For many visitors to Rio de Janeiro, that first "I'm in Rio on vacation" sensation sets in with the first sip of a caipirinha cocktail. This head-swimmingly strong, dangerously drinkable combination sees cachaca (pronounced ka-sha-sa) rum mixed with lime, sugar and ice to create something truly magical (and a hangover that is notably less so . . .). But while classic caipirinha cocktails fuel many a fun night out in Rio, not everybody takes the opportunity to try out the national spirit in different forms.
That can easily be remedied with a trip to Academia da Cachaca (literally, "Cachaca Gym") in Leblon. This late-opening little hangout is a stalwart of the Leblon social scene, and a laidback alternative to the many too-cool-for-school establishments that attract a rather snooty crowd.
Old school cachacas — Photo courtesy of Mauren Veras
At Academia da Cachaca, drinkers can take their pick from a vast menu of sugar cane rum-based drinks, many made using aged versions of the spirit that are far superior to the cheap supermarket brands (the classic being 51, which costs around $4 a liter) that are used to make a standard caipirinha.
Take your pick from blends of delicious tropical fruits such as maracuja (passion fruit), banana and mango, or opt for one of the cooling frozen drinks.
A highlight is the version made with coconut water and topped with toasted coconut. Be warned: it goes down all-too-easily and feels more like a dessert than a boozy drink. The taster menu of three mini-caipirinhas is a good way to try a few flavors if you find yourself floundering over the vast selection of drinks.
To soak up some of that alcohol, a good-sized menu of bar snacks and more substantial dishes rounds up the usual suspects such as bolinhos de bacalhau (little fried balls of codfish with potato and herbs), pasteis (pastries that here come filled with shrimp, cheese or meat) and plates of sundried beef. The vast choice means that groups can order several small plates for sharing.
For more serious appetites, there are some heartier main dishes such as escondidinho (meat, chicken or fish covered in pureed potato and cheese) and some light salads for those with an eye on their beach bodies.
Should you feel inspired to try to whip up your own cachaca cocktails back home, the bar also has a small store selling a vast range of quality cachacas.