By Ted Henwood Photos courtesy of Leblon

A last-minute email inspired me to purchase a ticket to the inaugural Gourmet Latino Festival that kicked off June in New York, offering a slew of experiences in Latin-inspired foodie-fun. Over the course of the weekend long festival 40 gifted chefs and a horde of highly regarded drink-makers huddled together to celebrate the culture and gastronomy of Latin America. Levantameurtos (awaken the dead) Foods & Cocktails, a brunch celebrating regional Mexican dishes paired with morning cocktails, was my first choice (morning drinks — right on). It was such a delight that it inspired me to stick around and poke my greedy snout into the next room for a tasting seminar on Brazilian food and cocktails.

Upon entering, my nose was struck by the wafting scent of culinary delights that author and chef Leticia Moreino-Schwartz had created to entice us. The most amazing was her Pão de Queijo, which I might shamefully describe as a cheesy, delicate, chewy, non-greasy, tiny-and-cute Hushpuppy. An apparent staple in Brazil, this little bun has been obviously perfected by her.

The seminar commenced with speaker Olie Berlic, the un-official Ambassador of Brazilian Rum, as he fired on all cylinders raging about his favorite white liquor. His commitment to leave a permanent impression and convert many to his devotion for this Latin spirit was truly infectious.

And thus, armed with Olie’s inspired spiel and a belly full Leticia’s Pão de Queijo, I now stand ready to talk Brazilian Rum…and what first must be declared: Brazilian rum does not exist!

Ok, “Brazilian Rum” exists, but merely as a legal term created by the American government to categorize a South American spirit. Well, maybe another government somewhere on our globe makes the same gaffe, but, according to Olie, Brazilian Rum does not exist in Brazil. Why? Because in South America’s largest country (and the only Portuguese speaking country in all the Americas) the spirit that is distilled purely from the fermented juice of fresh pressed cane is called — Cachaça!

And Brazil loves its Cachaça. Loves it so darn much, that it ranks third in the world of spirit consumption, due mostly to the country’s very-official cocktail, the Caipirinha. For the less traveled or mono-linguistic like myself, the correct pronunciation of this bastion of Brazilian booze is: KAI-PUR-EEN-YA, the accent duly noted on the EEN. Like the Martini it may be prepared a thousand ways, but the basic agenda is such: drop half a lime cut in thirds into a sturdy rocks glass and muddle gently (to avoid too much bitter oils), dump in two teaspoons of sugar, the kind that dissolves fast, pour in 2 oz of your favorite Rhum Agricole from Brazil, and stir. (Oooops, another worm just escaped the can. To be brief, before returning to directions for the proper Caipirinha, Rhum Agricole is “Caribbean Cachaça” – a French style pure pressed cane juice fermented and distilled on the Islands; unlike its cousin rum, of which 95% produced in the world finds its pedigree from molasses, a burnt sugar by-product of cane processing.)

The Caipirinha, by many, is said to be shaken, not stirred. Shaken if you prefer “instant gratification,” according to Olie. If you’re in Brazil, where it’s almost required to have an hour to kill enjoying the national libation, stirring is preferred. Your cocktail will transform with your keen and lazy attention; the ice will slowly melt and the sugar will dissolve more fully. What started out a pretty powerful drink becomes softer, more refreshing, and something you can continue to drink all day long in the hot sun without fear of falling over. The shaken kind consumed in sequence leads to Samba and fornication, and should be reserved for Carnival or other such festive moments outside of Brazil.

Consider these numbers: 6.4 billion Caipirinhas are consumed each year by us, the world’s population; 5,000 brands of Brazil’s noble spirit are in circulation; it may be aged in 20-35 different types of woods, most of which are indigenous to the country.

So, how to choose a good Cachaça so you may return to it often? Well, the simple guidelines are similar in choosing beautiful blanco tequila. The appearance should be clear and bright; the aromas clean, complex and pleasant; the balance vibrant and rich; the finish long and seductive.

And if you wish a recommendation, here is one way ahead of the curve that I offer up with as much respect and regard as I give to the Ocho tequila blanco 2010 bottling (yes, get that one ASAP as well). Yet, this recommendation does come with a particularly frustrating caveat and further acknowledgement — the genius-rascal Steve Olson, somewhere summer skiing, collided with a truly magnificent Cachaça as yet unavailable in the U.S. of A. So, put this into your Google alert: Fazenda Soledade + new import + Brazilian Rum + Cachaça + Rhum Agricole + the soul of Brazil! When that ping comes pinging, plan a party, shake ‘em hard and invite me over for soccer, Samba, or the sunset. And if the party hits on July 11th, World Cup Finals, and everyone’s wearing bright yellow, I’m certain it will be all three.

Oh, and on a final note, I encourage you without a moment’s hesitation to Samba over to I know one CEO and founder (Steve Luttmann of Leblon) who will be most appreciative, and you might learn a little about the hoops and hurdles of the TTB if you are of a mind to rename Genever “Holland Gin.”