Brazil cachaca maker seeks improved Brazilian cocktail with fewer hangovers

Barman prepares caipirinhas, Brazil's national cocktail, made with cachaca, sugar and lemon or another fruit, in a restaurant in Sao Paulo.
PHOTO: Barman prepares caipirinhas, Brazil's national cocktail, made with cachaca, sugar and lemon or another fruit, in a restaurant in Sao Paulo.

BETIM, Brazil - For some people, a couple of caipirinhas, the powerful Brazilian cocktail, are just what is needed to take the edge off the stress of a hard day's work.

But for others, including more than a few visitors to this year's football World Cup, even a single caipirinha (pronounced kai-per-REEN-ya) will leave them with a monster hangover.

Luiz Otavio Goncalves, 72, wants to change that.

Goncalves is one of the country's boutique producers of "cachaca" - the powerful sugar-cane liquor that is the main ingredient - some would say "poison" - in a caipirinha.

A mix of crushed lime and sugar, ice and cachaca (pronounced ka-SHA-sah), the caipirinha has been spreading beyond Brazil to bars around the world.

But the cocktail's popularity, Goncalves says, has encouraged cachaca producers to churn out cheap, impure cachaca and for bartenders to mix them into their drinks, increasing the chance of a hangover.

In Brazil, the world's top sugarcane producer, there are more than 2,700 different brands of cachaca, Goncalves said. The stuff is strong. A bottle normally contains 38 to 54 per cent alcohol. Hiding cheap cachaca in a caipirinha is made easy by the cocktail's sharp tastes.

"They normally use cheap cachaca to make caipirinhas because you mix it with lime and sugar," said Goncalves who makes his Vale Verde, or "Green Valley" cachaca from cane he grows on a 30-hectare (74-acre) plantation in Brazil's central-highland state of Minas Gerais.

"You lose the aroma, the flavor of the pure cachaca," he added. "When you taste a good cachaca, it's delicious. It's like a good cognac, scotch, tequila."

And Goncalves knows his beverages. In the last 50 years, he has sold everything from Coca Cola, coconut water and Pepsi to Brazil's Kaiser beer. He started Vale Verde 25 years ago.

Vale Verde cachaca is a combination of the old and the new. Sugar cane is harvested and fed into the slicing and juicing machine by hand the old-fashioned way. The juice is fermented in modern, industrial-sized tanks and distilled in traditional copper pots known as "alambiques."

The spirits are then aged in oak barrels for three to 12 years.

"Sugarcane gives us ethanol for our cars, energy to our body, and joy and happiness to our soul; it's the perfect plant," Goncalves said.

While Vale Verde cachaca is only sold in Brazil, Goncalves wants to expand to US and European markets where consumers, he said, are starting to develop a taste for higher-quality, higher-value cachaca.

"It takes time, but people are drinking more pure cachaca. They are paying for quality," said Goncalves.

Miguel Murta de Almeida agrees. His Via Cristina cachaca and bar in Belo Horizonte's trendy Antonio district has been in operation since 2001 and business is booming.

Almeida offers a staggering 909 different brands of cachaca, with prices ranging from $2.50 (S$3.11) to $35 per shot.

If its good, cost is no problem, he said.

"Cachaca is part of our culture, part of our soul, and people don't mind paying for it," Almeida added.