Brazil never had a Jerry Thomas, or a Harry Craddock, or a Constantino Ribalaigua Vert. But they’ve always had the Caipirinha.
All but impossible to pin down to a single originator, the Caipirinha—a rustic mash of lime, cane sugar and cachaça, a distillate of pressed, fermented sugarcane juice—emerged in the mid-19th century out of the countryside neighboring Brazil’s coastal Atlantic rainforest. Caipiras, a hardy rural populace with rich folkloric and culinary traditions, consumed the mixture as an inexpensive, diet-fortifying daily ration. According to cocktail historian David Wondrich, its popularity outside the country’s rural regions didn’t take off until the early 20th century. He notes that while the drink was then known as the “Batida Paulista” due to its popularity in São Paulo, the simple mixture was documented in travel accounts as early as the 1940s, before taking off abroad in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While Brazilians still use “batida” as an umbrella term for mixed or blended drinks, the original’s enduring legacy as an integral part of caipira culture cemented the affectionately diminutive name of “Caipirinha.”
Much of the Caipirinha’s survival and celebration in contemporary cocktail circles is owed to the simplicity of its foundation, which is akin to its Caribbean cousins the Daiquiri and Ti’ Punch, consisting of the holy trinity of lime, sugar and spirit. In a land where all three of those ingredients are plentiful and relatively cheap, the drink itself has become its own hybrid commodity—equal parts replicable, accessible and modifiable.
Brazilian bartenders have historically held an improvisational attitude toward the drink, subjecting the choice of spirit, sweetener and fruit to frequent substitution and reinvention. The Caipifruta, for example, calls on fruit other than lime (passion fruit, strawberry and pineapple are popular); the Caipiroska relies on vodka in place of cachaça; and the Caipisake, as the name suggests, swaps in sake, a low-proof alternative drawn from the nation’s large Japanese population. The only immutable characteristic of the drink is the use of freshly muddled fruit—if you don’t have pulpy bits of fruit intermingling with cracked ice and spirit, you don’t have a Caipirinha.
Still, it’s the original lime Caipirinha that, according to Rio-based bartender Tai Barbin, deserves a place in the canon of classic cocktails. “At my bar, we are very protective of the traditional Caipirinha made with lime. We don’t do any variations, twists or other flavors,” he says.
In a testament to the appeal of the original, it’s the lime Caipirinha that found an audience abroad. By the 1980s, several of Brazil’s industrial cachaça producers, such as Pitú, made headway in an international push to promote the Brazilian national spirit overseas, subsequently introducing a large swath of drinkers to their first Caipirinha. This initial effort forged a hard-to-shake association between the cocktail and the particular profile of industrial cachaça, the result of mechanized sugarcane harvesting and column distillation, which offered only a glimpse of just how complex the spirit—and the Caipirinha—can be.
When built on the multitude of cachaças available from the country’s thousands of artisanal, single-estate producers, the three-ingredient Caipirinha reveals its inherent potential for complexity. Artisanal producers have relied on single alembic distillation for generations, producing cachaça that conveys a rich expression of the raw sugarcane. Further distinguishing these distillates from their industrial counterparts is their experimentation with more than two dozen varieties of indigenous wood in the barrel-aging process, ranging from the cinnamon and nutmeg spice of amburana, to the herbaceous anise notes of balsamo, to the soft fruitiness of jequitibá rosa. Applied to the pared-down format of the Caipirinha, these unique expressions impart layers of complexity for a cocktail that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Barbin, for his part, sees embracing these woods as a promising future for the life of the Caipirinha, remarking that “each one of them is perfect for a different twist. They just open the possibilities of variations to the point that it becomes like a playground, having all these different profiles and flavors.” Even in a strictly traditional sense, the Caipirinha is a drink that can be made a million different ways. This is perhaps why Wondrich abides by the original, noting, “There are many other Caipirinhas, but I don’t worry about them.”