Cachaca, Caipirinha and a Cuban: a Great Afternoon

After having the best caipirinha we had ever had (in the States) at Artista last week, some friends and I decided to have a cachaca tasting at home and make our own caipirinhas. To go with our Brazilian drink, our Cuban friend was charged with providing the snacks. We had Cuban rice, tostones, poached eggs and a Cuban guacamole.

The caipirinha begins with a great cachaca. We found three at Spec's for our tasting: Pirassununga 51, Mae de Ouro and Leblon. Cachaca is liquor made from fermented sugarcane juice. That sounds a lot like rum, but the major difference is that rum is usually made from molasses, a by-product from refineries that boil the cane juice to extract as much sugar crystal as possible, while Cachaca is made from fresh sugarcane juice that is fermented and distilled.

While both rum and cachaca are made from sugarcane, they are processed very differently. They can be aged for years or not at all and have varying amounts of alcohol and sugar content. There are old-world producers and modern, industrial producers. It is a tasty liquor with an interesting Brazilian history.

The Caipirinha requires copious amounts of lime, a little sugar, crushed ice and cachaca. Our tasting began with Pirassununga 51. It is touted as the best-selling in Brazil; it is not aged and is 80 proof. We first did straight shots to taste them cleanly. After smelling it, we decided to have slices of lime dipped in turbinado sugar at the ready to chase it. It smelled like raw sugarcane and Everclear. The 51 had the burn of tequila, was not as sweet as rum and had a very oaky flavor -- almost like whiskey. It runs about $27 a liter at Spec's.

Second, we tasted Mae de Ouro. Aged one year in oak and 80 proof, it is handmade in small batches. We first noticed that there were things floating in the bottle. It was either sugarcane or flecks of the oak barrel, but there were lots of floaties. Smelling it almost made us drunk. It was like pure gasoline. It tasted more like it was aged in steel drums than oak barrels. It had a very petroleum taste and we wondered if it could fuel a car. There was nothing pleasant or palatable about it. One taster called it dragon water. It runs about $29 a liter.

Our last tasting was the Leblon. It is aged three to six months in XO Cognac barrels from France. Smelling of sugarcane and smooth, toasty notes, it tastes similar to rum, but as one friend described, "not Bacardi rum but the island rum that is served straight over crushed ice." It was definitely the best of the three cachacas and the clear winner of our tasting. With the winning Leblon, we made caipirinhas and our Cuban snacks.

We had a bowl full of cut limes, three sweeteners to pick from and our muddler. The basic recipe is limes, sugar, crushed ice and cachaca -- all pretty much to taste. We tried white sugar, turbinado and agave. After several drinks (because we had to try each sweetener, of course), we concluded that the best recipe and the one that came closest to our Artista experience was: lots of lime and agave muddled, crushed ice, Leblon cachaca and a splash of Perrier. Our late addition of Perrier was what sent them over the top. It was also the most expensive, but totally worth every penny. Leblon is $37 a liter.

In between all the drinking, we had been preparing the food. Farm-fresh eggs had been poached to have perfectly runny yolks, Cuban guacamole (red leaf lettuce, pineapple chunks and cubed avocado dressed with sea salt, olive oil and fresh lime juice) had been prepared, and the rice was perfect.

My Cuban friend uses Adolphus long-grain rice exclusively. She toasts the rice in a little olive oil and salt in the pot she will cook it in. She then adds water and a squeeze of lemon and cooks the rice with the lid off. She uses two parts water to one part rice and cooks it until al dente. I had never cooked rice without a lid and found this to be some of the best rice I have ever had.

We retired to the backyard with our drinks and cooked the tostones outside. Tostones are basically fried plantains. Peel the plantain, cut in one-inch chunks and fry in canola, peanut or grape seed oil.

Don't use olive oil, as it will impart too strong of a flavor. Fry them until they are just light brown, take them out and, using the peel, smash them slightly and put back in the oil. Fry the smashed ones until crispy and brown. Take them out and immediately salt. These are the tastiest snacks I have had in quite some time.

Our meal was perfectly light enough to complement the summery caipirinha cocktail, and it made for a delightfully Cuban and Brazilian afternoon. Salut!

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Patrise Shuttlesworth