A founding character in Brazilian modernist literature, Macunaíma was painted as a hero of the people. As the eponymous story goes, Macunaíma was an Indigenous man born in the Amazon who travels to São Paulo to recover an amulet. Written by Mário de Andrade, the book became beloved as a representation of the country’s diversity at a time when Indigenous stories were underrepresented in broader Brazilian culture. Now, 86 years after Macunaíma was first published, the character has gained renewed relevance, this time at bar counters around Brazil.
The year was 2014, and the country was on the verge of hosting the World Cup, an obsession in Brazil, whose national team held the top position in the knockout stage. “At that time, I was trying hard to come up with a new cocktail that represented that spirit,” recalls Arnaldo Hirai, bartender and partner at Boca de Ouro in São Paulo, a popular industry-favorite bar in the city. He remembers coming across very few recipes made with cachaça.
Mixing the native spirit with Fernet-Branca, lime and sugar, Hirai created a recipe that spread rapidly across the country; it was an instant classic. How did the drink take off so quickly? “I imagine it has to do with its simplicity,” he says. “Almost every bar has cachaça, lime and a dusty bottle of Fernet on the shelf.” Hirai first named the cocktail after a Brazilian percussion instrument, the caxirola, but realized that “Macunaíma” better represented the Brazilian culture he was trying to channel.
Even easier than the list of ingredients is the preparation. Because Hirai believes the citrusy cocktail is light enough on its own, he doesn’t suggest serving it over ice for added dilution. Instead, he recommends shaking to froth up the citrus before straining the drink into a chilled lowball glass without ice. While the method is simple, Hirai does say there’s one crucial element to consider: Use a good cachaça aged in balm, a widely used Brazilian wood that imparts aromas of clove and anise. “The balm-aged cachaça gives it some astringency,” says Jean Ponce, founder of the award-winning São Paulo bar Guarita, “and mixing it with Fernet balances acidity and sweetness, contrasting with the lime and sugar. It is a perfect combination.”
Eventually, the Macunaíma crossed beyond the borders of São Paulo, a city with a more established cocktail scene, to become a hit across the country. A number of bars have decided to replicate Hirai’s recipe and make it their own. At Lamparina, a cachaça-themed bar in Belo Horizonte, for example, a cachaça produced in Minas Gerais forms the base of the take, further localizing the drink.
In its native home of São Paulo, too, the drink is featured on many menus. And, though it’s not even a decade old, it’s already considered a classic. For example, the Macunaíma is on the list at Escarcéu, a São Paulo bar that pays tribute to botecos (no-frills bars) and Brazilian bohemian culture. “We tried to go back in time to the 1970s, when bars hadn’t yet gone through some gentrification, and rescue an original Brazilian essence,” says Edu Passarelli, one of the founders of the laid-back concept. And though it is a much more recent part of cocktail history, “Macunaíma represents that simplicity, so we couldn’t leave it out of our list.”