The Bitter Truth

An all-Italian tradition that has become a cult in Milan

by Lavinia Colonna Preti
The Bitter Truth — Lombardia Secrets

The most popular bitter in the world is Milanese, as well as some of the most famous cocktails, from Americano to Negroni Sbagliato.

Bitter defines an alcoholic solution based on a bittering agent (such as roots, plants, etc.) and an aromatic one (such as spices, berries, etc.) with little or no sugar content.

The birth of bitters is lost in the mists of time when men begin to use spices to produce medicines that were used in the treatment of various ailments and diseases (the name derives in fact from their bitter taste). It will then be, in recent years, the socially different use that will be made of it, the bitter for aperitifs and cocktails, and the “amaro” for after dinner, which will codify the difference, especially in Italy where these drinks are very popular.

The Bitter Truth — Lombardia Secrets
The Bitter Truth — Lombardia Secrets

The first bitter-based cocktails were born from the intuition of pharmacists and doctors such as Antoine Amédée Peychaud, from New Orleans in America, who created the Sazerac bitter, still very popular, to serve it to his patients in the morning as a tonic, or Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, German military doctor who invented Angostura.

The fortune of bitter-based drinks dates back to the second half of the nineteenth century, when, thanks to the revolution in transport that led more and more people to travel by land and sea, these medicines became a “transportable” comfort for many categories of workers. Made popular precisely by sailors, soldiers, and in the pleasure districts of the nascent cities, these drinks, to be made more drinkable, begin to be mixed with other sweeter compounds. Also benefiting from the novelty of the commercialization of ice for drinks, as has often happened with various trends, their use thus expands from the slums to the higher social classes as a status symbol of freedom, emancipation, and non-conformism to the rules of society.

One of the pioneers of modern mixology was Jerry Thomas, who among other jobs was also a former sailor, who returned to NY in 1852 and opened his own club with great success. In 1858 he was offered the role of head bartender at the Metropolitan Hotel in New York and a few years later he collected the recipes of his cocktails in a book that would become the first in history that codified this kind of drink.

The Bitter Truth — Lombardia Secrets

In Italy, the ritual of the aperitif initially spread mainly in the northern regions, in particular in Turin where in 1786 Antonio Benedetto Carpano invented Vermouth. It is there that Gaspare Campari, born in 1828 in Cassolnovo, near Pavia, moved in 1842 to learn the art of liqueurs and spirits, his passion. He opened Caffè dell’Amicizia in Novara, starting to experiment with the production of liqueurs, and here, the result of a still secret recipe, he created his “bitter for Hollandia use” which later, given the success, was nicknamed the bitter of Mr. Campari, hence the current name. In 1862 he moved to Milan where he opened the legendary Bar Campari at the corner of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele.

Today Campari is the most famous and drunk bitter in the world.

The Bitter Truth — Lombardia Secrets

Why you will love it
One of the greatest style icons in the world. Starting from the wonderful inverted cone bottle designed in 1932 by Fortunato Depero up to the advertisements that made the history of communication, such as the one with legendary Humphrey Bogart in the 1970s.

Where to taste it
At Bar Basso in via Plinio in Milan where the Negroni Sbagliato is born, it seems by mistake of the barman who added prosecco to red vermouth and bitters instead of gin.

The perfect pairing
The Negroni, an all-Italian cocktail variant of the Americano, another drink created in Milan. Composed of Campari bitters and red vermouth, it seems to have been born from an intuition of Count Camillo Negroni who, in the 1920s in Florence at Caffè Casoni, wanting a stronger drink, asked his trusted barman to replace the soda with the gin.

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