If we’ve learned one thing from Hollywood, it’s that everything has an origin story. Clark Kent’s adolescence showed us that high school is even harder if you’re an alien. Hannibal Lector, we now know, was already creepy as a tween. Batman… began.
So it goes, the origin story of the much celebrated Negroni cocktail is often represented like this: In 1919, Count Camillo Negroni walked into the Caffe Casoni, in Florence, ordered an Americano with gin instead of soda water, and the Negroni was born.
In the drinks world, the Negroni gets most of the press, and justifiably so; many of us consider it the perfect cocktail, and it commands universal respect in the industry. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the Americano is seen too often as if it’s something in the fossil record, like homo erectus, a necessary stepping stone in the evolutionary service of giving us a Negroni. And while that’s not entirely incorrect, it misses the actual important part of the Americano. Americanos aren’t attempting to compete with Negronis, and never have been. For all their similarities, the Americano has its own niche that it carved out long ago, and it dominates that niche in a way even the mighty Negroni can’t touch.
In Italian culture, eating and drinking are seen largely as two arms of one culinary experience, meant to be enjoyed concurrently. Before a meal, there is an aperitivo, bitter herbs infused into a little alcohol help stimulate the appetite. With dinner comes wine, of course, and after the meal, there are digestivos, even more bitter herbs in even more alcohol, to help with digestion. Campari, the sharply bitter, candy-red Italian liqueur, is often thought of as the original aperitivo, and the Americano—Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda water—is its platonic ideal.
Before dinner, you don’t want something full-proof, lest it blow out your palate, or too intense, lest it distract from the upcoming meal. You want light, bright, bubbly, and a little bitter. You want complex but not too demanding, some alcohol but not too punchy. You want an Americano. As a standalone cocktail, the low proof and light sweetness can feel incomplete, off balance as if it’s leaning forward, but when positioned before a meal, you see that an Americano is incomplete the way a drumroll is incomplete, or a preamble, or foreplay.
It was never meant to be on its own. It’s about the whole experience, and what comes next.
Notes on Ingredients
Sweet vermouth: Since the moment Campari was invented in 1860, it’s had a heedless love of sweet vermouth. These two ingredients adore each other and pretty much all sweet vermouths work here, so the differences between brands aren’t correct or incorrect so much as they fall to personal taste. My personal favorite for Americanos is Carpano Antica, more muscular than most vermouths and the weight is welcome here, but that can change based on mood. My advice is to just use what you’ve got.
Soda water: The only way in which choice of soda or seltzer water truly matters is in terms of carbonation: You want something with big, ripping bubbles. Remember that 4 oz. of soda water has to provide enough carbonation for 7 oz. of cocktail, so mineral waters like San Pelegrino or Perrier, while great with lunch, are simply too flat for cocktail work. Fever Tree and Q are expensive, but great. Mineragua and Topo Chico are great. Hell, even Schwepps works. Depending on where you live, the supermarket brand of cans is often the best choice. When you take a sip of carbonated water and hold it in your mouth, it should start to hurt after about three seconds. If not, seek more bubbles.