The Truth About the Caipirinha
Are you planning to toast the upcoming Football World Cup in Brasil with a Caipirinha cocktail? Drinks expert Bastian Heuser did some research on the topic a couple of years ago. And his findings haven’t lost any significance.
Before I start I have yet one thing to say: The following words shall not be of any judging nature. It shall be a brief description (not more and nothing less) of the way Brazilian bartenders (from the districts of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) prepare and serve this little and lovely piece of refreshment…. In the last 4 weeks of my travels I have had a lot of Caipirinhas. I have had them at little beach huts in the sizzling sun, I have had them in 5 star hotels overlooking the sheer madness of Sao Paulo, I have had them in all kinds of restaurants and bars and I even had one in a greasy diner on the highway from Rio to Sao Paulo. Every single one of them tasted better and pleased my palate more than pretty much anything I have been served under the name of “Caipirinha” in the whole of Europe. I asked myself: Why? What is the difference? And although I now do have a definite opinion on this drink, I want to leave it to you to judge and discuss the “best way” (if there is such thing). I just hope my “insight-informations” will help! We shall start where most (if not all) drinks start out at. The simple choice of:
1. Ingredients The limes being used in Brazil are not much different from the ones we get (persian limes) but they thend to be a bit bigger and juicier. (For the use of other fruits see. The sugar though is much different. Here in Brasil one uses white cane sugar of an amorph structure (not crystalized) which hardly costs anything but still seems to be unvariably expensive in European countries and not of real interest for export. This sugar is superfine and dissolves almost instantly when brought in contact with liquids. The third ingredient is the choice of “pinga” (Cachaca). Most bars I visited used either Cachaca 51, Ypioca or Velho Barreiro. Only a handful used other Cachaca. The mentioned ones are available for roughly 2-3 Euros per litre and display what we call “pouring brands”. Nonetheless there is always the possibility of an upgrade. (I shall get back to this later.)
2. Ordering When ordering a Caipirinha in Brazil, in most cases you will be asked for your choice of “pinga” but in all cases you will be asked for your choice of fruit. For Brazilians a Caipirinha is not limited solely to the lime but can be made with pineapple, mango, passionfruit, kiwi, papaya, etc. And they will not add these fruits to the lime but substitute it for the lime which in general will make a far sweeter drink. But Brazilians do have a much sweeter palate than we do and I must say that these “Fruit Caipirinhas” can be a welcome refreshment on a hot afternoon. Talking about sweetness: in a lot of restaurants and bars you will even be asked if you would prefer your Caipirinha with artificial sweetener instead of sugar…something that was totally new for me. Especcially the well-heeled (and well-proportioned) crowds of Rio seemed to prefer this way to cut down on one´s daily calory-intake. (What do you think about this? Is this something we should start to think about under the aspects of “customer service” or any other given aspects?)
3. Preparation Now we shall take a look at the preparation of the most popular kind of Caipirinha: the Caipirinha con Limao. In most of the places I visited, the bartender would cut off the ends of the lime, slice it in half and cut out the inner white pith. Then he would slice the halfs lengthwise and cut them in thin slices. These will then be muddled under the addition of 3-4 bsp of mentioned sugar in the guests´ glass. Some only take half a lime which seemed to be a bit dependent on the size of the actual glass used (in that case the sugar was reduced as well). Not one of my Caipirinhas was prepared with crushed or shaved ice. Only a handful contained cracked ice (in that case the ice was freshly cracked in the hand of the bartender using a muddle stick), most of them were prepared using cubed ice.
Every single one I had was shaken, mostly using a small plastic glass which fitted smugly over the guests´glass (kind of a speed shaker I guess). By the way: in general the glass that the drink is served in tends to be a bit smaller than we are used to. Nonetheless the amount of pinga is roughly the same (60 ml/2 oz). Straws are common but only to stir the drink up for the odd time or two not for actually sipping from it. You sip out of the glass. A nice thing I experienced a couple of times was the service of my Caipirinha with a small spoon, which somehow reminded me of Harry Johnson and Jerry Thomas.
4. Upgrades (“Pimping”) I have mentioned the possibilities of upgrades earlier on. There are supposed to be about 3.000 different brands of Cachaca available in Brazil. I have not quite had all of them but I had the odd one. I can therefore just give you a few examples of upgrades that I enjoyed in my Caipirinha, but be reminded: this is my personal taste, no judgement. Santo Grau, Minas Gerais, Germana, Minas Gerais Espirito de Minas, Minas Gerais Magnifique, Rio de Janeiro Armazem Viera, Santa Catarina – these cachacas (in my personal view) will enhance the drinking experience of a properly made Caipirinha. Sipping them on their own is up to you (in fact this would be a whole new essay so I will not get into that at this point). Just to let you know: the most popular upgrade of a Caipirinha within the Brazilian community is…a Caipiroska! They love vodka and especially people who seem to be a bit on the wealthy side would never order a Caipirinha. Caipiroska made with Lemons and artificial sweetener is more often their choice. Even a lot of bartenders I talked to choose this drink to be their personal favourite. Interesting, is it not?!
5. Prices Pouring cachacas are widely available at around 2-3 Euros for 750 ml, premium cachaca will set you back inbetween 8 and 12 Euros. For the really good stuff you can easily pay up to 300 Euros. Prices for the Caipirinha heavily depend on the location where it is consumed at (not the quality though). I have had some for as little as 1,50 Euros, I have had some for as much as 8 Euros but most of them were prized somewhere between 3 and 5 Euros (upgrades obviously being a different kind of party). A few closing words before I leave to Chile to find out more about their Pisco Sour: Damn me, I just love Cachaca! And I wish that, when I come back, I can start to find decent Caipirinhas in more bars around Europe. Maybe even the odd sipping-Cachaca next to the ever-expanding choice of rums. I’ll consume heavily. And leave good tips. I promise. Bottoms up, Beuser.
This article was first published at Bitters Blog in 2008. Note that prices mentioned in the article may have changed due to inflation.