Drinking the Bottom Shelf: Cachaca da Roca
Bottom Shelf research director Emily and I recently decided to re-sign our apartment lease, with mixed emotions. Our building is OK but we could do better for the money; there are all sorts of fancy amenities that don't interest us, such as underground parking and unintimidating neighbors. I'd rather trade in the meek empty-nesters—who, to their credit, never make noise and rarely steal my FedEx packages—for an extra bedroom or better dive bar proximity.
But we have to stay another year because I just bought cumin seeds for a Guinness beef stew recipe. We can't move because I can't stomach the notion of tossing a nearly full jar that still has that new-cumin smell, and because I decided last year that my spice-packing days are over.
Since I move just about every year, I figured this would introduce a regularly scheduled culling of the spice herd. This plan was enacted partly to appease the Meisters and Falkowitzes of the world who insist that ground dried things do indeed have finite shelf lives, and partly because I can't handle a repeat of the melancholy that came with last year's realization that my unopened paprika had lived in five apartments in five years (carbon dating provided by minimart price sticker).
I resolved on that spot to make more goulash and/or move less often. I still don't know what goulash is other than the first thing that pops up when you Google "Why did I buy paprika on East 86th Street in 2006?" But that detail has nothing to do with this review of Cachaca da Roca ($11.99 per liter; 80 proof; very good; not directly related to my spice cabinet or rental history, so it's going to have to wait), so let's refocus back to the fact that I'm not going to throw away or move next-to-new cumin.
Since we won't be wasting weekends and money packing, moving, and spice-replacing this spring, we've decided to go on a few more field trips than usual. First up is Amherst, Massachusetts, to revisit the scene of six of Emily's college years. I shacked up with her for the final nine months of her tour, and I felt out of place as the only able-minded male between the ages of 18 and 80 who was not directly affiliated with one of the local colleges, bars, or pizzerias, but I have fond memories of free cable and approachable mixologists.
I mostly write about cheap, simple booze, but I'm a sucker for a really well-made fancy drink. There are plenty of places to get them in Boston and New York, the cities I've been bouncing around for the last dozen years, and I regret that I was halfway through my Amherst tenure by the time I discovered bartenders Kristin at Amherst Coffee and Colin at Tabella's.
Kristin and Colin certainly didn't look the part to someone accustomed to New York and Boston craft cocktailers: I never saw either of them in a funny hat, a vest, or a tattoo. They were both clean-shaven at all times. Kristin was a pretty, preppy grad student and Colin was just some regular dude. Yet despite these considerable mixological shortcomings, they taught me more about high-style liquor than any big-city bartenders have.
So it was in Amherst that I finally had the courage to start asking about hard-to-pronounce foreign liquors. I'm not afraid to try new things, but I'm afraid to sound silly mispronouncing new words, which is why it took me so damn long to finally order a caipirinha, which to us lay people is a kind of Brazilian daiquiri made with cachaca instead of rum (the primary definitional difference seems to be that cachaca is made from fermented sugar cane juice, whereas most rum comes from sugar that's already been molassesized.)
I'd never ordered it before, because I feared being misunderstood if I mangled the drink name and forced the poor bartender to ask asked for clarification on the recipe for the "Chiapaferrohscrewit" Then, extra-flustered, I'd yelp "You know, the one with kahitachaBudLightplease."
But Colin walked me through the name of the drink and its leading liquor, and I'm a better man for it. Before I knew we were heading back to visit him, I bought my own bottle of cachaca for the first time. I went with the cheapest one in the store, naturally, which turned out to be Cachaca da Roca, which the importer claims is the best-selling version in Rio.
I like it. It's less sweet than most light rums, and it has an earthy, vegetal side mildly reminiscent of tequila and, to a somewhat lesser extent, cumin.