Brett Helms is no stranger to pairing drinks to exotic cuisines. The former head bartender at spicy Thai specialist Uncle Boons traded the flavors of Bangkok for Brazil with Cozinha Latina (37 Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn; 347-889-7739), where cachaça is the spirit of choice for his fun, easygoing drinks.
The national distillate of Brazil appears in several different forms on the menu, but for those looking for a casual handshake with the drinking style of Rio, there’s nowhere better to start than with a Cuba libre.
“There are Brazilian Cuba libres made with cachaça, and that’s what we’re doing here,” Helms says. “It’s one of the most friendly, fun, easy drinks that exists on the market.” Rum — the spirit most often associated with Cuba libres — is derived from molasses. Cachaça is distilled from sugarcane juice, and the one Helms uses includes notes of vanilla bean, which adds a voluptuous quality to its profile. Mexican Coke is also employed in the drink because it’s sweetened with actual sugar instead of corn syrup.
Like a tropical-themed restaurant on the industrial Greenpoint waterfront, Helms’s career as a bartender and his appreciation for cocktails stands out on the scene. A bartender by way of the wine world, Helms’s stops include a (since closed) East Village wine store beloved by sommeliers; work with a mezcal brand; and that tenure at Uncle Boons, where he was charged with finding the right drinks to pair with the place’s notoriously spicy entrées. “I went to college in Santa Barbara, and the only wine I drank was pretty much out of a box. Then I moved to New York and got into it,” Helms says, reflecting on the experiences that brought him to the world of Latin American drinks. While his knowledge of cocktails has changed over the years, his approach to his profession has remained the same since his college days.
Helms says he took a few liberties with the way the Cuba libre is typically mixed. “You can grab a bottle of well rum, put it in a Collins glass with ice, and splash some Coke out of the gun on it. Or you can sit there and think about it, muddle some fresh lime to get the oils, to get the pulp, to get that mouthfeel. You can use the Coke that has real sugar in it, you can apply cachaça that’s going to kind of complement those qualities and sort of embrace the nature of the drink. Anybody can make anything, but making a good simple something is often more difficult.”
Cuba libre by Brett Helms
Half a lime
2 ounces cachaça (Helms opts for Cuca Fresca)
3 ounces Mexican Coke
Cut the lime into four pieces and muddle in the bottom of a Collins glass to get all of the fresh juices and oils out. Add cachaça. Give it a quick stir. Add square ice cubes. Garnish with a lime wheel. Give it another quick stir and drink it fast with a straw.