Gin has a long-attested affinity for bitter flavors. The British introduced the gin and tonic for medicinal reasons, but it’s remained one of the most popular and iconic drinks — needing little accompaniment except perhaps a wedge of fresh lime or a wheel of orange — because the coolness of the juniper and the bite of the bitterness make for such a compelling summer refreshment. In this age of appletinis and vodka-laden ice cream drinks, gin’s thirst-quenching powers are too often overlooked, but they’re at their strongest when paired with a bitter complement.
The Italians have always appreciated bitterness, from broccoli raab to radicchio to Sardinia’s corbezzolo honey, which has a tawny caramel sweetness but finishes as bitter as crushed aspirin. Italy is home to a number of bitter liqueurs, often called amari or aperitif bitters, and of those, the one best known outside the country is Campari. Made from the same recipe since 1860 and — like so many of those old herbal liqueurs — using more than 60 ingredients that the boom in the spice trade had made available, Campari is a tempting deep candy-red, and would be sweet enough to drink straight if you could handle the bitterness. Most people can’t when they’re first introduced to it — it’s a drink with a learning curve. Give Campari four tries and you may go from aversion to obsession.
Most of the first Americans to discover Campari were G.I.s sent to Italy in WWI, but it was the Lost Generation — Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and their gang — who first encountered the Negroni, invented in 1919 in honor of gin-lover Count Camillio Negroni. A simple-sounding drink, the Negroni is equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, stirred (like a martini) and served over ice with an orange twist. The combination is bitter and bracing, but enjoyably, quaffably so — the way fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice is. The gin tames the Campari but doesn’t cover it up, even if you tilt the ratio a bit more towards the gin as you become accustomed to the aperitif. It is, plainly, one of the best excuses to be thirsty.
The Pimm’s Cup is a similar drink, but as British as the Negroni is Italian. A British bartender in the 1820s, James Pimm, invented the liqueur; by the 1960s, his company offered six versions of it, each of them using the same basic herbs and spices to flavor a different base liquor. Today, only one version is still produced — the first and best, Pimm’s No. 1, a 50-proof gin concoction. Pimm’s is a ruddy russet, like reddish tea; the taste is slightly bitter, citric but not tart, subtly spicy. The Pimm’s Cup combines one part Pimm’s No. 1 with 2 parts lemon soda and garnishes it with aplomb: the original recipe, which you rarely find followed outside of Britain, adds leaves of mint and borage and slices of lemon, apple, orange, and strawberry. The Napoleon House in New Orleans simplifies this, using cucumber (which tastes similar to borage), mint, and an orange slice.
Easy variants are found by using ginger beer or tonic water instead of the lemon soda; if you do use the soda, be sure to use one with real lemon juice, like Essn’s Meyer Lemon soda or San Pellegrino’s Limonata. The tartness makes all the difference to the drink. In the winter, you can dispense with the garnishes completely unless you want to float a few cranberries on top: make a hot Pimm’s Cup with three parts hot lemonade and one part Pimm’s No. 1, and if you’re celebrating, add an extra part of gin.
But the simplest combination of gin and bitters is so simple that, in combination with the name, you may shy away from it. Pink Gin may not sound like a serious drink, but it’s an excellent way to try a new gin — or an old favorite. It uses Angostura bitters, which happen to be the easiest to find, though Peychaud’s are a good variant; like the soft drink Moxie, both take their bitterness from gentian root. Simply shake a few dashes of bitters into your glass, and swirl it around until the whole surface has been coated; add a couple ounces of gin, and rocks if you like. This isn’t a drink for gin beginners, but if you’re used to martinis or gin and tonics, it’s a great change of pace, especially with a really excellent gin.