These days I always get the urge to herbal

I can’t remember the first time I enjoyed Campari but I’ve a clear recollection of the second. . .

I never liked Campari, until I fell in love with it. The bitterness curled around my tongue like a warning: isn’t that precisely what bitterness is for, to alert us to danger? And what could be more dangerous than a peculiar herby drink the colour of a stop sign?

Look up bitter in the thesaurus. Unpleasant will be offered and so will disagreeable. Oddly, though, contradictory doesn’t show up anywhere – yet bitterness is the most contradictory of emotions and, it turns out, drinks. Love sours, friendship turns, success fades, and we become bitter – yet it is only remembered sweetness that makes us so. And Campari, as Victoria Moore’s book How To Drink points out, becomes sharper the more you dilute it, an attribute so perfect that I wondered whether she’d made it up. (I researched. She hadn’t. Something to do with our finetuned sensitivity to bitterness. Sweetness can be chased away but sourness stays with us – even in beverages.)

I can’t remember the first time I enjoyed Campari but I’ve a clear recollection of the second. I’d arrived for lunch at Pitt Cue Co in Soho, slightly hungover. I needed greasy meat of excellent quality, which I duly got; I’m still puzzled as to how I ended up with something called a Camp America, containing Campari, Bourbon and marmalade. I may not recall ordering it but I was happy to pay for it. Citrus and sugar found oak-aged corn liquor and the herbs that infuse Campari. Love blossomed. My hangover evaporated. I wasn’t stupid enough to try more than one.

Ever since, I get cravings for Campari. The tastebuds down the side of my tongue start to tremble. I salivate. A glowing red mist obscures my vision. I may need a simple drink with ice and soda, or a Baby Joe, that splendid combination with Prosecco and blood orange juice named by Victoria for her godson. I may require a Negroni, or to commit sacrilege and dilute a Negroni with soda water. (Don’t judge me. Sometimes the sour smack of Campari, gin and red vermouth needs a little cushioning.)

Occasionally, I lose the gin, and raise my Americano in admiration of Gaspare Campari, the 19th-century Lombardian who transformed his childhood trauma (pure speculation, this, but surely with that name, he was bullied at school?) into a booze business that exists to this day, invented a drink as Italian as passata and about the same colour, that’s known all over the world – and got away with naming a cocktail made with a liquor from Turin and another from Milan after the Yanks without causing a revolution. To be fair, there already was a revolution going on in the 1860s, and while I’d like to believe that Garibaldi was galvanised to unify Italy by the outrageous misrepresentation of one of its finest beverages, even with my slack grasp of history I have to admit that’s a little unlikely.

At least the Italian Risorgimento never invented anything as horrid as prohibition. Across the Atlantic, while Gaspare was selling aromatic vermilion liquor to his newfound countrymen, poor John Pemberton was being forced to come up with an alcohol-free version of his Wine Coca: a drink that would eventually unite the entire world in sugar-worship beneath a Campari-red banner.

Both companies still jealously guard their recipes but both certainly contain sugar syrup. What they do with that cloying substance tells you as much about the differences between Italy and the US as does a study of the differing ways they went about unification in the 1860s. I don’t think you can draw too many conclusions from the fact that one beverage is overpoweringly sweet, the other lastingly bitter, but if far more Italians drink Coca-Cola than Americans consume Campari, the former do at least have the comfort of knowing that their Americano will always be, to my mind at least, even better than the real thing.

 

A glass of Campari. Photograph: Getty Images

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times