How bartenders’ errors have made cocktail history
It started with the Americano, a humble aperitif consisting of Campari, sweet vermouth and soda. Originally called the Milano-Torino when served in Gaspare Campari’s bar in Milan in the 1860s, the drink gained popularity among Americans visiting Italy in the early twentieth century and thus got its new name. Ian Fleming called it “the least offensive of the musical comedy drinks” but still thought enough of it to make it the first drink to pass James Bond’s lips for his inaugural outing in Casino Royale.
But it all started to go wrong (and by wrong I mean, of course, right) in 1919 when a bartender at Caffè Casoni in Florence was instructed by Count Camillo Negroni to give his Americano a bit more clout. Some accounts have the bartender grabbing a bottle of gin in error. Whatever. The result was one of the most fortuitous mistakes in cocktail history. Count Negroni liked the drink so much he gave it his name and the bartender garnished it with a slice of orange to distinguish it from the tame Americano which, in those days, came with a semicircle of lemon.
For a cocktail that was born of a mistake, the Negroni is a pretty fine drink. With equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, it has balance, strength and attitude. It encapsulates, in three fluid ounces, the Italian culinary agro dolce tradition of bitterness and sweetness battling it out and then agreeing to be best friends. Orson Welles was rather partial and said of it “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.” OK, Orson. Try telling that to your doctor.
The story gets even more curious. In the 1950s another bartender, this time at Bar Basso in Milan, was in a hurry making a Negroni and picked up a bottle of prosecco instead of gin. He made a drink that was more like a Spritz than a Negroni but, so the story goes, the punter liked it and it became a favourite. It was called a Negroni Sbagliato (a Wrong Negroni) and they are now served all over the world.
The Americano/Negroni/Sbagliato sequence is probably my favourite tale of accidental cocktail making but it is by no means the only one. Just a glance at the murky and complex history of the Martini reveals all manner of accident, mishap, snobbery and error.
The Martini, it is largely agreed, was invented at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco and was taken as a pre-ferry tipple by people heading to the nearby town of Martinez. The mix of gin to vermouth was two thirds to a third and it contained maraschino cherry juice and orange bitters; an unappetising combination that would find scant appeal these days. But the drink gained mass favour and nationwide prominence during prohibition when gin was one of the easier spirits to distil illegally. It also got simpler, thank goodness, and with the repeal of prohibition the quality of gin got better and the Martini was made progressively drier.
But how did we get to today’s recipe of choice, which calls for the vermouth to be barely an ingredient at all but rather a tiny drop, a meagre ice cube-coating, a mere whisper of homeopathic proportions? I believe the answer is snobbery.
Successive generations of Martini drinkers and notable control freaks have insisted upon ever more particular and extreme recipes for this cocktail, once described by the controversial Baltimore journalist Henry Mencken as “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet”. Here are some of them:
Luis Bunuel suggested the correct gin to vermouth ratio was achieved “simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin’s hymen ‘like a ray of sunlight through a window - leaving it unbroken.’”
Winston Churchill suggested pouring gin into a glass and then simply bowing in the direction of the bottle of vermouth, or even, by some accounts, in the direction of France (where good vermouth originates).
Ernest Hemingway called his cocktail a Montgomery, being 15:1 gin to vermouth, the odds favoured by the Field Marshall before going in to battle.
But it is the mistakes and aberrations committed in the name of this noble cocktail that upset me the most. Ian Fleming has a lot to answer for. He makes his hero ask for his vodka Martinis (as if vodka weren’t controversial enough) “shaken not stirred” - a cardinal sin in many a bartender’s book. He also has Bond mix gin, vodka and Kina Lillet in the Vesper. How can that ever be right?
But although mistakes can be successful, the general rule of thumb is that things don’t work if they are too contrived. There is a lovely scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen and Annie (Diane Keaton) collapse in shrieks and giggles as they clumsily handle some live lobsters. Woody tries to recreate that previously spontaneous moment with a subsequent girlfriend and it all falls dreadfully flat.
Likewise, don’t for a moment think that the success in Bar Basso with the Negroni Sbaglaito all those years ago can be achieved with a mistakenly-grabbed bottle of Blue Curacao. In fact, nothing can be achieved with a bottle of Blue Curacao. A blue drink is always, always a mistake.
Russell will be appearing at this year’s Port Eliot Festival