Sunday, March 3, 2013

Drank No. 11: Italian Amari, Campari and Negronisplosion

il Negroni sbagliato
Campari is one of a family of Italian alcohols called amari (plural of amaro). The literal translation of amaro is “bitter” but that really doesn’t mean the same thing so I’d stick to using the Italian word. There are lots of different amari. It seems like every village in Italy makes one. Besides Campari two other popular amari include Aperol and Cynar.

In Italy Campari is usually served as an aperitivo. The word sounds like appetizer and, essentially, that’s what it is. Think of an aperitivo the same way you think of an appetizer at dinner. For example, an oyster. Eating one makes you hungrier. It inspires you to eat more. Same for drinks. They should whet the appetite.

Amari are built from a base of wine, not liquor, so their alcoholic content is low, usually not more than 20%. That makes them a good choice before dinner.

Their origins are medieval. Monks macerated spices to extract their supposed medicinal properties. Amari are still chock full of spices and weirdness. Aperol has sixteen different ingredients, Campari has ninety-nine.

The modern development of amari began in the late 19th century in the café cultures of Milan and Turin. When you think of café  here you should erase any idea of Starbucks from your mind. These were grand places, with vast ceilings, windows and chandeliers. The waiters wore serious clothes. Table service was the norm. American doesn't really have an equivalent, the only thing I’ve seen that comes close are grand hotel bars.

In northern Italy, before dinner at a restaurant or trattoria, you’d take an aperitivo at a café. (It’s a tradition that’s still followed today.) You would make a reservation for a drink at one place and, later, a reservation for dinner at another. Doesn’t that sound splendid?

The best cafés had a position called the maître’ d di liquiriza —the liquor host. They worked in front of and behind the bar where they blended their own amari. A bar with a great liquor host who had a great proprietary amaro got a lot of reservations so they were kind of a big deal. The two most famous liquor hosts of their day were the friends Gaspare Campari and Alessandro Martini (the first half of Martini & Rossi, the vermouth).

These two celebrities collaborated on a cocktail, mixing their namesake alcohols, Campari and Vermouth, in equal portions with soda and a wedge of orange. The result was the Milano Torino, named after the two towns where they worked. It was the most famous drink of its day. No one calls it that anymore, though: U.S. soldiers fell in love with it and the name changed to the Americano.

Later, a Count in Florence 86'd the soda and replaced it with gin. He drank it in the afternoon, something you can do when you're a Count. His name was Negroni and the drink has been called that ever since. The Negroni has taken off in the last couple years and, to some extent, it's become a placeholder name for lots of 3-part coctails that use an amaro, a vermouth and something else. I even saw "Negroni of the Month" on a menu at a restaurant recently. 

The best of the new-Negroni lot has probably been been to replace the soda or gin with prosecco, an invention of Bar Basso in Milan where it was named il Negroni sbagliato or “the mistaken Negroni" (in the US it's usually known as "sbaglio"). Having ordered several over the past couple years I can assure you that as far as mistakes go it is delicious. Replacing 80 proof gin with prosecco nicely reduces the alcohol level which takes the Negroni—an aperitivo by nature but one that has too much alcohol to make you a reliable dinner guest—back to its role as a great pre-meal drink. Apparently the Milanese absolutely go bonkers for ice in il sbagliato, something you'll recognize as strange if you've traveled in Europe where ice cubes are rarer than white tennis shoes. It's often served in oversized wine goblets loaded with cubes.

I'm of the opinion that Negronis should be stirred, not shaken (and you can't shake a sbaglio—it'll ruin it). Shaking makes a completely different drink, changing the color of the Campari and adding bubbles which reduces the luxurious feeling on the tongue, one of the Negroni’s most lovely features. I've tasted one delicious variation where orange wedges were marinated in sweet vermouth overnight, caramelized on a flat top, then muddled into the drink. 

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