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Don't Call it Rum: Cachaça Cocktails Around Chicago

By Roger Kamholz in Food on May 25, 2011 8:20PM

Brazil's national spirit is more versatile than you think. Best known as the stuff in a Caipirinha, cachaça has been appearing outside those traditional confines lately, as the star of imaginative spring cocktails at several Chicago restaurants and bars.

We've been fans of the Caipirinha for a while now, and have wondered what more cachaça had to offer. With one cachaça cocktail on his menu and a second forthcoming next week, bartender Peter Gugni of Wicker Park newcomer the Bedford is clearly hip to its potential. Gugni came to the Bedford from the Cantina, a San Francisco bar specializing in Latin American libations. "They had close to two dozen different cachaças," Gugni says. Tasting through the Cantina's collection gave him an appreciation for cachaça's subtleties. "You're trying each one side-by-side. That's when you can explore the possibilities of cachaça."

One such possibility: Edison's Medicine, a popular Bedford cocktail featuring Novo Fogo Silver Cachaça,Yellow Chartreuse, fresh basil, agave syrup and lime (recipe below). "It's very round and full," Gugni says of the Novo Fogo Silver. Its slightly unctuous texture can lend drinks a luscious feel. "It's a very simple cocktail, but all those flavors really come together and complete each other." The bright green, basil-tinged color of the drink looked medicinal to Gugni, hence the rhyming name.

Gugni will soon add a more complex cachaça cocktail to the Bedford bar menu, the Joyelle Loire. Gugni won a competition in San Francisco with a version of this drink, which employs Novo Fogo Gold Cachaça, Combier orange liqueur (from France's Loire Valley), lemon juice, orange juice, cinnamon-infused Campari and absinthe. The switch to a gold cachaça - which indicates barrel-aging - was deliberate. "Because it's aged, you get more of those oak notes," Peter says. "I was trying to bring those out a little bit."

While many drinkers, and the U.S. government, consider cachaça a rum not unlike what's produced in the Caribbean, there are major differences between the two products. First, to be called cachaça, it must be made in Brazil. Second, Caribbean rums typically rely on molasses as their source of sugar for fermentation. Cachaça is distilled from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice, making it a closer relative to rhum agricole, a product out of Martinique, in the French West Indies. (Cachaça distilleries are lobbying the U.S. to grant the spirit a unique designation.)

"I think you get these more brighter, floral notes on it, which makes it a little more mixable," Gugni says of cachaça, "whereas some of the light rums maybe are just more petrol. You might get some oily notes. So I think it's a little more bright and fun, and I think a little more palatable to people when you get the right brand in front of them."

The bar at NAHA is also dabbling with cachaça. There you can sample a Batida, another classic Brazilian cocktail, which traditionally blends cachaça with coconut and fruit juices. NAHA adds a twist with a dose of VeeV Açaí Spirit, made with the famous Brazilian "superfruit." The Caliente! cocktail at SushiSamba Rio goes the spicy route, combining Leblon Cachaça, passion fruit and mango juices, and aji panca (a South American chile) simple syrup. Of course, you can't go wrong with a classic Caipirinha; Sable Kitchen & Bar gives its version a richer kick, opting for demerara syrup over white sugar. And at the home lab, we've even found that cachaça nicely balances out a Hemingway Daiquiri, perfectly complementing the citrus juices and standing up well against the richness of maraschino liqueur. As the mercury charges skyward this summer, we expect our cachaça experimentation will continue in earnest.

Edison's Medicine

1 1/2 ounces Novo Fogo Silver Cachaça
1/2 ounce Yellow Chartreuse
1 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce agave syrup
3 sprigs fresh basil

Gently muddle basil in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add remaining ingredient and ice. Shake hard and double-strain into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with orange zest.