La Dolce Amaro

“The room was sumptuous with those over-masculine trappings which, together with briar pipes and wire-haired terriers, spell luxury in France. Everything was brass-studded leather and polished mahogany. The curtains and carpets were in royal blue. The waiters wore striped waistcoats and green baize aprons. Bond ordered an Americano and examined the sprinkling of over-dressed customers, mostly from Paris he guessed, who sat talking with focus and vivacity, creating that theatrically clubbable atmosphere of l’heure de l’aperitif.” — Ian Fleming, Casino Royale

The Americano seems a fairly nondescript drink with which to kick off such a legendary drinking career as that of James Bond, though it’s doubtful that at the time he was writing Casino Royale Ian Fleming was thinking that the Americano would be examined as the drink that started an international phenomenon. Ian Fleming came of age during one of the great eras of imbibing (American Prohibition notwithstanding). A good many 19th Century drinks were still well known, and a good many 20th Century drinks were being invented at a dizzying speed. It was the time of hardboiled detective fiction, colorful pulp fiction anti-heroes, of bootleggers and rumrunners and Nick and Nora Charles. It was a time when we were having a relieved and weary drink after the end of one World War and hunkering down together at the start of another.

By the time he sat down at the desk in his Jamaican villa to write Casino Royale, mid-century cocktail culture was growing rapidly. By the 1960s, the time of the first adaptation of one of Fleming’s 007 novels into a movie, cocktail culture was in full bloom. And that cultural icon had the ability to mint new cultural icons, merely by mentioning them or depicting its hero drinking a particular brand or style, or staying in a particular hotel, or wearing a particular suit. And in the passage that introduces us to the Americano, Fleming’s attitude toward it seems relatively benign, perhaps even warm. And why not? It’s a simple, enjoyable cocktail. Perfectly harmless, difficult to screw up. It’s unlikely that Fleming put much more thought into James Bond’s first drink beyond the reasonable, “What would a man be drinking in this setting?”

Americano

  • 1 oz Campari
  • 1 oz Cinzano
  • Soda water
  • Add Campari and Cinzano over ice in a chilled highball glass. Top with chilled soda water, stir, and garnish with an orange wheel.

But by the short story “From a View to a Kill,” (originally serialized in the Daily Express in September, 1959 and later part of the short story collection For Your Eyes Only) in  Bond’s opinion of the Americano’s ability to contribute to a fun and easy cocktail hour seems to have changed dramatically. Oddly, what he seemed to enjoy about it in Casino Royale is exactly what irritates him about it in “From a View to a Kill.” As Bond sits at a Parisian street cafe called Fouquet’s (99 Avenue des Champs-Élysées), he orders an Americano, which he describes as “not a solid drink.” Not because it was poorly made for him, but because it’s a poor drink in general, though Bond’s dismissive attitude quickly seems to resolve into something more to do with the French, and with Paris, than with the cocktail.

“One cannot drink seriously in French cafes. Out of doors on pavement in the sun is no place for vodka or whisky or gin. A fine a l’eau is fairly serious, but it intoxicates without tasting very good. A quart de champagne or a champagne a l’orange is all right before luncheon, but in the evening one quart leads to another quart, and a bottle of indifferent champagne is a bad foundation for the night. Pernod is possible, but it should be drunk in company and anyway Bond had never liked the stuff because its licorice taste reminded him of his childhood. No, in cafes 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 soda, he always stipulated Perrier, for in his opinion expensive soda water was the cheapest way to improve a poor drink.”

So much for the joie de vivre of l’heure de l’aperitif.

The Italian Connection

Even when he’s in Italy — having an Americano at Florian in Venice (which is still in operation, in the Piazza San Marco; it opened in 1720 and claims to be Italy’s oldest cafe) while wasting time in the short story Risico — Bond can’t escape tying the drink to France, as his quiet afternoon’s contemplation by “a couple of French culture-snobs discussing the imbalance of the containing facade of St. Mark’s Square.” It is a shame that the simple, innocent Americano gets swept up in 007’s Parisian wrath. It’s not even a French invention (nor an American one), though the French played a key role in introducing American cocktail culture to Europe in the late 1800s. But the Americano traces its roots back to Italy, and more specifically to cafe owner Gaspare Campari and his Caffè Campari in Milan.

Born in Cassolnovo, Lombardy, in 1828, young Gaspare Campari was an early entrant into the world of drinking, procuring himself a job at Turin’s Bass Bar. Byt the time he was fourteen, Campari was considered a maitre licoriste at a time when such a title would have made him one part bartender and one part apothecary. Turin was a hub of aperitif and digestif production at the time, and Gaspare Campari became adept at the art and science of blending a base liquor — usually a fortified wine or neutral grain spirit (a spirit distilled from grain and filtered to have no particular flavor of its own; think vodka, or the base of blended scotch whiskey) — with an assortment of herbs, spices, and other botanicals that results in a wide variety of flavors, though most Italian drinks of this nature showcase a bitter quality.

By the 1840s, Gaspare Campari’s concoctions were being sold throughout what would become — but was not quite yet — Italy. In 1860, he had enough money and experience to found Gruppo Campari. Settling in Milan, he also opened the first of his cafes, in 1862, and it was here that he took his signature Campari aperitif from Turin, mixed it with Cinzano Italian vermouth from Milan, added a splash of soda, and dubbed it the Milano-Torino in honor of the two cities from which its ingredients originated. During Prohibition, American citizens prowling the world for a decent drink settled into Gaspare’s Caffe and became huge fans of the Milano-Torino, which was subsequently renamed the Americano in their honor. 

Campari was a keen businessman who, in partnership with his son Davide, expanded his Campari liqueur far beyond the confines of his own bar. Gaspare and Davide commissioned artists to paint exquisite advertisements for Campari, and they would then make the popular bitter available to other cafes and bars on the condition that they displayed Campari advertising — which was no difficult pitch since the Campari ads were usually gorgeous. Gaspare died in 1882, leaving his canny son in charge of Gruppo Campari and the cafes. Davide, as legend has it, also took Campari international in pursuit of the love of Lina Cavalieri, a popular opera singer he had met while he was working at Caffe Campari. Cavalieri was relocating to Nice, in the French Riviera, and Davide did not want to part with her. So he decided it was time to take their popular bitter liqueur international, beginning with — coincidentally — Nice.

In her time, Lina Cavalieri was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world, and surviving photos of her lend substantial proof to the claim. She was also considered rather a middling singer, and surviving recordings of her lend substantial proof to that claim as well. Orphaned at the age of fifteen, she became a ward of the state but chafed under the strict stewardship of the nuns of the Catholic orphanage in which she was placed. When the opportunity arose to sneak out and join up with a traveling band of performers, she took it. Her travels brought her eventually to Paris, where her looks and a decent singing voice got her jobs singing in cafes, then later music halls and the popular Folies Bergère.

Folies Bergère would later become most famous as the home of jazz age superstar Josephine Baker, who debuted — among other things — her infamous banana skirt at the theater. It was also the subject of a painting by Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, in the early 1880s. The Folies still exists, by the way, at its original location 32 rue Richer in Paris. And while James Bond was too busy being crabby about the French while drinking his Americanos to ever swing by the actual location, in the 1971 film Diamonds are Forever he does find time to take in the Las Vegas recreation of the Folies Bergère at the Tropicana — which was originally started by a man named Ben Jaffe, who also owned the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, where Bond stays during his Florida jaunt in Goldfinger.

Lina Cavalieri’s opera career began properly in 1900, at the Theatro San Carlos in Naples, where she appeared as Nedda in a production of Pagliacci. It was considered a disaster of a debut, and the bad reviews followed her to Lisbon, Portugal, where the opera was also performed. There were serious doubts that this chanteuse from the cabarets had what it took to be an actual opera star. Her singing was thin. She was confused by the choreography and often changed her tempo, throwing off the conductor. Her acting was criticized as awkward and unfeeling. But she was beautiful, so people still came to see her, and she worked hard at improving, taking lessons with accomplished performer Mariani Masi.

If accounts of her performances are to be believed, it wasn’t exactly money well spent, but what she lacked in talent she made up for with looks and bravado. Her opera star continued to rise both in Europe and the United States, where she stayed on for two seasons at the Metropolitan Opera, where she was paid $1,000 a night — a sum substantially higher than that of the Met’s biggest diva, Geraldine Farrar. By this time, Cavalieri was referred to as the world’s most photographed woman, not to mention the world’s most beautiful. Luminary of the Italian Decadence movement, writer Gabriele D’Annunzio called her “the personification of Venus on earth.” Italian painter and designer Piero Fornasetti considered her his muse, using her likeness in over 350 creations. Not one to sit idly by, Lina capitalized on her popularity, opening a cosmetics store, writing beauty guides, and even parlayed her fame into a film career, in Italy originally and in the United States once World War One disrupted the Italian cinema industry.

She unsurprisingly attracted a long list of well-off suitors, the first of which was Prince Alexandre Bariatinsky of Russia, in 1900. Her marriage to the prince didn’t last. Neither did her marriage to her next husband, painter Robert Winthrop Chanler of New York’s storied Astor family. They divorced on their honeymoon after his family discovered he had been convinced to sign a prenuptial agreement with Cavalieri, leaving her the whole of his fortune. A bitter court battle ensued, resulting in the family disowning Chanler and the Met disowning Cavalieri. No one wanted to be on the bad side of the Astors. Her next marriage, to French tenor Lucien Muratore, didn’t last, either. It wasn’t until her fourth marriage that she seemed to settle down. You will notice, much I am sure to his chagrin, none of these husbands was named Davide Campari.

She was living in Italy with her fourth and final husband, Paolo d’Arvanni, when Italy joined the fray of World War II on the side of Germany. WHile trying to collect some of her valuables during an Allied air raid, both Lina and Paolo were killed by bombing on February 7, 1944. As fate would have it, one of her many famous performances was in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (the reviews of her performance were mixed, but Puccini himself loved her, exclaiming “Cavalieri was magnificent!”), in which she starred as the title character during her time with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In Act II of the opera, Manon is arrested by a jealous military officer after she delays escape in order to gather up her jewels and clothing.

Enduring love may have never blossomed between Davide and Lina, but Gruppo Campari took off. In 1904, they opened their first large-scale production facility, in Sesto San Giovanni just north of Milan proper. In 1923, having weathered the Italian war of unification and the First World War, Davide focused the company on production of a single recipe, and it is that recipe that is known today as Campari. Originally, it’s distinctive red color came from the same source as much other red coloring: dye carmine, made from crushing cochineal insects. For decades, this was how large-scale red dye for food products was produced, but in the Internet age, sensational stories about the beetles you were unwittingly eating and drinking circulated, causing predictable panic among the portions of the world not accustomed to knowingly eating bugs. In 2006, Campari ceased using carmine in its production. And because this is the modern age, the outrage that caused the dye to be reformulated itself caused an outrage among purists who did not want to see the time-tested Campari recipe altered in any way. However, since the Internet tends to amplify relatively meager registry of discontent into an international din of rage, it’s likely that both the reaction to the change and the impact it had on the flavor of Campari is slightly blown out of proportion.

Why So Bitter?

Davide Campari died in 1936, but the company he left behind, built on the bitter herbal liqueur his father mixed the century before, was a juggernaut. Today, Gruppo Campari is one of the largest international beverage companies in the world, and though Campari itself remains one of only two products they produce themselves (the other is Campari bitter soda), they own companies all over the world producing all manner of spirits, including SKYY Vodka, Wild Turkey bourbon, and even the other key ingredient in the Americano, Cinzano sweet Italian vermouth, which Gruppo Campari acquired from beverage behemoth Diageo in 1999.

So, why does Fleming change his tune so dramatically in regards to the Americano? It seems that the drink is really no more than unfortunate collateral damage when Fleming begins to associate it with something he really dislikes: Paris. In the late 1950s, The Sunday Times commissioned Ian Fleming to write a series of travelogues about his impressions and favorite parts of some of the world’s most famous cities. Collected in 1963 into the book Thrilling Cities, there is a fair bit of cranky grousing, as one would expect from Fleming, as well as the sort of breathless enthusiasm for exotic locales that informed many of the author’s James Bond novels. But while Fleming’s impressions of New York City were generally regarded as a hatchet job (so much so that he issued an apology by way of a short story, “007 in New York,” which went to great lengths in its relatively pointless few pages to communicate the fact that, while author Ian Fleming despised New York, James Bond loved it), at least New York made it into the book, as did Hong Kong, Macau, Tokyo, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, Geneva, Naples and Monte Carlo. Paris — inarguably one of the most important and historic cities in Europe, if not the world, was conspicuous in its exclusion from Fleming’s jaunt around the globe.

While words from Fleming himself on Paris are sparse, he makes clear his (presumed) distaste with the city through James Bond, most acidically in the short story “For Your Eyes Only,” a good portion of which seems dedicated to Bond musing on how much he hates Paris. Although hating Paris, and France in general, is a common sentiment among many veterans of the Second World War, who never forgave the French for surrender to then collaborating with the Germans. But Bond’s surly attitude toward Paris is more complex, and when he muses that “It was the heart that was gone — pawned to the tourists, pawned to the Russians and Roumanians and Bulgars, pawned to the scum of the world who had gradually taken the town over. And, of course, pawned to the Germans,” which leads into a tirade about the sorry state of French architecture, could have been a short, terse passage from Thrilling Cities.

Campari is a variation on bitter Italian liqueurs known collectively as amaro (plural: amari). The only real difference is that Campari is used primarily as an ingredient in cocktails while amaro proper is meant to be consumed on its own (“neat”) or perhaps with the addition of an ice cube. In many ways, amaro is to Italy what scotch is to Scotland — not just a national drink, but a national identity, a representative of cultural heritage. And just as it is with scotch whisky — and indeed with pretty much every spirit that will be mentioned in this book — pinpointing an exact when and where for its creation is pointless and impossible. These things are not created whole and out of thin air one day, after all, but evolve over a period of decades, one thing becoming the next, until someone bothers to write a recipe down or gets caught distilling and has to pay tax, thus codifying that particular beverage or entering it into the public record and giving us all a date to which we can point. And so while amaro, or something very much like it, has likely existed well before the 19th century, that’s the easiest place to take up the story, because that’s when people started writing the story down. 

Amaro is a diverse category of liqueur which comes in a variety of styles, proofs, and flavors — though as with whisky there is an underlying common character that binds them together — with an assortment of regional variations, exist in France, Germany, and throughout the Alpine regions as well as Eastern Europe. It’s one of those many European alcohols that locals classify as a digestif (aiding in the process of digesting after an exquisite James Bond style meal), except when they are classified as aperitifs (aiding in the opening up of the appetite, in preparation for that same meal). They classified as bitter drinks, except when they are sweet. Just about all of them claimed, at some point and like just about every type of booze, to have incredible medicinal properties, curing everything from heartburn to flatulence to high blood pressure. And for the most part, they are made from an infusion of secret herbs, usually in a fortified Italian wine or a grappa (grappa being, more or less, “Italian brandy,” distilled however from the leftover skins of wine grapes rather than from the wine itself), except when it isn’t. In other words, it’s a pretty loose and diverse umbrella category that allows for a lot of creativity and madness on the part of the creators of assorted brands.

For both Americans and the English, the flavors of amaro can be a bit of a challenge at first. While bitter is not an unusual flavor in the grand scheme of things, its position as a pleasurable and even desirable taste is relatively new — or rather, it was common, then it fell out of fashion for a long time, and it has recently started to re-emerge as part of creative and haute cuisine. There are a number of basic categories of amaro derived from strength and overall character, one of which seems to be “everything else that doesn’t really fit into any of the above categories. A “medium” amaro is one with a moderate alcohol level (more than wine, less than whiskey — usually somewhere in the range of 32% alcohol by volume (ABV), which is around 64 proof; wine is typically 12-15% ABV, whiskey anywhere from 40-60%). Two of the most popular brands of medium style amaro are the Milanese Ramazzotti, which tastes like a slightly bitter root beer, and the Sicilian brand Averna, named after its creator, Salvatore Averna, who came up with the recipe in 1868. Medium style amari usually showcase a balance between bitter, sweet, and citrus flavors.

Fernet style amaro are the bury troublemakers of the liqueurs, with a much more pronounced bitter flavor dominating under notes of citrus, earth, mint caramel, and saffron, among many others (some brands of amaro have as many 40, 50, even 60 or more ingredients as part of their herb and spice bundle) and a much more substantial alcoholic content (roughly equivalent to that of whiskey). Fernet Branca is one of the most famous of this style, and perhaps the best known amaro in the world outside of Italy and the name of which has been dropped everywhere from the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel Tender is the Night to the 2012 Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises, in which the character of the butler Alfred (played by iconic British actor and a mainstay of espionage films Michael Caine) describes the perfect retirement, which is sitting at a cafe in Florence, drinking a Fernet Branca — which is exactly what he does at the end of the film, at the La Loggia Bar & Restaurant in Fiesole, just northeast of Florence.

Fernet Branca is also one of the few brands of, well, pretty much any spirit, created by a woman — or so the story goes (that old qualifier again). That particular woman was Maria Scala, who in 1845 supposedly finalized the formula and intended it to be used, like most herbal liqueurs, as a remedy for an upset stomach. She married into the Branca family shortly thereafter, and her potent concoction was dubbed Fernet Branca. Other sources, however, claim that Fernet Branca was created by Bernardino Branca before Maria showed up in the family. Muddying the origin even further is the timeless tradition of “making stuff up” for marketing purposes. Early Fernet Branca advertisements touted it as the invention of Dr. Fernet Svedese, a Swedish doctor whose ingestion of his own potion helped him live to the ripe and healthy old age of 104 — which qualified him as a bit of an underachiever, since his mother and father, who also had a regular nip of Fernet Branca, lived to be 112 and 130 respectively!

Or they would have, if they’d lived at all. Which they did not. At least not anywhere outside the mind of some advertising man who made them up for part of a marketing campaign. 

However, Fernet Branca managed achieve a great deal of success despite the fiction of its mythical immortal creator. A Fernet Branca shop in 1845, and not too long after that the use of Fernet Branca in hospitals became common when doctors at the Fatebenefratelli Hospital started dosing patients with it during a cholera outbreak. In 1886, Branca launched a calendar campaign in which many prominent artists were commissioned to create illustrations for the publication, not unlike what Campari advertisements would do. They were also one of the first companies to make widescale use of the still-emerging art of photography in their promotions. The brand was managed primarily by Stefano Branco and his wife, the aforementioned Maria, until Stefano passed away in 1891, leaving control of the company to Maria. During the 1870s it broke into the US market, and during Prohibition it skirted the law in the United States when Dino, Maria’s son and by then the head of the company, simply reverted to it’s old marketing and packaging as a medicine.

The Woman Who Tamed Fernet

Strong amari like Fernet Branca are consumed as a digestif or digestivo, depending on which non-English phrase you want to employ. Reaching back to its roots as a stomach medicine, it’s thought to aid in the process of digestion, whereas sweeter, less alcoholic amari are used as aperitifs, consumed before a meal and meant to open up the appetite. Fernet Branca is also one of the preferred quick nips of American bartenders, who value not just its complex taste but find that it provides a quick pick-me-up during those late hour shifts without the crash of caffeine or the more rapid drunkenness that can come with whiskey. 

Italian drinking has a long history of being constructed not just around flavors, but also around emotions and prospective tasks. The primary task was always eating — Italian drinking is usually done in relation to some meal about to be consumed or just finished (during the meal, one sticks to wine). However, Italian futurists in the latter half of the 1800s created a variety of psychological categories for the emerging Italian cocktail scene, and the two types of cocktails — or polibibite, as the futurists dubbed them —  that would seem to have most appealed to James Bond, even though he himself isn’t much of an amaro drinker despite his taste for bitter drinks like coffee, would be “war in bed” cocktails meant to prepare you for a night of wild lovemaking, and “peace in bed” cocktails, for when you are alone and just need to fall asleep. 

Traditionally, amaro is consumed by itself, either neat or on the rocks, perhaps with a twist of lemon or an orange peel, but some cocktails exist, and at least one has achieved legendary status. It was created at the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar, one of the first outposts of American cocktail artistry in the United Kingdom. The main ingredient (even at only two dashes, it insists on being the main ingredient) is Fernet Branca, and while its being invented by Maria Scala-Branca may be up for debate, the creator of the most famous Fernet Branca cocktail is not in dispute.  It was invented by Ada Coleman, the American Bar’s head bartender and the first female celebrity bartender. It’s name, the Hanky Panky, should clue you in as to whether it’s meant to encourage strenuous activity in bed or soothe you to sleep.

Hanky Panky

  • 1/2 ounce gin
  • 1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes Fernet Branca
  • Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir well for 20 seconds and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Twist a piece of orange peel over the drink and use as garnish.

The staggering number of regional amaro variations, the amazing number or local products, and the lack of any stringent sort of codification of what comprises amaro probably has its roots in the fact that, at the time Amari were emerging as a viable commercial enterprise, Italy as a unified country did not actually exist. In typically Italian fashion, the year in which “Italy” came to be is as vague as the definition of amaro, occurring more or less sometime after the dissolution of Napoleon’s European empire in 1815 and the declaration of Rome as the capital city of the “Kingdom of Italy” in 1871. However, even then there were some stragglers, not joining the unified Italy until as late as 1918 after the close of the first World War. That complicated campaign of unification was waged primarily by four men: Camillo Cavour, Victor Emmanuel II, Giuseppe Mazzini, and perhaps towering above them all, Giuseppe Garibaldi. Well, “towering above all” actually means, to me, “the one who had a cocktail named after him.” Which is a bit of a shame. Nothing against the legendary Garibaldi, but who wouldn’t want to walk into a bar from time to time and order a Victor Emmanuel II?

Once again, when it comes to any concept of “rules,” the recipe for a Garibaldi shows a distinctly Italian disregard for rigidity. At its simplest, it’s a 50/50 mix of Campari and orange juice. An Italian Screwdriver? An Orange Americano? Some recipes suggest (and I would take the suggestion) substituting the sparkling San’pellegrino Aranciata Italian soda for the orange juice. Still other variations call for grapefruit juice instead of orange, or the addition of bourbon and honey. Invented by Antonio Micelotta, Bar Manager of the Hotel Excelsior in Rome, (which, coincidentally, is where James Bond checks into during his first Italian adventure, the short story Risico) published in 1960 as part of the collection of short stories For Your Eyes Only, the drink’s red color is meant to pay homage to Garibaldi’s famous “red shirts,” the soldiers who followed Giuseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi himself, who once dismissed alcohol by proclaiming that “wine has drowned more men than Neptune,” might not order one himself, but then, at least he’s better off than another famous crusader, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell, who has named after him a cut-rate, bottom shelf gin that, as far as I can ascertain, is only sold in “jug” quantities.

For a short story, Fleming packs quite a bit of detail into Risico for the aspiring Bond vivant. Aside from the Hotel Excelsior in Rome (at Via Vittorio Veneto, 125 00187 Roma; now part of the Westin hotel group) and Caffe Florian in Venice, Bond drops in at Harry’s Bar (Calle Vallaresso 1323, Venice). Both Caffe Florian and Harry’s Bar (not to be confused with Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, where young James Bond spent a night drinking before losing his virginity; to help confuse matters, Harry’s Bar in Venice is currently owned by restaurant company Cipriani S.A., who opened a Harry’s Bar in New York, but not Harry’s New York Bar) have a storied list of clients and historical accomplishments.

Aside from being one of Italy’s oldest cafes, Florian is known as an opulent showcase for art and historic Venetian design, with a clientele that has included one of history’s most famous womanizing spies, Casanova, and later writers such as Lord Byron, Marcel Proust, and Charles Dickens. Harry’s Bar in Venice was frequented by writers Ernest Hemingway (who also frequented Harry’s New York Bar in Paris) and Truman Capote, and filmmakers Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Charlie Chaplin. It’s also the birthplace of the Bellini (a cocktail of Italian sparkling wine — prosecco — freshly pureed white peaches, and a splash of raspberry or cherry juice), so named because its pink hue reminded Giuseppe Cipriani of the toga of a saint in a painting by 15th-century Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini.

Risico does not say what James Bond drinks while at Harry’s Bar in Venice. While it’s safe to assume he probably stuck to Americanos, the bar is famous for its version of a cocktail near and dear to 007’s heart: the Martini. They make them very dry indeed at Harry’s Bar, 10 parts gin to one part vermouth and served in a glass with no stem. They are a variation on another variation of the Martini, the Montgomery, named after British WWII Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and boasting even more contempt in its ratios for vermouth. The Montgomery’s 15 parts gin to one part dry vermouth are said to have been derived from Monty’s preferred ratio of “my troops to their troops.” 

Bond completes his afternoon drinking tour of Venice at Quadri, which like Caffe Florian and Harry’s Bar, still exists (at Piazza San Marco 121, 30124 Venice). Again, Risico doesn’t clue us in to what Bond ordered while visiting this caffe once visited by the likes of adventure writer Alexander Dumas and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (not to mention the world’s second Jimmy Bond, Woody Allen, who played James Bond’s jealous cousin, Jimmy Bond, in the farcical 1967 send-up of Bond films, Casino Royale). Perhaps he switched things up and moved on from the Americano to a Negroni, sometimes referred to as “an Americano with guts.”

Dueling Counts

In his book Everyday Drinking, acclaimed British author Kingsley Amis described the Americano as “good at lunchtime and before Italian food.” He then went on to write: “If you feel that, pleasant as it is, it still lacks something, throw in a shot of gin and the result is a Negroni. This is a really fine invention. It has the power, rare with drinks and indeed with anything else, of cheering you up.” Among other literary accomplishments, Amis was hired to write the first official James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, after the death of Ian Fleming. The Americano, incidentally, is the first drink we ever see (well, read about) James Bond drinking. When he’s introduced in Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale, Bond is sipping an Americano. The first drink Bond has in Fleming’s short story Risico, while meeting with his contact Kristatos, is a Negroni, “with Gordon’s please.” In the movie For Your Eyes Only, which is loosely adapted in part from this story, the drink is changed to the Greek pastis ouzo, which happens to play a major role in Amis’ Bond novel, Colonel Sun. In the cinematic adaptation of Thunderball, Bond congratulates himself for disarming a henchman by mixing himself up a Negroni.

The origins of the drink, like so many, are a mix of supposition and the acceptance of hearsay as fact because, “Eh, why not? That’s been the story for a long time.” As that story goes, the Negroni was invented at the Caffè Casoni (formerly Caffè Giacosa) in Florence when Italian Count Camillo Negroni explained to the resident bartender, Fosco Scarselli, that, while the count did love himself an Americano, he wanted something similar but with a little more punch to it. Negroni suggested ditching the Americano’s soda in favor of gin. Scarselli obliged, also substituting a garnish of orange peel for the Americano’s lemon peel. And so was born the Negroni, according to the book Sulle Tracce del Conte: La Vera Storia del Cocktail Negroni, written in 2002 by Lucca Picchi. There is now also an English translation, Negroni Cocktail: An Italian Legend.

This account of this Count seems reasonable but has been disputed rather hotly and with supporting documentation by one Noel Negroni, who claims that it was a relative of his, Pascal Olivier Count de Negroni, a Corsican war hero who famously led the first cavalry charge of the Franco Prussian War of 1870, who invented the drink. According to Noel Negroni, there never was a Count Camillo Negroni, as no such person shows up in the Negroni family histories. Instead, it was Pascal who invented the cocktail, while stationed in Senegal, and dedicated it to his wife to be. This claim is supported by personal letters mentioning the drink, though it would have been a bit different back then, since Campari was not yet in existence. Although the record is unclear, there would have been any number of similar bitter liqueurs from which he could have chosen. He also probably wouldn’t have called it a Negroni, though who knows with those aristocratic military types? More than likely, people who liked the drink were asking for that Count Negroni cocktail, and the name just stuck. And if it was Camillo who invented the drink? Well, same thing. “Give me an Americano the Negroni way” just becomes Negroni.

Of course, Noel’s research doesn’t preclude there being a different Negroni family than his own or of one man having multiple names. Which, it turns out, is exactly the case. The existence of Pascal Olivier Count de Negroni has never been in doubt, but like Noel Negroni, people began to think that this mysterious and flamboyant Count Camillo was just a myth – until recently, when confirmation of his existence and immigration to New York was discovered by Drinking Cup writer Rusty Hawthorne and a phalanx of other researchers who decided to get to the bottom of things. Or at least, there was indeed a guy named Camillo Negroni, who, it seems, was some manner of Count. As for the rest of his rather fanciful, biography… well, there is not any proof that Count Camillo was the swashbuckling cowboy cosplayer claimed by the legend. Count Camillo Negroni, in that legend if not reality, was an incredible individual who shared one peculiar trait with Seraffimo Spang, the eccentric head of the Spangled Mob in Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever: they both loved dressing up like cowboys. Picchi’s book paints the portrait of a man who was the grandson of English Romantic poet Walter Savage Landor and who spent a large portion of his life living in America, first working as a cowboy (thus his affinity for dressing up like one) and later as a gambler in New York City. Other than his existence, his presence in New York, and a photo that makes him look more like a humorless banker played by Lon Chaney than a professional adventurer, most of the claims about his activities remain unsubstantiated.

The debate has been escalated online, as things online inevitably are, to a battle over the honor of two competing families, one Italian and the other Corsican, over a claim that it’s unlikely could ever be definitively proven and which would, in the end, reap them no particular benefits other than points of pride. Still, the lengths to which the Corsican Negronis have gone to debunk the claims that Count Camillo Negroni invented the cocktail are as impressive as they are extreme, and include among other things the hiring of handwriting analysts and mounting an expedition to Senegal to investigate proof. That alone deserves a toast.

negroni1

In any case, the almost universally accepted image of Count Negroni – a tall, mustachio’d man in a top hat, a cardboard cut-out of which accompanies almost every Negroni Week celebration and is widely circulated by writers and brands alike – isn’t any Negroni at all, Camillo or Pascal. It’s actually anthropologist and explorer Arnold Henry Savage Landor. Count Camillo does have a possible tenuous link to the Landor family through his mother, but that link has yet to be proven as anything other than a coincidence of name, much like the one that confused the two Count Negronis. However, it might explain how a portrait of Arnold Henry Savage Landor ever came to be mistaken as a picture of Count Negroni. Whether or not you should affect a bad Sean Connery slur next time someone names Landor as Negroni and explain to them, “Actually, that’sh exshplorer Arnold Landor, a lover of catsh,” depends entirely on you and whether or not you want friends.

In the end, it seems like the true origin of the cocktail will remain disputed, but does it really matter? I mean, look at these back stories. And while that may continue to be a bone of contention among the families vying for the claim of “inventor of the Negroni,” in the end, I think the cocktail is better served by fanciful legend than truth. Whatever the case may be, we drinkers win. For starters, the Negroni is a fabulous cocktail. Simple but complex, a good baseline for judging the mixing prowess of any bartender. Second, the thing was invented either by a fist-pumping 19th century war hero who led a dramatic charge and basically lived like an Alexandre Dumas character, or it was invented by an eccentric count who dressed up like a cowboy and gambled with gangsters in New York. The important thing is, you can order one. When James Bond sips a Negroni in Italy, he specifies his preferred brand: Gordon’s. Oh, you can also order it stirred, not shaken. If you happen to find yourself in Florence, drop by the Caffe Giacosa (Piazza Strozzi 1, 50123 Florence) and toast both Count Negronis. Cowboy attire is optional. As another famous Negroni fan, Orson Welles, once said, ““The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.

Negroni

  • 1oz Campari
  • 1 oz sweet red vermouth
  • 1 oz gin
  • Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass or serve on the rocks in a tumbler.

 

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