Brazil tends to conjure images of lush tropical landscapes, sunny beaches and people dancing samba, Caipirinha in hand. For some, Brazil’s most famous cocktail has become a calling card for the country’s way of life. The Caipirinha represents our energy: refreshing, sweet and tart all at once. But to truly experience the country’s drinking culture, Rabo de Galo is what should be in your glass.
Originating on the counters of pés-sujos—“dirty feet,” or, the equivalent of American dive bars—that serve shots of hard liquor and party vibes beneath fluorescent lights, this democratic mix of cachaça, vermouth, Cynar and lime truly defines Brazilian cocktail culture and its mix of influences.
Rabo de Galo first became popular in the mid-1950s, when the Italian vermouth producer Cinzano opened a factory in bustling São Paulo, which was filled with recently arrived Italian immigrants. To compete with the ubiquitous consumption of cachaça, the native spirit, in local bars, the company introduced a foreign concept to Brazil: mixing two alcoholic bases in the same glass and calling it a “cocktail.”
However, the habit took off only after the company decided to translate the word. In Portuguese, galo means “rooster” (or “cock”), and rabo means “tail.” Soon enough, drinkers began to order cachaça and vermouth in a shot glass and, after “making an offer to the saint” (by spilling a few drops on the floor, a tradition in pés-sujos), they would chug the mixture, then dramatically slam their glasses on the counter.
Over time, the theatrical shot evolved into a cocktail that included a larger glass, ice cubes, lime and sometimes Cynar. And in the past decade, Rabo de Galo has grown beyond the no-frills bars to which it was originally confined. It has also gained access to pés-limpos (upscale bars) and the best cocktail venues in the country, with award-winning bartenders putting their own spins on the drink, all while championing the use of cachaça beyond the Caipirinha.
As the Brazilian cocktail scene seeks to highlight more drinks prepared with the local sugar cane spirit, Rabo de Galo has become a prominent symbol. “With the popularization of cocktails such as [the] Negroni in Brazil, local bartenders realized they had an excellent national cocktail [of their own],” explains Felipe Jannuzzi, founder of Mapa da Cachaça (“Cachaça Map”), a platform that highlights the spirit and its producers. (Editor’s note: This writer also contributes to that website.)
In big cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, it’s now almost impossible to find a bar with a serious cocktail program that doesn’t list a Rabo de Galo on its menu. Many choose to create cachaça blends, not unlike the rum blends favored by tiki bars, to highlight the full range of the sugar cane spirit, often including at least one expression aged in indigenous Brazilian wood, which provides more structure to the cocktail.
Some bartenders also use homemade vermouths to lend the drink extra dimension, or native Brazilian fruits to add a tropical spin. Néli Pereira, bartender at the São Paulo bar Zebra and author of the book Da Botica ao Boteco (From Apothecary to the Bar), created a version that uses pequi liqueur, made from a citrus- and cheese-flavored native fruit, to reinforce the Brazilian flavors in the drink. Another of her creations, dubbed Amaro de Galo, adds Amaro Averna to the expected mix of ingredients for an extra bittersweet take.
Because of the rising popularity of Rabo de Galo in Brazil, local bartenders have begun to lead an unofficial campaign to pressure the International Bartenders Association to recognize the drink in its cocktail list and include it in worldwide competitions. Currently, the Caipirinha remains the only official Brazilian representative, despite the fact that the Rabo de Galo is the most consumed cachaça cocktail in the country.
In 2017, bartender Derivan Ferreira de Souza, a pioneer of the Brazilian cocktail scene, created a national Rabo de Galo contest to further boost the profile of the drink. The goal is for bartenders to home in on their perfected recipes for the cocktail, create different versions of it, and make the push for the drink to gain recognition at restaurants and cafés, not just bars. This May, the competition will have its first international edition: In Portugal, bartenders from Porto and Lisbon will present their versions of the Brazilian cocktail, and in 2024, a bartender-led tour will promote Rabo de Galo in Germany. In short, the drink is gaining global popularity. “Introducing it into an international scenario will help make it a world classic displayed in many lists, which is where it belongs,” says Pereira.