In Defense of Cheap Liquor

Paul Blow

The first time I tasted a bottle of Leblon Cachaça, I was impressed: satiny with a sweet hint of vanilla and an easy finish. It’s aged briefly in XO Cognac casks, making it smooth and rich … and, at around $30, more expensive than other brands.

Does the better spirit make the better cocktail? I tested Leblon against a few cheaper cachaças with the help of a Brazilian friend. We tried them straight as well as with the muddled lime and sugar required for a Caipirinha. That’s how most cachaça is consumed in the United States, though in its native Brazil it’s often sipped straight. Leblon was a delicious sipping cachaça. But it made my least favorite Caipirinha.

Call it the lime (or lemon) and sugar test. Every place in the Western Hemisphere where alcohol is distilled and limes are grown also has an iconic cocktail made with the two: the Margarita, the Caipirinha, the Daiquiri, the Pisco Sour (the latter usually made with lemons). And the test works: I’ve tried each one of these lime-and-sugar concoctions with different brands of the base liquors, and the less expensive, less refined spirits always make better drinks. With sugar and lime, the more expensive liquors consistently result in cocktails that are too smooth, too rich, too round, and not that interesting. But the cheaper spirits make cocktails with dynamic and attention-getting textures—a little unpolished, but appealingly so.

In spirits, there’s lots of pressure to spend more money. And, for the most part, consumers are buying into it, not only with cachaça but other spirits, too. A 2006 report by a Pace University professor called “The Surging Global Tequila Market” states that the U.S. super- and ultrapremium tequila market is expanding rapidly and is linked to “trends to connoisseurship in a growing gourmet culture.” I’d like to see the word connoisseurship used less as a euphemism for willing to pay more and more as a function of consumers truly getting to know their product.

So when it comes to cachaça for a Caipirinha I like it clear (no wood aging) and a little coarse. Beleza Pura, Sagatiba, and Cachaça 51 are all good bets. And when I want a sipping cachaça, I can turn to Leblon.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.