If Brazil had a national love potion, it would be catuaba—one of the country’s oldest and most consumed liquors—named after the northern Brazilian aphrodisiac plant which goes into its making. First imbibed as an herbal infusion by the country’s indigenous Tupi indians earlier than 1500, the Tupis believed the elixir to stimulate sexual desire. About 200 years ago, the concoction matured into an aromatized wine made from a cheap, sweet base wine macerated with catuaba and other native plants like guaraná and marapuama, plus fermented apple juice for sweetness. While catuaba has been widely sold in Brazil, only recently has the drink gone craft, with quality producers creating their own spin on the ancient beverage.
In the last year, catuaba has caught on with Brazil’s younger generation, thanks in part to the liquor's sweet taste (watch out for that hangover!) and affordable price (one liter costs as little as $3). This past February, anyone who attended Brazil’s country-wide version of Mardi Gras, known as Carnival, would have spotted countless vendors selling the stuff, and it’s here that the liquor’s comeback could most readily been seen.
Similar to other macerated liquors such as vermouth and amaro, catuaba recipes vary by producer. Some incorporate fermented sugarcane juice, while others do not. But the one requisite ingredient in all bottles is catuaba, a botanical that belongs to the same species as the coca plant, responsible for ... cocaine.
Catuaba is named after the northern Brazilian aphrodisiac plant which goes into its making.
Though the Tupi indians were early supporters of catuaba’s aphrodisiac properties, there’s no scientific evidence in humans that proves the drink stimulates sexual desire (increasing libido and encouraging blood flow to one’s genitals) as some bottles advertise. However, in 2006, one of Brazil's major universities, Universidade de Campinas in São Paulo, conducted an experiment with rabbits which proved that catuaba does, in fact, encourage blood flow to the genital region.
Regardless, over the last decade, the Brazilian government has made moves to closely monitor catuaba marketing tactics. About 10 years ago, the government banned Catuaba Selvagem, Brazil’s most famous producer, from advertising any of the drink’s purported aphrodisiac properties. But Selvagem's classic label (created by celebrated Brazilian move poster designer, Benício), remains the same: a strong and virile warrior with a woman in his arms.
As catuaba continues to grow in Brazil, new brands hit the market, while bartenders experiment with homemade versions of their own. Sommelier Adiu Bastos of Michelin-starred TUJU restaurant in São Paulo makes catuaba at home by infusing the namesake plant along with herbs in a fortified wine, like port or Marsala. He then adds vermouth, cachaca, and spices. By using only good ingredients, he can get away charging as much as $25 for a 500ml bottle, selling to friends and anyone else who might want to try.
"On my recipes, I am concerned about having a balanced beverage, with fruity aromas, which reveals the spices I use. In one of them, for example, I put a vanilla bean, an expensive ingredient that makes all the difference ... I could never use artificial essence," explains Adiu, who goes on to say that he has made red, white and rosè catuaba, and he’s next considering a carbonated version.
Adiu became interested in catuaba years ago when he noticed that smaller producers were disappearing, as bigger brands began to monopolize the market. "Industrial catuabas are inspired by garrafadas [bottled, in English], a popular kind of beverage in Brazil made from aged infusions with medical and aphrodisiac properties," he states. "As my own taste grew more sophisticated, I realized that it was a bad, harmful drink. It is an industrial broth that doesn’t use real wine as a base and to which the whole periodic table of chemical additives is added. So, I decided to make my own." Now he and bartender/colleague Maurício Barbosa are planning to add a signature cocktail to TUJU’s bar menu using Adiu's catuaba.
Catuaba’s recent revival has been bolstered in part by São Paulo’s growing cocktail culture, thanks to bartenders there who have begun to champion the elixir. But rather than celebrating the liquor as a trendy beverage, local drinks researcher and mixology consultant Marco de La Roche embraces catuaba because of its cultural ties to his homeland: "You don’t drink catuaba because an actor from a famous series is drinking it, or because a former European president used to do it. You drink catuaba because your people drink it, your parents, your uncles, and acquaintances drink it. And that’s really important to define our gastronomic and beverage culture."
When São Paulo-based bartender Alex Camargo of Suri restaurant began to research traditional Brazilian drinks, he discovered catuaba, and decided to create his own using better ingredients. Camargo quickly realized that catuaba was like a Brazilian take on vermouth. "The main difference is that vermouth is mainly made with wormwood, a herbaceous, perennial plant that gives the beverage its name," he explains. "So I put some wormwood in my recipe and created a catuaba vermouth, great for cocktails or to drink plain."
Camargo sells his catuaba vermouth by request via Facebook and through pop-ups under the brand 2 Marias, and the liquor is also mixed into cocktails behind Suri’s bar. In his Cachaça Sour, Camargo adds cachaça infused with amburana seeds, sugar syrup, lemon juice, egg white, and his catuaba vermouth.
Meanwhile, bartender Rodolfo Bob of cocktail consulting company O Bar Virtual plays with catuaba in a booze-free way. He infuses the plant’s bark, along with spices and citrus, into a soda that’s stored in kegs then sold to bars and restaurants in São Paulo. Some serve the soda as is, while others use it in cocktails. Bob suggests adding cachaça and lemon slices for the perfect match.
Right now, Bob is working on turning one of his signature cocktails, Raspadinha de Exú, into a tap version, made with Brazilian peanut candy, cachaça, lemon, simple syrup and catuaba. "Kegged drinks are an option for the bars to provide Brazilian traditional drinks in an easy and conventional way, keeping our roots instead of using spirits and ingredients from abroad," he states. Bob is doing his best to make good catuaba drinks widely available. Thanks to him, the Brazilian love potion will be easier to find (and even better to drink) not only from street vendors carts, but also on shelves of top bars, where, according to him, it always deserved to be.