Drink the World: Rio

With the Olympics and the World Cup fast approaching, the Rio de Janeiro tourist authorities are no doubt about to fly into a media frenzy to persuade the world that their city is cuddly and fluffy.
04/24/2014 01:54pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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With the Olympics and the soccer World Cup fast approaching, the Rio de Janeiro tourist authorities are no doubt about to fly into a media frenzy to persuade the world that their city is cuddly and fluffy. And that is one way to look at it. But then a mountain lion is also cuddly and fluffy, when you think about it.

Rio is... edgy. By day it's impossibly intoxicating; a ridiculously attractive city where an overly thick coating of Hawaiian Tropic is considered dressy. But as the sun dips behind the beachside towers it become as exciting and dangerous as carpooling with Justin Bieber.

Rio is two cities in one, a potent, heady, occasionally uneasy mix of rich and poor, where hillside barrios undergoing military style pacification sit next to the expensive bars and restaurants of Copacabana and Ipanema; the latter where two poor songwriters once watched the same beautiful girl sway past them every day and immortalized her as 'The Girl From Ipanema.' There are a thousand girls from Ipanema in Rio. They pass you every moment of the day. There is not enough time to write a song for them all.

The drink of choice here is Cachaça, a cheap, raw, thoroughly ubiquitous local rum variant, for which the word formidable was pretty much invented -- and the Caipirinha, Brazil's national drink, and their gift to the world alongside Adriana Lima. It's a simple drink, just cachaça, crushed lime and sugar, proving that you can't beat simplicity, something many bars with barrel-aged ingredients and bespoke bitters could no doubt learn from. But no night in Rio is complete without it's tangy taste, no meal the worse for a couple beforehand. Even now my mouth waters at the thought of one.

In Brazil the saying goes "the worse the cachaça the better the caipirinha," and there is some really bad and spectacularly cheap cachaça to choose from. Thanks to Brazil leading the way in a biofuel known as 'alcool comum' -- essentially industrial grade cachaça -- even their cars run on the stuff. During Carnival meanwhile everyone runs on the stuff.

Carnival is a time when an entire city gets drunk. A party to celebrate the party itself. Rio explodes during Carnival, into life, the line between onlooker and entertainment becoming spectacularly blurry, into color, into sound; horns blaring, voices yelling, drums pounding day in and out. When silence finally returns to your world, most probably on the plane home, you won't rightly know what to make of it. The days after carnival are also pretty interesting. You don't often get to see an entire city hungover.

It is not an easy city to tackle, particularly at night. The simple rule is; if you can't see the next bar -- hail a cab. But it is a thrilling place. The electric combination of great bars, exciting nightlife and potentially impending violence is intoxicating. And Rio is a city desperately trying to clean up its act, but then even a career criminal wears a suit to court. That said there are few places better to sit on a pristine golden beach under a piercing blue sky as hawkers pass by offering cold beer, snacks and cocktails made right at your chair.

And by night there's no better place to hail a taxi.

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