“What should I drink?” you ask.
You’re at a cocktail bar, trying to look over the menu, but it is almost performatively unhelpful. You’ve never heard of Cocchi Rosa, have no idea what a kumquat tastes like and while you’re familiar with ducks in a bread-crumbs-at-the-pond sort of way, you have no idea what their fat tastes like “washed” with cognac. You’re thinking about ordering the “Careless Whisper,” but you’ve read the ingredients three times and don’t know if it’s going to be a small glass of pure booze or bright pink confection in a martini glass. Why is it named after that song, anyway? Is it silky smooth, like the saxophone? Or weighty and intense, like the tortured lyrics?
So you turn to me, the bartender and ask, “What’s your favorite drink on here?”
I get this question behind the bar all the time and I never answer it honestly.
Instead, I always give a diplomatic response about how everyone is different and the best drink is the one you really want, “so why don’t you tell me a couple flavors you like and I’ll help guide you to a drink?”
That’s what I say, but it’s not an answer, because the answer, more often than not, is that my favorite drink is the one with Campari in it.
Campari, if you’re unfamiliar, is a hard sell. It’s cough-syrup red, so there’s that, but the real challenge is that it is bitter. Sharply bitter. So much so that most Americans, lacking any real bitterness in their diet, usually respond to the first taste of Campari by scanning the face of whoever gave it to them to make sure it’s not some kind of prank. But to those who like it, it is amazing, uniquely delicious, the original aperitivo and one of the few truly indispensable cocktail ingredients we have. It is an acquired taste, but it is a taste worth acquiring.
The bitterness, so challenging to the uninitiated, is a feature, not a bug. This “aperitivo” business suggests that you drink it before meals, as the bitter roots rouse your body’s digestive enzymes from their twixt-meal slumber and prepare you for eating. Italians are big on that kind of thing (there are also digestivos, which is even more bitter liquor, for after the meal). Whether or not the supposed digestive assist is true, what is nearly always true is that the first exposure to a bitter cocktail will wrinkle your nose, but then slowly, bit by bit, you come to accept it, then love it, then crave it—the bitterness a new dimension of flavor you never knew you were missing. Like all great human endeavors, it takes some effort to get there, but doing so enriches your life.
Not everyone is in the mood for such a journey, which is the reason I never give an honest answer to that question behind the bar. It’s not more correct, it’s just my favorite, and people should have what they want.
If you are, though, ready to climb that mountain, you fortunately don’t need to charge straight at Negronis—there are softer cocktails that can help you up the path. Fruit juice helps blunt the bitterness, as does a pinch of salt, and a simple Campari and orange juice can be a delightful low-ABV way to ease into an evening. But if we’re talking about the middle of summer, my favorite is the Jungle Bird: invented in Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s, this tropical charmer is as good a way as any to fall in love with the bitter side of life.
- 1.5 oz dark rum (I like Hamilton 86 Demerara or Cruzan Black Strap here… anything dark, rich, and full)
- 0.5 oz lime juice
- 1.5 oz pineapple juice
- 0.75 oz Campari
- 0.5 oz simple syrup*
Add all ingredients to a shaker tin and shake on ice for 10 seconds. Strain over fresh ice into a tall glass and garnish with a pineapple wedge, or pineapple frond or both.
*Simple Syrup is equal parts sugar and warm/hot water, stirred until the sugar dissolves. Refrigerate after use, will last 2+ weeks in the fridge.
Every week bartender Jason O’Bryan mixes his up his favorite drinks for you. Check out his past cocktail recipes.