Rhubarb Caipirinha

A Tonic of Spring: Rhubarb Syrup Cocktail is a modified caipirinha from Brazil

I’m a late bloomer. I came to appreciate cocktails only recently and now, a whole new “cooking” landscape has opened up to me. Making drinks is like cooking with liquids. Similar to colorists or alchemists, mixologists deal in essences.

Where cooking food is multi-dimensional, combining texture, flavor, color, etc., mixing a drink involves contrasting pure tastes to create a new, sometimes unexpected flavor. Mixology is to cooking what painting is to sculpture.

Basically, I’m a wine person. For one, my low tolerance for alcohol prohibits me from drinking too much. Hard liquor is too strong for me. For another, I worked in the wine business for five years, after living in France for ten, and came to love the complexity and variety of wine. French food purists know that drinking hard liquor before a meal numbs the palette, making it harder to discern delicate flavors. Wine makes food taste better.

These rules go out the window when traveling south of the Mason-Dixon line. I don’t order wine in tropical countries, choosing beer or cocktails (okay, and occasionally water). I like to drink local.

On a trip to Brazil, I discovered Cachaça, the distilled spirit made from sugar cane. Technically, it’s similar to rum except Cachaça is made from actual cane juice (instead of molasses, for rum). It’s used in the national cocktail, the Caipirinha, which is muddled lime, sugar and Cachaça over ice.

The word “caipira” translates as “hillbilly,” possibly referring to the fact that the alcohol originated in slave culture, where fermented cane juice was first consumed by sugar industry workers in the 16th-century. It was a cheap, fast high for generations of exploited people living in the hills. Colonialists tried to ban it, imposing prohibition (failed) in the 18th-century, and taxation (overthrown), until Brazil earned its independence in 1822 and the drink came to symbolize resistance to colonial rule.

Fast-forward to Brooklyn in the 21st-century, with a big bunch of rhubarb in my fridge. Yes, I make tarts and pies and compotes with rhubarb. I crave sour things. Why not a cocktail, to prolong my nostalgia for a wonderful trip to Brazil?

Make rhubarb syrup for use in this recipe or mixed with seltzer for a delicious non-alcoholic drink. Use the leftover pulp stirred into yogurt, or spread on toast. Look out for future cocktail postings; in Vieques, Puerto Rico, I made mojitos using wild rosemary and ginger. That’s something a late bloomer can learn to love.

Rhubarb Caipirinha
Serves 2

4 ounces white Cachaça
Juice of 1 lime
4 ounces rhubarb syrup (recipe follows)
2 lime slices, thin rounds
Mint sprig (optional)

Combine the first four ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Pour into old-fashioned glasses filled with ice. Garnish with a slice of lime and sprig of mint.

Rhubarb Syrup
Makes about 1 cup

1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1/2″ pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water

In a medium saucepan, heat all the ingredients to the boiling point. Turn down the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until the rhubarb falls apart, about 10 minutes. Strain over a bowl, pushing as much liquid as possible through the sieve. Keep strained rhubarb syrup in the refrigerator, covered, for up to one week. Or freeze to keep longer.