Drink of the Week: The Campari Cocktail

The Campari CocktailSo, you’re starting a new job requiring a long enough commute from your home that it will ultimately require a costly move. Then, the second day of your aforementioned lengthy commute, your car starts hesitating in stop-and-start cross county traffic. Next thing you know, you’re staring down the barrel of a big, big transmission repair bill while suddenly finding yourself with a rented Ford Focus in your driveway instead of your charmingly banged-up Buick.

When that happens, you don’t want a drink that requires a lot of fuss. It’s better if it trying it out helps finish up some nearly empty bottles, lightening your liquor load on your impending cross-megalopolis move.

So, I’ll spare you the usual classic cocktail history lesson as well as the tortured connection to current events or this weekend’s holiday. (Could any cocktail possibly be appropriate for Memorial Day, anyway?) This is clearly a time when you — by which I obviously mean “I” — want my evening cocktail to be simple, stimulating for the taste buds, and strong — which is why I’ve gone and doubled the amounts for my version of today’s DOTW. Feel free to halve it if you’re situation is different or if you’ll be driving anytime soon.

The Campari Cocktail

2 ounces Campari
1 1/2 ounces vodka (preferably 100 proof)
2 dashes aromatic bitters
Lemon or orange twist (fairly optional garnish)

Combine Campari, vodka, and bitters in a cocktail shaker. Shake as vigorously as you can manage and strain into — what else? — a chilled cocktail glass. If you like, throw in a lemon or orange twist — it can’t hurt and it might help. Sip and, if you you’re not likely to give a significant amount of your personal worth to a mechanic, thank your freaking lucky stars.

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I’ve praised the oh-so-sweet and then oh-so-bitter one-two punch of Campari before while discussing the hugely underappreciated Negroni as well as the oh-so-refreshing Americano. As the name implies, here’s a drink where the Campari flavor is really and truly front and center, perhaps too much for some folks. Certainly, replacing the gin in the Negroni with vodka (and actually using less of it), doesn’t do anything to complicate the drink or stand in the way of the Campari flavors, even if they could use a bit of leavening. That’s why I think I found adding in the stronger flavor of 100 proof Smirnoff resulted in a more satisfying taste experience as well as a more effective attitude adjuster.

Vodka-disliking cocktail snobs won’t be surprised that, while I’ve tried this drink with a number of brands, the results with the 80 proof vodkas, however, didn’t vary by much. Indeed, the very cheap Seagram’s and the much more high-endish Kettle One I used to make it didn’t really change the experience by that much. Still, since I like Campari, I’m declaring that a reason to like this drink. In fact, next week’s drink will also feature it, but it’ll be just a mite more complex…unless something else happens to my car.

  

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Drink of the Week: The Americano

the AmericanoOf all the boozy discoveries I’ve made in the relatively short time I’ve been writing DOTW, easily the most personally fascinating to me is Campari and the great cocktail made with it, the Negroni. Mine is a lonely passion, however. American bartenders tend to play down Campari and Campari-based drinks, even while they usually stock it. It’s not hard to see why because it’s a dangerous drink, taste wise. It’s essentially the bitterest of bitters mixed with the sweetest of liqueurs. When you drink it straight — and you really should, just once — the sweet part leads the charge followed by a sharp, intoxicating punch of bitterness. Pleasure followed by a punishment I personally find quite addictive.

Fortunately, the Negroni is not alone among Campari-based cocktail classics. This history of the Americano goes back the mid-19th century, when it was first known as the Milano-Torino before the Italians noticed that we Yanks we’re taking to the drink. No doubt, that was because it does such a great job of softening the Campari 1-2 punch.

Wikipedia also points out that the Americano is the first bar order made by James Bond in Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. Relax, however; you don’t have to be a super-spy to enjoy this and you certainly don’t need to be a super-mixologist to make it. In fact, it’s a perfect drink for lightweights and/or lazy bartenders with a mild adventurous streak.

The Americano

1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
Carbonated water
Orange slice or lemon peel (optional, but desirable, garnish)

Pour equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth over ice cubes in a rocks/old fashioned glass. Top off with carbonated water of your choice. Add citrus slice/peel of your choice. Stir.

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If you’d like a bit more hydration or if you’d like to put a bit more distance between yourself and the Campari bitters, it’s also perfectly acceptable to make an Americano in a Colllins/highball, leaving more room for the carbonated water. As to the type of soda water, club soda or plain seltzer/carbonated water are fine, though I understand 007/Ian Fleming suggested using Perrier with it in the short story, “A View to a Kill.” On the other hand, since that magnificent snob recommended using the French mineral water as a relatively inexpensive way to improve “a bad drink,” he couldn’t possibly have been talking about the Americano.

  

Drink of the Week: The Pimm’s Cup

Pimm's CupLike Campari, Sambuca, and the like, Pimm’s Cup #1 is a bottle you’ll see at a lot of bars but which, at least here in the States, no bartender ever seems to open and which most barfolk will tend to discourage you from trying. They have their reasons because, on its own, it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s a concoction of gin and various herbs that has a nicely sweet but also fairly bitter flavor. It’s somewhere between a liqueur and Angostura.

It may be a little harsh straight, but it can mix very accessibly. A popular cocktail classic in the UK that has been referenced on both “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire,” Pimm’s Cup, the cocktail, combines this relatively low alcohol (50 proof) base spirit with various types of soda and fruit and vegetable garnishes.

In my experiments, I avoided some of the very elaborate recipes which are more like very large and very wet fruit salads and eventually settled on the simple recipe below, adapted freely from the method used by Minneapolis mixologist D.J. Kukielka. It’s a winner — a tasty refreshment for lightweights with discerning palettes.

The Pimm’s Cup

2 ounces Pimm’s Cup #1
4 ounces (approximately) ginger beer or ginger ale
Cut-up cucumber (to taste)
Cucumber slice (garnish)
Lemon slice (garnish)

Place cucumbers in cocktail shaker and muddle. (Having an actual muddler on hand is a real help here, and essential if you want a truly well-stocked bar.) Add Pimm’s Cup #1 and ice. Shake very vigorously and strain into a Tom Collins glass over ice (preferably crushed). Top off with ginger ale and garnishes. Stir with swizzle stick or barspoon.

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I’m barely exaggerating when I say that there are a million recipes for this beverage on line, and they’re all pretty different from each other, which I suppose befits a drink that is something like the British equivalent of sangria. I get the impression that you could pretty much throw any fruit you can think of in, if you want. Still, I had by far the best luck with the recipe above and, though it’s more expensive, ginger beer does work slightly better than good old Canada Dry.

If you want to be really authentic, however, be aware that the original recipes often call for lemonade. The confusion here is that what the British call lemonade and what we Yanks call it are two different things. UK lemonade is a lemon soda which some compare to 7-Up — and many online recipes specially call for American-style lemon-lime soda — but Brits inform us that true British lemon soda tastes fairly different than our uncolas. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city like Los Angeles with a large British ex-pat population and specialty stores to go with it, or want to go online and don’t mind spending a little extra cash, I bet you can find some and go full Brit.

  

Drink of the Week: The Negroni

It is with some shame that your humble writer admits that, until a few days ago, he had never tasted Campari. In case you don’t know, Campari is theoretically a very popular Italian apéritif — that’s “before dinner drink” to us English speaking barbarians — that’s essentially a drinkable variety of bitters. You see it consumed with soda in European films and every bar in the world seems to stock it but, classic spirit or not, nobody we know seems to drink it or anything made with it.

So it was with great curiousity that yours truly brought home a bottle of the stuff and broke the lifelong Campari drought. First, a surprising and delicious burst of orangey sweetness reminiscent of a really tasty Italian vermouth, then, a bracing bitterness. A bit strong and not 100% pleasant in the usual sense, but fascinating. Time for had another sip.

the NegroniYep, it was good to take the bitter with the sweet. It was better to try the most famous cocktail made using Campari.

The Negroni

1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce dry gin
Twist of orange peel (garnish)

Shake like the dickens and serve in a chilled martini glass. Semi-optional final step: swirl the orange twist around the rim of the glass and “express” it (twist it) over the drink. Drop it in.

If the above seems a bit too sweet for you, feel free to increase the gin slightly and decrease the Campari and vermouth. (David Wondrich‘s version is 1.5 ounces gin to 3/4 ounce Campari and vermouth, and it works beautifully.)

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Folks, I’m going to drop the “royal we” I’ve been using and say in the first person that I really love the Negroni. It appeals to my sweet tooth while also being plenty refreshing on a warm summer day and offering a delicious complexity thanks to the one-two sweet-bitter punch of the Campari, softened by the sweet vermouth and with a terrific tang coming from the gin. For some reason, bartenders I’ve met are skittish about this drink and it has a somewhat “difficult” reputation. My take is that, if you can enjoy a Manhattan, you’re probably more than definitely ready for a Negroni and it’s a lot more accessible than a martini. I love this drink and think you will, too.

The Negroni is often served on the rocks, particularly in Europe, but I tried it that way and, like most “up” drinks served on the rocks, the results were not exciting, almost sickly sweet. It’s also often served anti-James Bond style, stirred and not shaken, on account of the bar worker’s lore that gin should only be shaken when non-alcoholic ingredients are present. I tried that too and decided that worrying about the gin here was complete balderdash. Negronis demand a good shaking.

Oh, and if you’re wondering where the name comes from, it’s simple enough. It seems that a turn-of-the-20th-century Italian count named Negroni was drinking another Campari-based cocktail, an Americano, (we’ll cover that some other time) and wanted a stronger version with some gin in it. That’s the whole story.

  

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