A lonely woman falls in love with Campari, Aperol, and other bitters.
For round three, Sophie downshifted to Aperol-and-soda, which might have been a bit cloying but for a healthy squeeze of lemon. And also the fact that she had begun reasoning thusly: "If I down four normal cocktails in the course of two hours, then the CDC says that I, being a woman, am binge drinking. But an Aperol-and-soda is only one-fourth as stiff as a salty dog or whatever. Does it not follow that I can drink, say, 15 of these in a two-hour span and still qualify as a respectable adult? Downing 15 Aperol-and-sodas in two hours is an extremely silly proposition, granted; it seems to me that the point of these potions is to dawdle. But how could anyone object if, hypothetically, I were to sip down two dozen between the end of my afternoon kayak ride and my midnight snack?"
This train of thought was derailed by the arrival of the bartender's bartender friends, who were off work and up for anything. One among them ordered a round of Fernet Branca, neat, and Sophie got in on the action, making a stalwart effort to sip at a portion of liquified licorice. This was the most bitter of all bitters. There was none more bitter. This was like Jägermeister without the sweetness, or the subtlety.
Sophie was repulsed and, attracted to that repulsion, she consented to try a Fernet and Coke. It was an acquired taste, and she was not feeling acquisitive. The tasting notes she scrawled on her napkin made mention of medicinal mentholated musk and pixellated interstellar espresso grounds. "Is this, like, a thing?" she asked the tousled barmaid on the adjacent stool. "Why do bartenders drink Fernet?" Her interlocutor ventured that "in terms of shots, it's not as harsh on your throat as whiskey," adding, in a whiskey-stained voice, "and it really does settle your stomach." The fact of the popularity of Fernet Branca among professional drinkspeople was, to Sophie's mind, a proof of the cult-inspiring nature of amari in general. She took this as a comfort. Then she burped, ordered a vat of ice water, and retreated to a booth with her fancy phone, disappearing into the Internet to absorb the wisdom and whims of fellow obsessives.
Everything came to a head that Labor Day weekend, when Sophie and Bob were housing guests from Boston and New York—friends essentially pressed into service as importers of the more exotic items on Sophie's new knock-back-by-the-bucket list. "What can we bring?" they had asked, reflexively, in their innocence, only to be sent chasing after relatively rare delights in chi-chi booze boutiques. They crossed the threshold of the cottage to see their old pal Sophie tinkering with mixers and strips of orange peels like a mad scientist who wore, instead of a lab coat, a merino wool twinset.
With Averna—a caramel quaff from Sicily with the dark charm of a light port—and ginger ale, she made a round of Vertigos, and their zip was duly dizzying. With Ramazzotti—a root-beery entry from Milan—she could reach no greater heights than The Heights, which depends on gin and dry vermouth and grapefruit to moderate its aggressive stickiness. But she could do nothing with Gran Classico—which is now produced by the Swiss, which is probably the whole problem right there. Metallically spicy, a kind of herbal elfin whirligig spinning saccharine across the tongue, the Gran Classico was, unlike its peers, not even fit for drizzling atop a bowl of ice cream, and Sophie's disappointment was palpable. She scarcely had the will, that Saturday night, to properly stir her lobster risotto.
Consolation came the next evening, when, with a hard bite of autumn of the air, she cracked open a bottle of Cynar and sniffed at it and beheld the handsome artichoke on its snazzy label. This was the stuff, rich and strange. What could Sophie do with it? What couldn't she? Cynar had a vegetal depth—distinctly not musical comedic—that could carry her into fall and a mild spiciness that provoked intrigue among tipplers far less far-gone than she. In her glass, with but a hunk of ice and a sliver of lemon, it allowed her to elevate her lust for bitterness into a school of philosophy. Every sip put her in the puckish mind of a line from old ad for Moxie, New England's answer to Mr. Pibb: "I've learned to take the bitter with the sweet."
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph by Hemera.