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.

Advertisement

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.

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."

  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 30 2014 7:27 PM The American Horror Story: Freak Show Podcast, Episode 4 The “Edward Mordrake (Part 2)” edition.