaves from Africa who worked the Brazilian sugarcane fields. And while the beer rationed to the Egyptian slaves was arguably nutritional, the cachaça, which was also rationed to the African slaves, was a bleaker remedy, simply meant “to dull their pain and give them energy during their arduous work days.” In 1663, a sugar producer named João Fernando Vieira actually insisted his slaves “were only to begin a day’s work after they had drunk their daily ration of cachaça.” The term itself comes from what the African captives called “the foam that collected at the top of cauldrons” used to boil the cane. That early, rougher fermented product evolved into cachaça.

The U.S. formally recognized cachaca as a distinct product of Brazil in 2013 after the two countries signed a trade agreement (in exchange, Brazil recognized bourbon and Tennessee whiskey as distinctive U.S. Products).

The market for cachaca has steadily grown over the last decade, alongside the liquor industry’s targeting of U.S. consumers’ growing appreciation for premium rums.

Cachaça, Brazil’s national spirit, plays like a light rum with a kiss of tequila. It stars in some of the country’s most popular drinks, foremost in the caipirinha. This refreshing drink starts with good fresh limes cut into small wedges and muddled with sugar before being topped with ice and cachaça. If you prefer a sweeter cocktail, add some tropical fruit like passion fruit, mango or guava — a caipifruta. You could even spice it up with chile if you want to bring the heat and cool down at the same time.

Brazil’s favorite cocktail includes three basic ingredients plus ice, but it’s how much caçhaca, lime and sugar you combine that lets you customize this drink and find the right balance for your tastebuds. This simple structure, similar to a Daiquiri, also allows for ample innovation.

Most recipes use between 1 1/2 ounces and 2 1/2 ounces. The classic method employs cane sugar while muddling the lime. The abrasive grains help extract the peel’s essential oils. Bar sugar (aka superfine sugar) dissolves most easily; you can make your own by whirling granulated sugar in a food processor. Some recipes sub other kinds of sugar (like Demerara or brown sugar) or simple syrup.

As in most cocktails that call for the juice of a half or full lime, this is the tricky part: How big is the lime? How ripe is that lime? Some recipes call for half, some for whole. Let the size and juiciness of the limes, along with your own preferences for acidity, guide you. Look for citrus that feels heavy with juice, its skin smooth and yellowed; dark green limes have less juice. For a pro move, cut the lime in half lengthwise, remove the white pith in the middle, then cut the half into four wedges.

If you crave a cocktail that leans closer to a piña colada, try a batida. You can find various recipes and twists on the drink, but it’s often made with coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk or something else rich and creamy. Tropical fruit also plays well with this drink, which can be blended or shaken with ice. And if you want to give your guests something a little unexpected, look for spirits and liqueurs flavored with the superfruit açai that can be used in an array of cocktails.

“We Americans love to consume the Olympics and ‘travel’ there without going there by drinking and eating and celebrating the culture of whatever the host country is, so I think a lot of people are going to be watching the Olympic Games with a caipirinha in their hands,” Leblon Cachaca President and CEO Steve Luttman said in a recent interview.

When Leblon launched in 2005, U.S. cachaca sales totalled just a few thousand cases sold mainly in Brazilian restaurants. Now owned by Bermuda-based industry giant Bacardi, Leblon boasts annual sales of 50,000 9-litre cases, Luttman said.

There will also be a selection of international beers and wines at the Olympic games. Skol, Brahma and Antarctica are popular Brazilian beer brands.

For teetotalers, try a tall glass of crushed ice, coconut water and your favorite tropical fruit (pineapple or passion fruit juice, perhaps), brightened with a squeeze of lime.

Skol was launched in Brazil in 1967. From the beginning, the history of this beer is marked by innovation. In 1971, Skol caused surprise with the first canned beer in the country. In 1989 came the first aluminum can (1989). The Skol family has not stopped growing: long neck pack with screw cap

(1993), big can Skol (1993), first can with a round mouth (1997), 500ml Big Neck (2004), “Geladona” which keeps the temperature cooler longer (2005), multipack with 18 units (2007), Skol “Redondinha”, that freezes quickly, Skol litrão, which leaves no empty glass (2008), and Skol Cincão (2010).

In 1999, with the creation of AmBev, the brand became the leader in the Brazilian market and the fourth best-selling beer in the world.

In recent years, Brazil has begun to export some stellar wine to the US, catching up to fellow South American countries Argentina and Chile, and is now the third largest wine producer in the region. Currently Cabernet Sauvignon represents the most planted grape varietal in the country, but other well-known French grapes such as Merlot and Chardonnay are also gaining ground and being used to make great wines.

However, while wine is quickly becoming a solid local product in Brazil, it will probably never eclipse the first love of most Brazilians when it comes to alcohol: the sugarcane spirit Cachaca. This rum-like spirit is used to make a variety of drinks in the country, but the most famous is the Caipirinha.

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