Fiery spirit is second only to beer in Brazil.

There’s a familiar growth spurt among spirits: (1) Scotch is popular. (2) Scotch drinkers visit Scotland. (3) Drinkers complain stateside Scotch is rotgut. (4) Liquor stores see a new market. (5) Single malt scotches are available for $200 a bottle.

Now it may be cachaca’s turn. In the U.S., cachaca is best known as the primary component of the potent caipirinha. However, Ollie Berlic, former sommelier for New York’s Gotham Bar and Grill, wants to convince America of the spirit’s subtle pleasures. He spent three years tasting more than 800 of the 5,000 cachacas in Brazil, where the fiery spirit is second only to beer, before developing his own line.

Cachaca (say kuh-SHA-suh), like rum, is made by fermenting sugar. However, rum starts with molasses; cachaca begins as sugar cane juice. Almost all cachaca that makes it into the states is not meant for drinking any more than, say, Vladimir vodka. However, as with tequila and scotch, Berlic says there’s a big difference between handcrafted and machine-made cachaca.

Last week, V Life Weekend brought three of Berlic’s cachacas to the Santa Monica offices of Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, owners of Border Grill and Ciudad. Feniger says that before they opened Ciudad in 1998, she’d never heard of cachaca. “Now we sell a ton of caipirinhas,” she said.

Sweet and smoky

Tastings were in reverse order: An eight-year-old Armazem Vieira Rubi followed by a five-year-old single barrel Cachaca Rochinha, both of which won gold medals in this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and then the meant-for-mixing Beleza Pura, which took a silver. It was 10 a.m., but an assistant appeared with a tray of striped shot glasses.

Milliken took a sip of the Rubi, and then another. “Mm,” she said. “Nice. That would make a great caipirinha.”

Feniger liked the Rochinha. “It’s definitely the sweeter of the two,” she said. “Smoky. What kind of wood was it aged in?” (Berlic says the oak barrels were once used for aging scotch.)

The Beleza Pura, however, served as a reminder that no matter how refined cachaca has become, it began as the hooch favored by Brazilian slaves. “Oh, man,” Feniger said. “That’s disgusting.”

If you’d like to know where Berlic’s cachacas are available in Los Angeles, email him at olie@excaliburenterprise.com. You can also order online at bevmax.com.

Ciudad’s Caipirinha Recipe

Serves 1

1 lime
2 ounces of cachaca
sugar to taste
ice cubes

Wash the lime and roll it on the board to loosen the juices. Cut the lime into pieces and place them in a glass. Sprinkle with the sugar and crush the pieces (pulp side up) with a pestle. (We have a long, wooden one from Brazil, made specifically for this purpose.) Add the cachaca and stir to mix. Add the ice and stir again. It is delicious and potent!

Copyright © 2005, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger

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