First it was the Negroni, but now a quiet Americano is Gay Bilson's drink of choice at day's end.
It's a treat to discover something quite late in life, be it a novelist, a poet, a plant, a food or an afternoon cocktail. The Americano and I met quite recently, which is to say rather late in both our lives. Mine began in 1944 but the Americano was invented in the 1860s in Milan. In 1995, when I took on the refurbishment of the Bennelong restaurant (with partners Leigh Prentice and Anders Ousback) at the Sydney Opera House, I had wanted the list of drinks at the central bar to include only classic cocktails rather than those invented yesterday by a barman who replaces the tried-and-true with something new. The Manhattan, for instance, was on the list, as was the Negroni. Were it not such a stinker, I would have included the Stinger for its literary connection: John Updike's Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom took to drinking Stingers in Rabbit Redux. He had been a Daiquiri man in the first of the Rabbitnovels. As an admirer of Updike's wonderful portrait of Middle America, I once ordered a Stinger (brandy and crème de menthe), drank it out of literary loyalty, and left it there. I did include one drink that seemed to have no formal precedence, and named it for the novelist who told me about it in London. The Barnes is built with sloe gin (not a true gin but an alcohol infused with the astringent blackthorn or sloe fruit), gin, orange juice and blood orange juice, stirred and served over ice. It is, of course, a seasonal cocktail, because of the blood orange, but all the better for its short annual life. Having turned a living English novelist into a drink, I sent the bar menu to Julian Barnes and he kindly gave his permission, after the fact. Indeed, he was rather chuffed. When he ate at Bennelong in 1998, we made a Barnes granita for his table as a prelude to the desserts, shaving very dark Valrhona chocolate over the frozen ingredients. Nearly 15 years after this pretty invention I am of a mind to create it again.
The Negroni is equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, served on ice. It is, then, a rather strong drink, and so is not my cup of tea. Nevertheless, a couple of years ago I began to make one every now and then at the close of a day's gardening or cooking and rather enjoyed it, which is to say no more than one. When I mentioned my admiration for the Negroni to a friend who is far more knowledgeable about alcoholic drinks than me, he drew my attention to the Americano. The Americano, he said, is an "afternoon cocktail" - that is, long and far less alcoholic than the Negroni. The Americano became my drink of choice at the end of the day. The gin stays in the cupboard and a big splash of soda is added to the Campari and sweet vermouth. I also add a quarter of an orange, sometimes more, washing and drying the skin first, and squeezing some of its juice into the glass. I have moved from grape, almond and olive country south of Adelaide to the lush green humidity of northern New South Wales. Ginger, chillies and Vietnamese mint may be the replacement food triumvirate, but drinks are drinks and the Americano has moved with me. The few people I know here came over for drinks; the landlady loaned me the right kind of glass and the Americano continued its existence in yet another climate. This new friend will outlive me - that's what traditional things do - but we shall have had a good time together, late in life, wherever we have had the makings.