By Felicity Clarke, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – With its potent cachaça kick laced with sweet sugar and a razor sharp lime edge, the caipirinha is Brazilian party spirit in a glass (or plastic cup) and a befitting national drink. However, the various mutations on the theme that have seen cachaça replaced with, most frequently, vodka and other international spirits have caused some to worry about the future of the caipirinha soul.
In an effort to protect it, the Save the Caipirinha campaign was launched last month and has already garnered over 10,000 signatures from cachaça fans, chefs and celebrities.
As an attempt to restore the true cachaça character of the Caipirinha in Brazil, the Leblon Cachaça brand initiated the Save the Caipirinha campaign in Rio de Janeiro in March. “We formally declare that we no longer wish to see our Caipirinha being made with vodka or sake instead of cachaça,” reads the campaign manifesto. “We do not accept that this drink, which is famous and respected around the world, be disrespected in Brazil.”
The campaign’s backers claim that currently, 60 percent of Caipirinhas in Brazil are made with vodka. Using the Russian spirit contradicts the official recipe registered with the International Bartenders Association which names cachaça as its alcohol base. Furthermore, a Brazilian law introduced in 2003 that Caipirinhas, “the typical Brazilian drink”, have an alcohol content of 15 to 36 percent and be made with lime, sugar and cachaça.
The campaign has attracted the support of thousands and is officially being supported by award-winning celebrity chef Alex Atala whose D.O.M. restaurant in São Paulo is regarded as one of the world’s best. Alex was the first signature on the petition and he is vocal about his support for the national firewater. “Brazilians need to embrace the treasure they have: a legitimate Caipirinha made with cachaça,” he say. “I would never use vodka in a caipirinha, only cachaça, our national drink”.
The campaign is not just about supporting cachaça, but more specifically about choosing an artisan cachaça rather than industrially produced. The quality of artisan cachaças is in the production, distilled using a maize fermentation process and distilled in copper pot stills. In contrast, industrial cachaças are chemically fermented and distilled in stainless steel pots, resulting in a harsher drink with a back of the throat bite.
While the difference in the processes and results is quite distinct, Brazilian law does not allow information on how drinks are made to appear on the labels, preventing consumers from knowing the level of quality of the cachaça.
With plans to demonstrate outside the Russian Embassy in Rio de Janeiro against the use of vodka in Caipirinhas and in Avenida Paulista in São Paulo, the Save the Caipirinha campaigners are taking the strictures of the cocktail seriously.
However, others take a less militant view, as the popularity of vodka Caipirinhas (commonly called Caipivodka or Caipiroska) attests. Jorge Brasil who has a weekend Caipirinha stall at Largo das Neves says “Many Brazilians prefer Caipirinhas with vodka because we’re used to cachaça and it’s something different. Traditionally, of course, Caipirinhas are made with lime, sugar and cachaça but they can also be made with different fruits or made with different spirits for example vodka, sake or rum. It’s just an evolution of the drink.”