Mindful as I am of the fact that it has been a month and a half since I have written anything about solid food, I nevertheless need to tell you about this cocktail, because I started drinking it in the summer, and only through some diligent brain-wracking abetted finally by a spark of inspiration was I able to come up with a means by which to re-associate it with Christmas and thus reinvigorate its by now several-months-expired topicality. The origin of the drink must be traced back to what at Joe Beef they call the “Roman Coke”, the recipe for which is given as 3/4 oz grappa and a splash of Fernet Branca topped up in a highball glass with ice and chinotto, the italian bitter orange¹ soft drink best known to Canadians in the form of Brio. I encountered this drink while indulging my typically obnoxious practice of, when anywhere that anyone appears to care about cocktails, asking if they do anything with Fernet, because it is just such a great bastard of an ingredient, and I take equal satisfaction in the response Yes We Do And You Should Have One Because It Is Awesome as in No You Just Drink It Why Don’t You Shut Up And Just Drink It. Initially upon receiving the Roman Coke I was pretty underwhelmed, in part because it (the restaurant) was loud and confusing and the server didn’t seem to know what it (the drink) was and it (the drink again) just seemed to taste like a Fernet & Coke, which is all well and good and a respectable drink in its own right but I’m not noway paying 11$ for one. Or Whatever.
But by the time the thing was mostly consumed, we realized that there was something else going on it, something intriguing, and so when the opportunity presented itself I inquired what was behind the thing and was informed as to its constitution. Now, the Roman Coke is a heck of a drink, but it is truly more of a summertime ripper, a tall drink, and in the interim since this first experience I have been screwing around with it a bit and have come up with something slightly more to my tastes, which is roughly a 1:1 fernet-grappa ratio, still topped up with chinotto but served in a rocks glass with a good hunk of ice and some manner of citrus zest to your taste (I advise orange, but grapefruit is nice in the summer). This is a somewhat different beast, and it demands further specification – in The Art of Living According To Joe Beef, they specify cheap grappa, because when you’re filling a glass with pop there’s no point in squandering one of any quality. I have found however that with this short drink ratio, the quality of the grappa matters considerably more, which is not to say that you need to use truly good grappa, but that I distinguished a real and lamentable difference between the De Negri Monovitigno di Prosecco and the standard Poli Bassano. In fact, the price difference is negligible, but the Poli mingles beautifully into the whole, whereas the De Negri retains a pronounced and unfortunate paint-thinning presence in spite of the robustness of the other ingredients. I would further specify San Pellegrino chinatto over Brio, because it’s just better. Deeper, darker, richer, bitterer, better.
Roman Coke might be a clever name, but it is not a great one, and I was pleased by the opportunity my tinkering afforded to come up with a new name. Less fortunately, this has turned out to be surprisingly difficult. I was looking for something that captured the wholly Italian composition of the drink, but still which said something about how it comes across in the mouth, or as it begins to wash the brain. My friend Matteo suggested the Bocca della Lupa, which translates into “the mouth of the she-wolf”, invoking with a sly Capitoline Wolf reference its Roman predecessor, and deriving from an Italian expression in bocca al lupo (“into the mouth of the wolf”) which basically means to go for broke, or just fuckin’ give ‘er. He further clarified that “It’s often incorrectly translated as ‘good luck,’ but it’s ‘good luck’ meant with an ironic twist – “You’re fucking nuts, it probably won’t work, but good luck”.” Which is fucking great, obviously, but I felt that in the oafish mouth of the English speaker, Bocca della Lupa might lose some of its musicality and become the sort of name that, paradoxically, can only be uttered intelligibly when waaay into one’s cups, when one is laboriously emphasizing each syllable individually.
When more recently I was attempting to lend the name a little holiday flare, I touched briefly upon La Vigilia Buio, which translates roughly as “dark vigil,” but specifically invokes which is the Italian Christmas eve feast, La Vigilia. Thus giving the whole thing a slightly macabre, Rosemary’s Baby-esque feel that I appreciate, but not sufficiently to insist on a name that suffers the same complications in pronunciation as the Bocca Della Lupa. Then, just a few days ago, in the midst of much thinking on and drinking of the cocktail, I was reminded that was is special about the thing, what caught me from the very get-go, is that little alchemical miracle by which out of the almost coniferous medicinal bitterness of Fernet, the spirited, vinous intensity of the grappa, and the not very-much-like-oranges herby cola quality of chinotto, you get something that tastes hauntingly like -chocolate– (and not, thankfully, like mouthwash). So you have what? Chocolate? Oranges? Christmas?
Behold, the Amaro Terry.²
¹ Specifically Citrus aurantium var. myrtifolia, if you’re interested, which is the same variety of bitter orange used in Campari and a number of other amari but not, apparently, in Barolo chinato in spite of them tasting so reminiscent of one another.
² In case you don’t get it. Get it?