One of my neighbors threw an open-house the other day to celebrate a newly remodeled kitchen. When I arrived, he was already holding forth behind a striking, eleven-foot granite island, muddler in hand, serving up icy Caipirinhas. Just the thing for summer afternoons.
This was only my second encounter with Caipirinhas, Brazil’s famous version of the rum sour. Its hallmark spirit is Cachaça, the Brazilians’ regional expression of rhum agricole. I was struck by how different the Caipirinha is from the other great rhum agricole cocktail, New Orleans’s Ti’ Punch, even though both drinks use the same ingredients and are built on the same formula.
Both drinks are made from rum (in this case, rhum agricole or Cachaça), lime, and sugar—the classic rum sour model. Both have a rustic heritage—they started as cheap, easy-to-make, déclassé drinks, but gained popularity and respectability over time.
It’s all about the lime
Whether or not you buy the idea that Cachaça is a separate class of spirits from rhum agricole, as the Brazilians insist, the choice of spirits is not the important difference between the Caipirinha and Ti’ Punch. The real difference lies in the traditions of their mixing—particularly in the preparation and assertiveness of the lime.
The Caipirinha is as much about the lime as it is about the spirit—lots of lime juice, and lots of muddled shells left in the glass. In Ti’ Punch, on the other hand, rhum agricole dominates the drink; there is only a bit of lime, just enough to be noticeable.
Neither drink has a “real” definition; people tend to make them any way they please. In fact, there’s even a custom of serving Ti’ Punch deconstructed—the host just puts out the ingredients for drinkers to mix, ad hoc.
Generally, it looks something like this:
- 1–2 tsp. cane sugar (or ¼–½ oz cane syrup)
- 1 large “coin” of fresh lime
- 1½–2 oz rhum agricole (Clément Vieux VSOP)
Add the sugar to the glass; squeeze the lime juice over the sugar, and (optionally) add the lime shell into the glass. Add the rhum agricole and stir well. Ice is optional. No garnish.
It seems that white rhum is the standard spirit for Ti’ Punch. I prefer the aged rhums agricole, and I have been very happy with the Clément Vieux VSOP.
That “coin” of fresh lime, as opposed to wedges, is a Ti’ Punch tradition, and this is the only drink I know of that calls for it. The idea is to cut rounds from the sides of the lime, cutting deep enough to carry along a worthwhile portion of the juice-bearing fruit. It’s much the same thing as cutting coins for garnish, but cut deeper so you squeeze juice, bitter pith, and lime oils into the drink.
This small amount of lime juice in Ti’ Punch, and the emphasis on the oils of the lime shell, reminds me of the design of the Old-Fashioned, in the sense that the drink one main spirit, slightly sweetened, slightly bittered by the lime shell.
Another often noted custom is the use of cane syrup as a sweetener. If you got it, flaunt it; otherwise, regular sugar or simple syrup will do just fine.
As you might guess, the field is wide open for modifications and embellishments. Matt Robold says it’s common in Martinique to add cinnamon, allspice, or honey to brighten Ti’ Punch.
The result is a slightly sweetened, rhum-forward cocktail. The lime is very much a background flavor, not asserting itself the way it does in, say, a Daiquiri.
Or in the Caipirinha:
- 1–2 tsp. fine sugar, or ½ oz simple syrup
- ½ lime, sliced into 4–6 pieces lengthwise
- 2–3 oz Cachaça (Leblon)
Muddle the lime pieces and sugar in a mixing glass. Add Cachaça, and stir well. Pour entire mix, unstrained, into a serving (rocks) glass; add ice to serve. No garnish.
The half lime in the formula works if you have the large limes typical of American produce shelves. If you can get the little Caribbean limes, do so, then use the whole fruit for each drink. Whichever you get, tradition says you should cut it lengthwise into enough wedges that they will muddle easily.
Some recipes specify fine, dry sugar to help with the muddling; some specify syrup for ease of mixing. (I’m in the syrup camp, since I get impatient dissolving sugars.)
Some sources suggest that the Caipirinha should be made very sweet. I’m against that—if you have decent Cachaça, you won’t need to jack up the sugar.
So the significant difference between these two sours isn’t so much the distinction between Cachaça and rhum agricole, as it is the intent and styling of the drinks. In the case of the Caipirinha, it’s clearly meant to be a big, sour, icy drink, a cooler for a hot, summer day.
Ti’ Punch, on the other hand, is meant to be very small, and emphatically about the rhum. The tradition of serving it warm suggests that it has never been meant as a hot weather cooler, but more as a quick tipple and socializer.
So is Cachaça really rhum agricole or not?
The Brazilians make Cachaça much the same way the Martinicans and other French-heritage Caribbean islanders make rhum agricole—by directly distilling fermented cane juice. (Most other rum makers distill from fermented molasses, the by-product of sugar manufacture.)
The result, for both rhum agricole and Cachaça, is a relatively light, vegetal, grassy spirit, sometimes with a little hint of smoke, yet fewer of the low, cooked notes of molasses-based rums. To my tastes, it has a slightly reduced impression of sweetness. The dry grassiness reminds some people of tequila; I think it’s safe to say that if you don’t like tequila, you won’t like rhum agricole or Cachaça.
Cachaça was more or less unknown outside Brazil until the past decade or so. The industry has improved its flavor and quality, and that, along with a concerted marketing effort, have started to give both the spirit and the Caipirinha cocktail a foothold in the US market.
Rhum agricole’s acceptance has also grown over the last few years; Ti’ Punch’s greatest popularity continues to be around New Orleans and in the French Caribbean islands (“ti’” is the Creole reduction of the French “petite” — small or wee.)
The salient difference between rhum agricole and Cachaça is that rhum agricole, by definition, is aged, while under Brazilian law, Cachaça can be sold either aged or unaged.
Most of the Cachaça we encounter in the US is of the unaged variety—to use a whiskey term, you might call it White Dog rhum agricole. The smaller category of aged Cachaça is undifferentiable from rhum agricole, despite the efforts of politicians, Cachaça manufacturers, and trade treaty writers to pretend otherwise.
Politics, money, and nationalism are at work here. But the laws are what they are, so if your rhum agricole comes from Brazil, it will very likely be called Cachaça. Whatever. It’s much like the Japanese making very good not-Scotch whisky, and the Canadians making very good not-Bourbon whiskey. I suppose the Brazilians think of rhum agricole as very good not-Cachaça. Nationalism, protectionism and mercantilism are far from dead, it seems, at least when it comes to spirits.
“Ti’ Punch and the Caipirinha” at cold-glass.com : All text and photos © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.