Even if you aren’t among the estimated 500,000 men and women trekking to Rio in August for the Olympics, that doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste of the South American experience. One easy way to do it? Buy a bottle of one of the region’s most popular local spirits.
According to Ivy Mix, 2015 American Bartender of the Year and co-owner of Brooklyn’s Leyenda, it’s a golden time for South American spirits in the States. “There are so many great drinks from the region that people here have never experienced. It’s really fun to try them out, learn about them, and see what you like,” she says. Take the Pineapple Caipirinha, for example:
4 (1- to 2-inch) pineapple chunks, rind removed
2–3 mint leaves
1⁄2 lime, cut into wedges
1 oz simple syrup
2 oz cachaça
Muddle the pineapple, mint, lime, and simple syrup in a shaker. Fill the shaker with ice. Add the cachaça. Shake vigorously. Strain and serve in a rocks glass filled with ice (crushed or cubes). Optional: Garnish with a wedge of lime or pineapple or a sprig of mint.
Learn all about the spirit this summer cocktail is made from below. This primer will teach you everything you need to know.
What It Is: The national drink of Brazil, it's a spirit made from fresh-pressed sugarcane juice. “It’s similar to rum, which is made with molasses,” says Mix. “But since cachaça comes from fresh ingredients, it has a funkier, fruitier taste.”
Why You'll Like It: Cachaça can be sold unaged or aged. Both are good—but the aged versions are more interesting. “There are around 30 different indigenous Brazilian woods that cachaça can be stored in, and each changes the flavor," Mix explains. Check out cachaça aged in amburana for a spirit with a warmer, more savory flavor, or balmwood, for a clove and anise taste.
How to Use It: The classic cachaça drink is a caipirinha. All you need to do is shake together simple syrup, lime juice, cachaça, and ice. Muddle in mango, papaya, or berries for a tasty twist. (Or pineapple, like the recipe above.)
What It Is: Think moonshine from Ecuador and you’ll have a good idea what to expect from this high-proof party drink.
Why You'll Like It: “It's been in production since 1780 with minimal changes,” says Topher Taylor, head bartender at Maia in West Hollywood, CA. Avoid flavored brands and look for Aguardiente—aka Fire Water.
How to Use It: Swap Zhumir for the rum in a daiquiri. Add some jalapeño and blend.
What It Is: A type of brandy, pisco is produced in the wine-making regions of Peru and Chile. It was first created in the 1600s by Spanish settlers to use up the region’s abundant grape crop.
Why You'll Like It: “Since it’s made with grapes, every blend and variety the distillers use can change its flavor,” says Mix. “There are floral varieties, sweet brands, dry—as with cachaça, there’s a lot to explore.”
How to Use It: “At my bar, I try to wean people off vodka and get them to try something as simple as a pisco and soda,” says Mix. “It’s a great option.” Taylor likes to swap it for the brandy in cocktails in the fall or winter. “It works really well with pineapple and sage flavors,” he says.
What It Is: A type of digestif said to help you process food after a meal, fernet gets its dark color and tart, black-licorice flavor by combining herbs (myrrh, cardamom, and saffron) with rhubarb and aloe, then adding that to a base of grape juice and letting it ferment.
Why You'll Like It: “I love fernet,” says Mix. You can pair it with everything. Just remember it’s bitter, so it’s not an entry-level drink. Ease into it.”
How to Use It: “Fernet and Coke is no joke," says Mix. “It’s really good and very popular in Argentina. I’d buy some artisanal sodas and experiment with combinations.”