Some Thoughts on the Bittersweet: Berlioni

Lately, my thoughts have been lingering on the idea of bittersweet. Essentially composed of two opposing adjectives mashed together, its origins are not surprisingly connected to food. In the fourteenth century, this word gained recognition in association with a specific type of apples that still carry the same moniker today. Bittersweet apples are commonly used in English style ciders on account of their complex flavors. But it wasn't only medieval tastes that appreciated the bittersweet. Modern tastes have fully embraced the joys as well--just think about the popularity of bittersweet chocolate. Could it be that we secretly yearn for the inherent complexity, and will gladly risk bitter aftertaste. But taste is so easy, so present tense, so experiential.

Over time, of course, language shifted the adjective away from the concrete and into the abstract. By the sixteenth century, bittersweet was used differently, associated more with simultaneous feelings of pleasure and suffering or even pain. Here too its usage has become widespread. Perhaps we have even cut to the quick of the contemporary human condition. After we bundled together to form cities and flirted with the fleeting idea of civilization, only then did we learn to savor the double-edged sword that is the bittersweet. Though some of us may have just fallen under the spell of the falling snow.

In the context of cocktails, the word "bittersweet" generally reverts to its less abstract meaning, where there are entire categories of drinks dedicated to it. Negronis and all of its endless variations epitomize the boozy bittersweet. There, bitter and sweet are so intricately laced together, differentiating where one sensation begins and the other ends is futile. But as I waded through my nostalgic pangs, it was the Berlioni, a Negroni variation first created by Gonçalo De Sousa Monteiro in Berlin, that suited my mood. Though I had initially discovered it on the cocktail blog, Oh Gosh, my experience with the Berlioni began on a cold late November evening over a year ago. A mild snow was in the air, but that didn't stop me from wandering down to the Zig Zag. The bar was mostly empty except for the few willing to foolishly find warmth in the bottom of a glass and wait for the traffic to die down. With the sky full of flakes, there was a sense of thinly veiled mystery in the air--some sort of intangible feeling that something is different, that the world could be turned upside down in a matter of moments.

Bittersweet moments are ephemeral--it is almost how we can recognize them. Certain circumstances align, and we are given a glimpse of something sensational, otherworldly, and then before you can even blink, it's gone. How could you not feel a lingering malaise, which is so like a bitter aftertaste? And if you try to re-create the experience, you just end up rediscovering what you've lost. For me this drink is intertwined with the bittersweet. Perhaps it is unfair that such a delightful beverage has become mired in the melancholy. Undoubtedly, I ordered it on a whim, but the association has become too strong. But sometimes I sit down with a Berlioni, and remember a time when what is possible wasn't so limited and relive the bittersweet in my mind, just because I can.


1 ounce gin
2/3 ounce Cynar
1/2 ounce dry vermouth

Stir with ice in a mixing glass. Strain into a chilled whiskey glass or other smallish glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Plymouth gin and Dolin dry vermouth.

When I think of the word "bittersweet," examples easily come to mind that convey more than just regret or suffering in the face of happiness, more than unexpected complexity. But no one is safe from its call, so intertwined it is with the drama of living. Perhaps, though we don't like to admit it, the bittersweet is prized like nutmeg in the early days of the American colonies. Draped around one's neck, whether exposed like a status symbol, or hidden beneath layers of cloth and held, it is something we need to keep close. Perhaps not so much a sign of cosmopolitanism, but of the pitfalls of living life fully--a mantel of pride nonetheless.

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