Galeto Makes a Mean Caipirinha

Made from cachaça, it’s both ancient and new and may start popping up more frequently since it has been add to the International Bartenders Association’s list of standard cocktails.


Han Kim puts together a delightful caipirinha at Galeto.

Photo by Lori Eanes

Brazil might be the only country to have an official national cocktail. Its deceptively simple caipirinha (pronounced kai-peer-EEN-ya) comprises just three ingredients: cachaça, limes, and sugar. Furthermore, cachaça (ka-SHA-sa) itself is the purest, least complicated form of alcoholic spirit, distilled directly from freshly squeezed sugar-cane juice — i.e., outright straight-up sucrose — rather than from fruit or grain that merely contains fructose among many other components, as are all other spirits.

Due to this purity, simplicity, and the elemental nature of its raw materials, the caipirinha is the archetypal mixed drink, a cocktail deconstructed to its barest fundamental essence: sweet, sour, spirit. Nothing more.

Well, one more thing: Ice. Lots and lots of ice. Because Brazil is hot, and a lukewarm drink just won’t do.

Galeto Brazilian Steakhouse in downtown Oakland (1019 Clay St.)  serves a mean caipirinha, prepared the traditional way by manager Han Kim, who muddles the lime and sugar directly inside the glass.

“Brazilians drink caipirinhas constantly, not just for special occasions,” Kim said while crushing several fresh lime wedges at the bottom of a glass, along with spoonfuls of white cane sugar. “Life is too short to not drink caipirinhas.”

Once the limes were completely crushed, releasing not just the juice but also the piquant lime peel oil, he added a couple jiggers of Leblon cachaça, before mixing it up with a healthy dose of cracked ice and a perfect lime-wedge garnish.

“Most farmers in Brazil grow sugar cane, either for sugar-making or for biofuel. But the heart of each cane, with the sweetest, tastiest juice, is reserved for making cachaça,” noted Kim as he presented the finished cocktail.

Galeto’s caipirinha is vibrant and aggressive, almost like an electric jolt on the palate, the zing of the cold cachaça joining forces with the mouthwatering lime juice and pungent citrus-peel oil. The disaccharides in the cane sugar — proven in taste tests to be perceived by the human tongue as more exciting and flavorful than any other type of sweetener, especially the bland monosaccharides of fructose — unite the ingredients into a single vivid flavor.

“Caipirinhas go especially well with meat, because they act as a digestif and a palate-cleanser,” Kim explained.

As little-known at it remains in the United States, cachaça is actually among the most-produced hard liquors in the world, with thousands of distilleries in Brazil pumping out over a billion liters annually, almost all of which is consumed domestically in Brazil itself. Only a few ultra-

high-end artisanal cachaças, such as Leblon and Avua, are exported to the United States, where they’re beginning to catch on as the go-to ingredient for bright, vivid cocktails.

And no, cachaça is not simply un-aged rum. Real rum isn’t distilled from fresh cane juice, but instead from molasses, the smoky dark syrup left over from the sugar refinement process. (If it’s made outside of Brazil, however, the distilled liquor of fermented fresh cane juice isn’t called cachaça but instead is called rhum agricole, a confusing moniker that led to an international agreement in 2013 formally declaring that cachaça was definitely not rum.)

In fact, cachaça is the original liquor of the Americas, predating the invention of rum by over a century and the arrival of whiskey, vodka, and other spirits by yet another century or two. Cachaça is thus both ancient and brand-new — the International Bartenders Association only recently added the caipirinha to its official list of standard cocktails, despite it being first imbibed back in the 1500s.

Expect to see it nearly everywhere soon.

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