Campari, Aperol, Fernet, Averna: the pleasures of bitters.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Sept. 1 2011 10:21 AM

That's Amari

A lonely woman falls in love with Campari, Aperol, and other bitters.

Negroni cocktail using Campari. Click image to expand.
Bitters can be used for Negronis, pictured, and many other cocktails

In the middle of the summer of her 40th year, Sophie Bitterson went very slightly mad, contentedly so. Retrospectively, reviewing her intense fling with a peculiar class of liquors, she counted herself a housewife corrupted by reading fiction.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

One Wednesday afternoon in late July, when Scooter and Sally were off at camp and Bob was back in the city "working," she assumed her usual perch by the rocks outside the vacation cottage. In her Adirondack chair, under her sun hat, with a tall cold salty dog at the ready, she cracked open For Your Eyes Only, a collection of tales about the problem drinker James Bond. She was not five pages into its first story, "From a View to a Kill", when Ian Fleming's analysis of a drink order touched something deep inside of her:  

James Bond had his first drink of the evening at Fouquet's. It was not a solid drink. One cannot drink seriously in French cafés. Out of doors on a pavement in the sun is no place for vodka or whisky or gin.... No, in cafés you have to drink the least offensive of the musical comedy drinks that go with them, and Bond always had the same thing—an Americano—Bitter Campari, Cinzano, a large slice of lemon peel and soda. For the soda he always specified Perrier, for in his opinion expensive soda water was the cheapest way to improve a poor drink.

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The back-handed endorsement struck Sophie with unusual force. Perhaps its invocation of the bright irreality of musicals was a contributing factor in this, as was its implicit contempt for the French. She enjoyed lingering in controversial realms. She enjoyed lingering for its own sake. She had the ingredients at hand. The bottle of sweet vermouth in the fridge was some other brand than Cinzano, maybe, but so what? The bottle of carmine-red liqueur in the cabinet was unmistakably Campari, a component in the Negronis by which her absent husband swore.

Sweetly sharp and bracingly bitter with a grapefruity tang, Campari is the most widely famous and readily located of those spirits known as bitters or amari, as they say in Italy, where a preponderance of them were devised in the 1800s. Concocted as digestive aids or herbal tonics, they boast of having been compounded from 13 or 33 or 53 distinct ingredients—roots and rinds and rhubarbs, barks and beans and spices, myrrhs and mysteries. Each is hyped with a tale that its proprietary recipe is known only to a select committee of six members or fewer, or to a lone distillery manager trained in anti-interrogation techniques. All were complex, Sophie knew, and she fancied herself a complicated woman.

She set the book down, abandoned the salty dog, went into the house, built the drink, and shivered with a fresh pleasure. The Americano was refreshing enough to quench a thirst and perk up an appetite but also richly sturdy. The summery piquancy of it flipped a switch, and Sophie began fiddling with other classic Campari drinks: Campari-and-orange one night, Campari-and-soda the next, Campari on the rocks with a twist of citrus the night after that….

The experience had an aspect of revelation to it. Sophie very much enjoyed drinking, which is not necessarily to say that she very much enjoyed getting very drunk, which is one reason why Campari suited her so well. At 24 percent alcohol by volume, it was none too potent, and its richness invited her to take undiluted pleasure in each drink's gradual dilution. Ice, baby! The cubes would melt and different balances of flavors would emerge, and Sophie would think lazily about what she was tasting, meditating on the changing dynamics of bite and admiring the shifting warm shades of the beverage. Two weeks into this, she found herself unreasonably glad to see that the color of her half-finished Campari Collins exactly matched the pink of the sunset.

One evening soon thereafter, she motored into the harbor on the Chris Craft and walked into a bar and shared her exploits with the bartender in a tone combining a confession of indulgence and a plea for further guidance. He wondered if she'd been introduced to Aperol. She said that she had not. He produced a bottle of this aperitif—11 percent alcohol and glowing lightly with an orange lusciousness—and fixed her up with an Intro to Aperol, a nectar firmed up with gin and tarted out with lemon juice and bound together with but a dash of Angostura bitters. She hung out, smacking her mouth at its succulence. Round two: An Aperol Spritz, a classic built with sparkling wine, fizzy with languorous glamour and candied decadence. The drink was like a buxom starlet with a bouffant hairdo soaking up the sun at Cannes.

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