Toro wine director Courtney Bissonnette points to a foot-and-a-half expanse of top-shelf real estate, just to the right of a phalanx of aged bourbons, an inch or so to the left of a row of London-style gins. When she arrived at the South End restaurant back in November, these prime digs were occupied by distinguished scotch whiskeys. Soon after, she kicked the single malts to the curb. In their place: cachaça, a potent Brazilian spirit with no pedigree.
Distilled from sugar cane, cachaça (pronounced "kuh-sha-suh") was born on sugar plantations in the 1500s as a black-market product. Today, Brazil has more than 30,000 cachaça producers—and that’s just the legal ones. Some of the better labels have now arrived in Boston, where bartenders are trying out the grassy, piquant spirit on their regulars.
Into port-wine glasses, Bissonnette pours a flight of cachaças consisting of four-, eight-, and 16-year blends from Armazem Vieira, a producer from the Brazilian island of Santa Catarina. The first taste of the four-year Esmeralda has a twinge of heat that a grappa drinker will recognize, followed by notes of celery, along with cayenne from the tropical-wood barrels the cachaça is aged in. The native wood mellows the spirit and opens up new flavors: The 16-year Onix greets the drinker with the smell of fresh papaya and the taste of ground cinnamon.
Most people know cachaça as the lethal ingredient in a caipirinha, an icy concoction of muddled lime and sugar. But Chez Henri in Cambridge is putting a fresh spin on the cachaça cocktail—one that came easy. After hours, Brazilian waiters showed coworkers how to doctor a shot with honey, lime, and a squirt of hot water from the espresso machine. Soon after, bar manager Rob Kraemer created the Estrada Real (named for Brazil’s famed "Royal Road"): lime, honey, orange bitters, and Leblon cachaça, shaken over ice and served straight up.
At Green Street Grill in Central Square, bar manager Misty Kalkofen uses Beija, a brand of cachaça launched in January by two local entrepreneurs. She mixes it with lemon juice, cava, and elderflower liqueur in a rum punch she calls Mil Besos—"a thousand kisses." Your mouth could do a lot worse.