The bittersweet evening

By
Benny Roff
Added
17 March, 2014

"The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.” – Orson Welles, a letter to the Coshocton Tribune, 1947

The cocktail hour is never so appropriate as when the heat of the day has started to give way to a balmy evening. The sun is still up and it won’t be dark for a couple of hours, but sitting outside on a porch, a balcony, or a deck with an aperitif before a late dinner is some kind of hazy perfection. Whilst this fantasy can be realised with such common household items as a cold beer, a glass of bone-dry riesling and a kabana, I’d prefer to dream of Mediterranean sunsets and focus instead on cocktails based on bitter aperitifs.

The bitter flavour seems to crop up in Italy rather more than it does elsewhere in Europe. Eating salads of treviso, sucking on pure liquorice lozenges, drinking espresso or chinotto. While many people will probably not immediately identify with enjoying bitter flavours, it is worth noting that after water, the most popular drinks on Earth are probably tea and beer, both of which are bitter. Even cola is based on the bitter kola nut.

To enjoy any of the bitter aperitifs, one requires no more finesse than to serve them over ice with a splash of soda, even when they aren’t typically enjoyed that way in their homeland. Amaro Montenegro is a prime example, in Italy it is drunk neat, and often after coffee or a meal. If you find yourself with the kind of hangover that makes you question your existence, however, hold out as long as you can by drinking water, eating too much breakfast, and making love vigorously with somebody you won’t feel guilty about afterwards. When that is no longer enough to keep your sedulous demons at bay (probably at about 11am for early risers and 3pm for late) simply top some Montenegro with soda and a slice of orange, and drink it in one go. The nature and quality of the ensuing leg up is astounding.

The Americano

There are two broad categories of bitters – spirit-based and wine-based – and both are important to this exercise. Probably the best-known of the spirit-based bitters after Angostura, which is usually only added by the drop, is Campari. A fellow by the name of Gaspare Campari, who had apprenticed to the great cordial makers of Turin, developed his formula in the 1860s and set up an eponymous café in Milan. A popular drink at the café was the Milano-Torino, where Campari was mixed with red vermouth (probably the most famous wine-based bitters, which is made in Turin). At some stage, the Milano-Torino was topped with soda and a slice of orange and became popular with either American tourists around 1900, or American soldiers during WWI, depending on which story you like better. The drink then became known as an Americano.

The Negroni

The foggy tale of the Americano is further obscured by the invention of the delicious and vastly popular variation known as a Negroni. If one is to combine a few stories, a certain General Pascal-Olivier de Negroni, or Count Negroni, invented the cocktail in 1919, some six years after his own death by ordering his Americano with gin instead of the soda. Or it was a playboy named Camillo Negroni, whose family went on to bottle a ready-mixed version in 1919. The truth of the matter is immaterial, the Negroni is delicious, it is summery without being in the least hydrating, and a few of them on a warm evening will almost certainly find you the next day drinking a Montenegro and soda. Perhaps a better summer version is the Negroni Sbagliato, or “wrong Negroni”, which replaces the gin with Prosecco, ideally by mistake.

The Spritz

Another glorious use of almost any spirit-based bitters, but none more delightful than Aperol, is the Spritz. It too has a story redolent of an inebriate:historian ratio that overwhelmingly favours the former. Most of the tales have in common that the drink has its origins with the Austrian soldiers stationed in Trieste during the nineteenth century who brought with them the Spritzer where white wine, typically Grüner Veltliner is mixed in equal proportions with soda water. The Italian adaptation adds a bitter, and tops it with Prosecco, or a mixture of Prosecco and soda. It is lovely, and whilst it can be garnished with an orange, it is far more fun with a really good green olive.

Standing in an Italian-run supermarket, it is easy to become transfixed by the dizzying array of aperitifs and digestifs on offer. My advice is to try them all.


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