It’s nearly Cinco de Mayo, the appropriated Mexican holiday that grants people a license to drink margaritas with slightly more enthusiasm than is normal. On May 5th, and on many of the warm summer days that follow, ordering a margarita is a reflexive act. One we engage in without much consideration of any alternatives. We draw on outdated cultural signifiers handed down to us by luminaries like Jimmy Buffet to convince ourselves that the margarita represents sunny skies and good times instead of sour-tasting tequila. But what if there were another way?
There is, my friends. Say bom dia to the Caipirinha, your new warm-weather drinking companion. It’s made from cachaça (a spirit derived from fermented sugar cane juice), sugar, and muddled lime. On my recent trip to Brazil, the caipirinha was a constant companion, from the cocktail bars of São Paulo to the beachside barracas of Rio de Janeiro. It’s a simple, refreshing cure for whatever ails you, and yes, it’s better than a margarita.
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The Caipirinha has humble origins. Though exact details are scant, The Daily Beast posits that the Caipirinha can more or less be traced back to the less cosmopolitan areas of the Brazilian state (but not city) of São Paulo. By the end of the 19th century, the combination of cachaça, sugar, and lime was enjoyed as a homespun cure for everything “from cholera to bad luck” among the “caipiras” (rough translation: “hillbillies”) who lived where sugarcane was plentiful. Though viewed disdainfully by the more urbane locals, the Caipirinha underwent a reappraisal in the 1970s spurred on by international tourism. This helped reposition it as a ubiquitous cocktail and unmistakable source of national pride. If you go to a Brazilian restaurant and you don’t see a caipirinha on the menu, you should immediately walk out.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its populist roots, the beauty of the Caipirinha resides in its simplicity. In an age of convoluted mixology that prizes rare herbs and trivial liqueurs, you only need three things (plus ice) to make a caipirinha, and you almost certainly have at least one or even two of them in your kitchen right now.
So how do caipirinhas taste? Heavenly. They manage to be light, sweet (but not too sweet), and refreshing, even with a heavy pour of cachaça. The interplay of the citrus and sugar complements the surprising depth of cachaça’s flavor. To my palate, cachaça feels a bit lighter, less spicy, and more floral than rum, perhaps owing to the fact that cachaça comes from sugar cane juice rather than sugar cane molasses. Compared to a margarita, the caipirinha doesn’t hit you over the head with any sweet, sour, or salty elements. It trusts you to enjoy the flavors it offers without hitting you over the head with them.
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Though cachaça, sugar, and lime are perfectly wonderful on their own (pro tip: DO NOT make one without sugar; it’s there for a reason), they also form a stable platform from which you can experiment. You can add all manner of fruits to the equation if you’re into mixing it up. But even in its simplest form, the Caipirinha is as beautiful as an Ipanema sunset.
I already know what you’re thinking: “ugh it’s hard to find cachaça. Margaritas are easier because tequila.” You’re wrong. You just haven’t looked for cachaça because you didn’t know it was missing from your life. Any liquor store worth its margarita salt should have the boozy sugar cane juice you need available in both its aged and “silver” (or unaged) form. I’m sure they’d even help you find it if you ask nicely. Between higher-end brands like Novo Fogo and more affordable Pitú, a silver cachaça whose shrimpy label may have caught your eye at a bar before, there are cachaça options for every budget. It’s no harder than getting a hold of the triple sec or (god forbid) margarita mix you’d need to make your overrated cocktail of choice.
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And even if you can’t find cachaça, the Caipirinha’s winning formula is versatile enough that you can use other spirits to get on the Brazilian cocktail bandwagon. Have some vodka left over? Make yourself a Caipiroska. Got a bottle of sake you thought you’d use but never have? Give a Caipisake a go. Want to star with cachaça’s sugar cane cousin before graduating to the real stuff? Try a Caipiríssima with white rum. Hell, you can even use Campari to make a CaipirItaly if you’re feeling saucy. Try making a margarita with anything besides tequila or mezcal, and something will inevitably get lost in translation.
So with that said, you deserve a break from the margarita. Stop putting up with mouth-puckering sour cocktails made in third-rate Mexican restaurants or watered-down disasters from Applebee’s. This summer, switch to a humble drink that’s won over the world’s fifth-largest country because it tastes as good as samba music sounds. Death to the margarita, long live the caipirinha.
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