Occasionally a cocktail arrives that does more than simply refresh. It champions the spirit with which it's made. The Bloody Mary did that for vodka. Margaritas turned Tequila into a household drink. Mojitos currently have us reexamining rum. And now a lime and sugar drink called the Caipirinha has the national spirit of Brazil, cachaça, on the tongues of a lot of Americans, who, not so long ago, couldn't pronounce it.
Cachaça is rum's fiery cousin, a product of sugarcane that is distilled from its juice, not molasses (a cane byproduct). Other parts of the world call the same spirit sugarcane brandy, and the term cachaça actually comes from the Portuguese word for brandy. What makes it confusing to say is that the word has three "c"s, each of which is pronounced differently. The first is hard, the second is the soft blend of "ch" as in "chagrin," and the third is a combination of "s" and "z" like the "ç" in "façade": ka-SHAH-sa. However you say it, it's been such a favorite in Brazil for the past 500 years that natives staged rebellions in the seventeenth century when Portugal tried to force its wine on the colony in place of the drink of the peasants. In ensuing centuries, cachaça's station has been elevated through purification and/or aging.
Yet, it wasn't until the Caipirinha craze that many outside of Brazil took notice. The cocktail is a bawdy take on the rum-based Daiquiri, almost as fun to make as to drink. Mix it right in a double old-fashioned glass. Wash and slice a lime into eight wedges and put it in a glass with a teaspoon of sugar (or to taste). Muddle well and add two ounces of cachaça. Cover and shake to a samba time. Drink.
You'll discover your taste in cachaça along the way. Try Beleza Pura (pure beauty) for a clean unaged cachaça with a hint of grass. Agua Luca has honeysuckle on the nose and smoke on the palate. Small batch Mae de Ouro, aged for a year, smells of cherries and has lime and grit on the palate. Leblon, with its pot stilling and short Cognac-cask aging, smacks of fruits and honey. Cabana, also pot-stilled and slightly aged, speaks of flowers, maple and vanilla. Pit is about bread dough. All are 80 proof, but seem much hotter. For less fire consider more mature variations, such as the velvety and spicy Rochinha or the honey and olive Armazem.