GL: Besides Caipirinhas, are there other great cocktails to make with cachaça?
NW: Absolutely. A friend of ours, Michael Neff from Ward III [in New York], has developed a version of the Whiskey Sour featuring the Amburana. In both New York and Rio, bartenders have experimented by mixing a number of unique Brazilian ingredients with cachaça. For example, Michael has developed a cocktail using muddled malagueta peppers, fresh lime, triple sec, and a smoky salt rim. More traditional cocktails include batidas, which are made with condensed milk and fruits like passionfruit and cashew fruit, as well as other tropical fruits like soursop. And of course, a great variant on the Caipirinha is its original recipe from the 1500s, which was used to cure sicknesses and featured muddled limes, cachaça, honey, and whole garlic cloves.
GL: Can you cook with cachaça?
NW: Cachaça is terrifically versatile in the kitchen. In Brazil, cachaça is used to marinate meat, particularly pork and steak. In the Brazilian countryside, it's frequently used in handmade candies. In general terms, cachaça can be used as a spice to impart a wood flavor to dishes, or to break down meat fibers. Chefs in Brazil are experimenting with a tincture of our Amburana cachaça, and we've experimented with it as an injection for smoked Texas brisket.
GL: Do cachaça or cachaça-based cocktails go well with food?
NW: Cachaça pairs exceedingly well with all sorts of dishes. Our Amburana and Prata also make great aperitifs thanks to their dry finish. Drinks like the Caipirinha, which has a citrus base, tend to pair well with foods like ceviche, while neat cachaça goes quite well with grilled meats. Cachaça itself can also be used as a digestif or even as a dessert [drink]. In dessert pairings, Amburana goes very well with bolo de rolo, the jam-filled, multilayered sponge cake dessert famous in the northeast of Brazil. It also goes well with guava desserts, dulce de leche, or any chocolate dessert.
GL: Can you offer any tips on shopping for cachaça?
NW: Shopping for cachaça in the U.S. is hard, because even though the market is growing, it's not easy to find the really interesting stuff. It depends what you are looking for. Obviously we think our cachaça is great, as it is different than other cachaças—it's certainly drier than many others.
A good unaged cachaça should have a mild sugarcane nose and offer a rich vegetal aroma. There should be very little alcohol burn, and there should be no additional sugar added to sweeten the flavor. It should be clean and fresh. Aged cachaças have an incredible variety of flavor profiles due to the variety of woods. They should have an entrancing mixture of aromas ranging from vanilla from oak, to the basil, flowery, and winter spice aromas from the Brazilian woods, to a mild color and taste from the lighter Brazilian woods like ipe.
When shopping, ask where the cane comes from. Is it hand-produced or machine-produced? There is a very wide difference in taste between handmade cachaça and industrial cachaça, which would likely be labeled aguardente in Brazil but might be labeled cachaça in the U.S. Aguardente is generally machine-distilled and can have added sugar, which leads to a hangover. It's also not subject to the same quality controls as the handmade cachaça. Some aguardentes are made in the same stills used to produce ethanol for cars in Brazil, which causes some consumers to misunderstand the high quality level of good cachaça and [gives cachaça] an unfair reputation in some circles as firewater. Real cachaça should be a clean distillate, with delicate aromas, a sugarcane character, but without any cloying flavors in the mouth, and should leave you feeling good in the morning.