Liquid: Caipirinhas a boozy portal into Brazilian culture

It’s one of the most-ordered cocktails in two Austin restaurants. One expected, one a bit more surprising.

Estância Churrascaria is an 8-year-old Brazilian steakhouse in North Austin that delivers the heart and soul of its authentic menu, churrasco or grilled meat, on thick metal skewers until you’re stuffed. Since opening last summer, Mettle, Rainey Street empress Bridget Dunlap’s East Austin foray into the restaurant business, has served up stylized comfort food with Asian influences. The restaurants couldn’t be more different, but both have one thing in common.

The Brazilian caipirinha — a cocktail made with cachaça, a spirit similar to rum — is one of their top-selling drinks. It’s a fact that Mettle’s Mike McMillan didn’t expect. He created his version, the Siamese Caipirinha, with Thai chili and basil-infused cachaça, an addition that contributes a spicy, herbal kick to the daiquirilike drink.

But Gilmar Darosa at Estância wouldn’t expect anything less of the refreshing cocktail he’s had both here and in Brazil. After all, isn’t sipping on Brazil’s national drink key to the experience of going to a Brazilian steakhouse?

Both dining spots should get used to making more of them during the next month as the World Cup, this year in Brazil, heats up international interest in the South American country and its culture, traditions and, of course, its culinary landmarks.

“I think it’s going to pick up a lot of fans during the World Cup, cachaça especially,” McMillan said.

Before this month, the caipirinha hadn’t enjoyed much of a spotlight in the U.S. It’s not on many bar menus; besides Mettle, Takoba and a handful of other local spots, it’s mostly found at Brazilian restaurants like Estância. Its hard-to-pronounce name, McMillan said, means a lot of people point to it on the menu. “They ask for ‘that one,’” he said.

Downtown’s La Condesa and other local restaurants that don’t normally feature it will have it on special during the duration of the World Cup, and people flocking there to watch the games with other big soccer fans might be looking for a side of Brazilian culture to go along with their cheering. For only $6, the caipirinha, at least at Mettle and La Condesa, will be hard to pass up.

It’s also pretty easy to make at home. In fact, that’s how the caipirinha originated — not as a recreational drink, La Condesa’s Nate Wales explained, but as an herbal remedy when someone got sick. Garlic, herbs and lemon were all mixed in with the cachaça, a spirit made from sugarcane juice (which is also where rum comes from. But rum is distilled from molasses, the thick result of boiling those juices. When you compare the two spirits, cachaça will have a cleaner, grassier flavor).

The cachaça, Wales said, has probably been a natural byproduct of Brazil’s sugar export.

“It’s just like any spirit in history,” he said. “You distilled what you had. We had corn and made sour mash. The Scots had malt and made whisky. What can you distill, what can you use to get a buzz on?”

Eventually, the caipirinha evolved into what we know it as today: a sweet and refreshing subtropical blend of cachaça, simple syrup and muddled lime wedges. Swap out the cachaça for some rum and you would almost have a classic daiquiri.

As more and more people try cachaça, however, they become ardent fans who prefer the clear spirit. Darosa said it’s popular straight, too, and not just in caipirinhas. He recommends the brands Leblon or Cachaça 51.

McMillan prefers Ypióca. When he was creating the cocktail list for Mettle, he noticed the food menu had “worldly qualities, leaning French and Asian,” so he wanted to infuse the Ypióca with Thai chili peppers and basil leaves, filling up a large glass jar with two-thirds cachaça and one-third of the peppers and basil.

However you decide to make it or order it off the menu, there’s one obvious element about the caipirinha now that the World Cup is captivating international audiences — everyone is going to know its name. That’s ka-pee-reen-ya to you.

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