In Brazil, the adage goes that a love sparked during Carnival, the nation’s grandest celebration, fades away as soon as the “blocos,” or roving bands that sweep across the country, have passed. However, in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, a love sparked by the festival’s wild parties unfolded on the streets, and has refused to burn out almost a decade later.
It was 2015. Festivalgoers cloaked in glitter, fishnets, hot pants and flowing wigs danced for hours to the beat of drums and a vibrant brass ensemble. Their drink of choice: Xeque Mate, a mix of rum, guaraná (a bitter fruit from the Amazon), lemon and mate (a caffeinated herbal tea). Those trying the new cocktail immediately fell in love with it.
Bartender Gabriel “Gael” Rochael was Xeque Mate’s original creator. When a friend needed a cocktail for a party he was promoting in the city, Rochael made it on the fly. “I drew inspiration from my habit of pairing mate with guaraná [soda]. Adding the fruit syrup and a splash of lemon juice was a way to heighten the citrus undertones,” he says. “Upon my first sip, I immediately recognized its potential.” He spiked the drink with rum for “a vanilla twist” and named the cocktail after the Portuguese phrase for checkmate, which also nods to the traditional South American tea. For that first party, Rochael made a single batch, which sold out within hours. After that, night after night, he saw repeated success, and word spread. The Xeque Mate became popular at parties and bar counters across the city.
But it was Carnival that propelled it to dominance in Belo Horizonte. As festive locals filled the streets, “Xeque Mate became the embodiment of this spirit, evolving from a hometown favorite to a viral sensation,” says Rafael Quick, a partner at popular Belo Horizonte establishments like Bar Juramento 202 and the bustling pizzeria Forno da Saudade, both known for drawing lively crowds who indulge in glass after glass of Xeque Mate.
The drink’s success meant that Rochael couldn’t keep up with the demand from bars across the city by himself. He turned to his now-partner Alex Freire to offer the cocktail in ready-to-drink cans last year. Today, the beverage can be found on supermarket shelves in Belo Horizonte; it’s also making its way to other Brazilian cities like São Paulo, where the cans are already available, and Rio de Janeiro, where they will be soon.
The now-famous Xeque Mate has sparked its own cocktail variations across the city. At the Belo Horizonte bar Ofélia, a variation on the drink, named Eremita, dials back the guaraná soda to just a splash so that the mate shines. At Xangô, situated on the trendy Sapucaí street in the Floresta neighborhood, the Xangolião features an aged rum from local Minas Gerais brand Lamas, plus toasted mate, guaraná extract, lemon juice and cold-brew coffee for an extra-caffeinated, slightly bitter twist. According to head bartender João Pinheiro, Xangô’s take is so popular that there are daily queues for the bar’s takeaway version, sold in party-ready 34-ounce kegs.
Bartender and beverage consultant Filipe Brasil has also created renditions of the cocktail for the venues he collaborates with, including the Xeque Morte, which ups the amount of rum for a boozier version, and the Mate Inusitado, which he serves at the nightclub Casa Sapucaí. In the latter, he mixes the classic Xeque Mate ingredients with cachaça infused with jambu (aka java apple, a lightly sweet fruit) and fresh ginger ale.
According to Brasil, the success of the Xeque Mate stems from its fusion of affordability and drinkability. “It’s no coincidence that the cocktail initially conquered the bustling central neighborhoods of Belo Horizonte,” where street parties are the norm, he says. Though it can now be found in a ready-to-drink format or dressed up at high-end bars, “the cocktail has maintained its inherently democratic nature.”