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At Ceiba, Head Bartender Babak Pakravan mixes up caipirinhas on a daily basis. He swears it’s all about how you cut the limes.
But when he first arrived at the Latin American restaurant near Metro Center four years ago, he’d never even heard of cachaça, the anchoring ingredient of a caipirinha.
“Cachaça technically is a clear distillate that they get from sugar cane, so that’s why they call it Brazilian rum, because… most rum comes from sugar cane. But there’s no molasses added to cachaça so it is clear,” he says. “They do an aged cachaça, so that’s barrel-aged but that’s more like an after-dinner drink like a cognac or something that you would sip on afterwards.”
Last year, the federal government officially recognized the liquor as a distinctive product of Brazil, and Brazil, in turn, recognized Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey as distinctive products of the United States. Since then, the American market for cachaça has expanded — and so has the stock at Ceiba.
When the restaurant first opened in 2003, it carried only two kinds of cachaça. Now there are seven varieties here, including two barrel-aged versions added just this year. Most of Ceiba’s cachaça is sold in caipirinhas, and lately Pakravan has been making a lot of them.
“Cachaça is having a major boom right now and the World Cup is a big catalyst for that. At the end of the day you’re talking about some sugar, some lime juice and a very interesting distillate that has a unique flavor,” he says. “It’s not vodka, it’s not rum, but if you mix those two sort of together you’re in between there. It’s a good binder, and it’s summer, so it’s refreshing.”
Caipirinhas are a staple of Ceiba’s happy hour menu, and during the World Cup, guests paid just five bucks to sip on the Brazilian national cocktail. Ceiba saw its cachaça sales shoot up by 18 percent. Pakravan says another key difference, aside from the sheer volume of caipirinhas being sold, was that people came looking for the drink.
“Before the World Cup, people would see it on the menu and they’re like ‘oh what’s that? Let me try that.’ But during the World Cup, thanks to social media, Instagram, Twitter everything, people were very knowledgeable about Brazilian food. We had street food going on here, as well and other Brazilian drinks,” he says. “Everybody came in here knowing what a caipirinha was, but they had not had it before so they were willing to try it.”
He says that element of novelty is driving the caipirinha’s surge in popularity, especially with D.C.’s younger crowd.
“I know people that are like starting rum collections or wine collections, and as early as 22. You know, back in my day that was unheard of, you know a 22-year-old didn’t think about collecting wines or rums,” he says.
Pakravan says consumers are more educated now, which creates more room in the marketplace for all spirits to grow. For the World Cup, he created a cocktail called The Nutmeg, using cachaça that he barrel-aged in-house. The drink was so popular that Ceiba is keeping it on the summer cocktail menu.
He says he’s seeing more cachaça being used around town, and not just at establishments like The Grill From Ipanema, a Brazilian restaurant in Adams Morgan. He says his colleagues in other bars are doing their best to come up with innovative, creative ways of using the liquor.
“Roofer’s Union is not a South American place and they had a swirling machine of caipirinhas,” he says, “and that’s how you know that it’s in the mainstream, when you go to Adams Morgan and there’s a swirling machine of frozen caipirinhas. It doesn’t get more mainstream that that.”
But at Hank’s on the Hill, a few miles southeast of Ceiba, “mixtress” Gina Chersevani isn’t so sure that caipirinhas and cachaça have quite reached mainstream popularity. She says folks can get caipirinhas in D.C., and she’s happy to shake one up, but it’s not exactly a widespread trend, at least not here in Capitol Hill, where people are more likely to order whiskey than rum.
Cheservani says there are more varieties of cachaça available now than there were just a few years ago. But even though the options grew from two cachaças to more than a dozen, she says the liquor still has a long way to go.
“Is it a huge growth market? Not yet. Does it have potential to be? I would say with the right marketing,” she says. “What we see is what we want, and if we don’t see it we don’t want it.”
While the average person might be familiar with caipirinhas, when it comes to cachaça, Cheservani says they don’t know if they want it aged or un-aged, and it’s not uncommon for people to ask for a caipirinha made with spiced rum, which at that point isn’t technically a caipirinha.
“Most people order drinks when they come in here and they’ll say ‘I’ll have a Manhattan.’ They don’t know what they want in it though,” she says. “They don’t know if they want a rye or a bourbon or rob roy or whatever. They don’t know what they want. They just know that they want that name of a drink.”
She says from an educational perspective, it’s going to be up to the bartenders to clue people in.
“I think that it is a great cocktail and I think it’s well-enjoyed,” she says. "I think it’s something you have to ask for, maybe not every bartender is going to have like everything you need to do it.”
But, she says the more that the public asks for something, the more readily available it becomes. Chersevani would love to see the market for cachaça grow, however she admits she’d like to see all spirits succeed. She says having more varieties of liquor available makes her job making cocktails that much more fun.
Music: "Homenagem A Mongo" (artist unknown) from Blue Brazil: Blue Note in a Latin Groove