By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot Cocktail Bar! Today we’re mixing up Americanos, to find out why this drink is just right!
The Americano is a tall drink made with Campari and Vermouth mixed with soda water. It was first served in the 1860s by Gaspare Campari in his Caffé Campari. Gaspare, of course invented not only this cocktail, but also the bitters which bears his name. Of course at the time the drink wasn’t called an Americano. Instead it was known originally as a Milano-Torino after the origins of the two main ingredients, Campari from Milan and a particular type of vermouth called Punt e Mes from Turin. Legend has it that the drink became particularly popular with American expats during prohibition in the early 20th century, who then brought the Campari back with them under the loophole of it being classified as a medicinal product, and because of this American connection the drink became rechristened the Americano. Another, probably less likely, theory is that the name is derived from the Italian word amaro, which means bitter, Campari being a type of amaro—a class of Italian alcohol. Vermouth too is sometimes classified as an amaro, so I guess the Americano does indeed feature this particular type of bitter liqueur. Vermouth gets its name from being originally flavoured with wormwood, which in German is called Wermut. Though it’s uncertain where this German word comes from, there is an Old English cognate referring to the wormwood plant, wermod. This has led some to etymologize the word as wer meaning “man” (think werewolf, literally “man-wolf”) plus mod related to our modern word mood but with the original sense of “courage”. Supposedly the reason the plant was called “man-courage” was that it was used as an aphrodisiac… if you see what I mean.
But if the Americano is connected with America, then going back further, where does the name America come from? Well, as you may have learned in school, the Americas were named after Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer and cartographer who demonstrated that what Europeans had ‘discovered’ was not in fact Asia, but a new-to-them continent. But we can go back even further and trace the origin of that name Amerigo, which comes from an old Visigothic name Amalric or Amalaric. The Visigoths were a Germanic tribe who, at the end of the Roman Empire, marched through Europe and set up a kingdom in what is modern-day Spain, which lasted from the 4th to the 8th century. So that’s how this Germanic name made it to the Mediterranean. And of course we can etymologize even further and see in the name the Germanic components amal meaning “work or labour” and ric meaning “ruler”, coming through Celtic ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *reg-, which meant something like “to move in a straight line” and thus “to lead or rule”. So a good name for a hardworking ruler, I suppose. In fact there was a King Amalaric of the Visigoths during the 6th century, though he may not appear very admirable to us. After a politically motivated marriage to the Frankish princess Clotilda, Amalaric beat his wife to coerce her into converting to the Arian heresy, and her appeal to her brother Childebert to punish him for this brought on a Frankish invasion which ultimately led to his death.
By the way, that Indo-European root *reg- also gives us such words as right, rich, rule, and in Latin rex meaning “king”. Appropriate then that this is an element in the name America, where many have gone to find the American dream of working hard to earn their riches, but odd that the country has its foundation in the republican movement of rejecting a king.
Speaking of the word ‘right’ and republicans, it’s the republican movement in revolutionary France that led to the left-right political labels. You see the supporters of the king (roi in French from Latin rex) appropriately enough gathered on the right of the National Assembly and the revolutionaries on the left. And before you point out that right in French is droit, I’ll point out that droit comes from Latin dirigo from dis plus rego, and is therefore cognate with English right. So, the left/right labels just stuck, and still today the political right refers to the more conservative factions and the political left to the innovators. Perhaps the labels have survived because they seem appropriate, since the political right often sees themselves as following the straight and narrow path to rule, whereas “lefty” is often used pejoratively by the right to refer to what they see as the weaker side.
And in fact left did originally meant “weak” in Old English, and it was only in the 13th century that the word became the paired opposite of right, from the notion of the non-dominant hand. Before that the Old English word for “left” was winestra meaning literally “friendlier”, a euphemism due to the old superstition that the left side was unlucky. You can see the same thing in Latin with the word sinister, which probably originally euphemistically meant “more useful”, according to some etymologists. In modern English, however, the word only retains its pejorative associations. The French for “left” doesn’t come from sinister, but is instead gauche, coming from the Germanic Frankish language ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root *weng- meaning “to bend or curve”. The English borrowing gauche has a pejorative connotation, like sinister. We may as well complete the set with the Latin word for right which was dexter, from which we get dexterity in English. This comes from a Proto-Indo-European root *deks- which means not only “right” but also “south”, which would be on your right if facing east (I suppose because that’s where the sun rises so it’s easy to reckon). The corresponding opposite in Proto-Indo-European was *ner- which means both “left” and “north”, and indeed gives us the word north. Which I suppose brings us back to North America. And speaking of North America and pejorative meanings, the other meaning of the word Americano is the type of coffee, the Caffè Americano, which according to legend comes from WWII American GIs who watered down their espressos to make them more like US coffee, the term allegedly being used by Italians in a pejorative or derogatory sense.
Speaking of watering down drinks, or rather the opposite of watering down drinks, if the Americano cocktail doesn’t pack enough punch for you, you can replace the soda water with gin, and you’ll have a Negroni. The story goes that this drink was first served at the Caffè Casoni in Florence in 1919 by bartender Fosco Scarselli to one Count Negroni, who wanted his Americano (or Milano-Torino as it was called at the time) with a little more kick. And who was this Count Negroni? Well he’s been possibly identified as Camillo Negroni, who was born in 1868 to Count Enrico Negroni and Ada Savage Landor and died in Florence in 1934. Camillo was quite a character and adventurer according to legend. He apparently travelled to America in 1892 in search of adventure and riches, spending time as a riverboat gambler, fencing instructor, cowboy wannabe, and even a banker, before returning to his native Florence in 1910 to invent his eponymous cocktail. Funny thing is, the picture that’s usually associated with him, with a dapper moustache and top hat, isn’t really him, it’s Arnold Henry Savage Landor, who may in fact be his cousin. Henry Savage Landor was also something of an adventurer, an English painter, writer, explorer, and apparently cat fancier, who was a raconteur to Queen Victoria, and who during WWI designed tanks and airships. The grandfather of both these men was the romantic poet Walter Savage Landor, also a lively and wild character (so I guess it runs in the family), who as it happens wrote a play about the aftermath of the defeat of the last Visigothic king in Spain. Well, everything is connected!
But another possible candidate for the inventor of the Negroni cocktail is one General Pascal-Olivier de Negroni. This Count Negroni was born in France on the island of Corsica in 1829, and died in 1913. According to this story, Pascal Negroni invented the drink in honour of his wife (how romantic) while stationed in Senegal in 1857 (how colonial!). Of course the problem is that Campari wasn’t invented until 1860, so it must have been a somewhat different drink with a different bitters. In any case, General Negroni’s main claim to fame was that he led the charge of the mounted cavalry Cuirassiers in the Battle of Reichshoffen in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Note that name REICHShoffen from that same root that’s been wending its way through this story of Americanos from the Visigothic Amalaric to the riches of America.
So was the Negroni invented in 1857 in Senegal by a bad ass war hero, or 1919 in Florence by an eccentric adventurer who liked to dress up as a cowboy? Who knows? The drink wasn’t mentioned in print until 1947 when notorious drinker Orson Welles was quoted as saying “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.” Maybe these two origin stories also balance each other!
But getting back to American riches, our story has an epilogue which takes us to the American dollar. The word dollar comes from the German Taler short for Joachimstaler, a coin made from the silver mined in Joachimsthal, a town in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. The coin was a popular one, and you could say the town of Joachimsthal made a mint from it! The town is named after St Joachim, who according to the non-biblical gospel of James was the father of the Virgin Mary, and was known as a rich man who gave to the poor. One of the theories of where the American dollar sign comes from is that it’s the monogram of St Joachim, with the S and J or I overlaid on each other, though the more well known theories are that it comes from the abbreviation ps for the Spanish American peso, another popular coin in the early days of America, or that it comes from the monogram US for obvious reasons.
Returning to Joachimsthal, the second part of the name, thal, means valley, so Joachimsthal is St Joachim’s Valley. It’s the same second element as in Neanderthal, because the first Neanderthal specimen was found in the Neander valley near Dusseldorf. That valley was named after a hymn writer named Neander — well actually his real name in German would have been Neumann meaning literally “new man”, but his grandfather had translated the name Neumann into Greek Neander or in other words neo-ander meaning literally “new man”. Funny then that an older form of human, the Neanderthal, is named after a “new man”. As for our hymn writer Neander’s first name, as chance would have it, it was Joachim!
And finally, getting back to the Joachimsthaler, as I said, the coin became really popular, and suddenly everyone was minting their own thalers or dollars, not just America, but the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and perhaps most importantly at the time, the Holy Roman Empire. And they called their coin the Reichstaler, with that same *reg- root as the first element, bringing us right back to the Americano.
To make an Americano pour one ounce each of Campari and Vermouth over ice in an old fashioned glass. I’m using a Vermouth from Turin for extra authenticity! Mix and then add a splash of soda water and garnish with half an orange slice.
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