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At the small bar inside Uxua’s restaurant on Trancoso’s quadrado I sat down for a drink. Mattia Balzarini, who supervises the bar, was experimenting with mixing different spirits with juices from the fruits that grow in abundance in the surrounding trees, such as caju, tamarind, and cacao. I wanted to try something new and he asked if I ever tried Netuno, then pointed to an odd looking spirit on the shelf. He poured a little bit in a shot glass and slid it over.
The very dark, almost cola like liquid had a strong, spicy ginger flavor followed by secondary, subtler fruitier flavors like cashew and passionfruit. I was immediately hooked. This was my Bahia drink.
“The fact is that Netuno is an appetizer. It’s low in alcohol so it often turns into 2, 3, or 4 glasses,” says Balzarini. “Most of the times we drink it with ice. Lots of ice. There are a few cocktails that you can make with it, as it goes really well with passion fruit or watermelon.”
Netuno was first produced by the Família Netuno in 1947 in a distillery in Ilhéus, a city on the Central Bahian coast. They created different versions of Netuno, which is essentially just alcohol and filtered water infused with different Bahian ingredients. There’s Netuno Jurubeba, the roots of a bitter tasting nightshade common in Brazil (Solanum paniculatum), and Netuno Catuaba, made with the medicinal bark of catuaba trees (Trichilia catigua or Erythroxylum vaccinifolium). However, Netuno Gengibre, infused with ginger syrup, has become the most widespread. If you ask for Netuno at a bar, that’s the one you will get. Now produced by the industrial distillery Incobel, they don’t even call the Catuaba version Netuno anymore. There’s also a collector’s edition, Netuno Ouro (gold), which lacks the caramel coloring.
After that first drink at Uxua, I began seeing Netuno everywhere. At Balaio, a small bar below a hostel on Praça da Independencia, they serve it straight over ice. At Uxua’s Praia Bar on the beach, they mix it with passion fruit and tonic for a Maracatuno. I found a bottle at a small market off the quadrado and was almost scared at how inexpensive Netuno was. The price was 12 real per bottle, less than $4, and that’s just because it was in Trancoso where things tend to be a bit higher. It was just 8 real elsewhere.
It is so cheap that the distillery doesn’t even produce their own bottles for it, so they recycle Pitú or 51 cachaça bottles and put their own label on. You can assume that the quality of cachaça they use for the base is rather low. But despite how inexpensive it is, Netuno has become something of a cult spirit in the region. At beach bars all along the Bahian coast, from Trancoso to Cumuruxatiba to Caraíva, Netuno is the drink of choice beachside and during celebrations. It’s refreshing in the hot sun and light enough in alcohol (just 14 percent) that you don’t get plastered, especially when the alcohol is watered down with tonic or fruit juice.
“The legend behind Netuno is that it heals any sore throat or flu because of the ginger syrup, but you have to drink it with no ice,” says Balzarini. “If anyone ever offers you Netuno, do not fear, it is a part of Bahia.”