On spritzes two ways, elderflower and Negronis, Fireball and Jameson.
“I’ll tell you how we really do it in Italia,” she advises in a deep Florentine accent. I’m three hours into a yuletide bartending gig on the Upper East Side, and I am completely inundated with Italians.
“More Aperol,” she says after I pour two shots’ worth into a tiny, crystal coupe. When I reach for the club soda, a look of horror passes over her face. “No,” she says. “Only Prosecco.”
I’m standing in a carpeted living room with my usual bevy of fixings—alcohol, yes, but also juice, garnishes, and the most expensive bottle opener I’ve ever laid hands on. On the bookcase behind me, there’s a MAGA hat and a copy of John McCain’s autobiography—signed, I can only presume. The host is a blonde housewife, her husband one of the rare Romans who thinks people still call themselves expats. The housewife interjects and steers my Aperol coach toward the canapés.
I make somewhere between 30 and ten thousand more Aperol Spritzes—or Spritz Venezianos, as I’m told they’re called. For those craving a festive spin, I stealthily add a quarter-shot of sloe gin, well aware that if the Florentine woman sees me, she’ll have me sleeping with the fishes in no time.
“It’s an Aperol that knows somebody,” I joke as I hand a man the “Winter Spritz.” He smiles a little.
“Huh,” he says. “That’s actually funny.” Then he opens the Notes app and writes down that very joke without asking, or even paying me a cent.
It was around then I realized I had no idea what Aperol actually was. Bitters? But made of what—oranges? Or something sexier, like grenadine’s pomegranates? Luckily, I wasn’t outed. Not for not knowing that nor for committing the sin of having never watched The Sopranos. By the end of the night, my hands are a faint tangerine hue, having absorbed the mystery Mediterranean liqueur.
The expat hands me a tip: one hundred and fifty bucks, cash. Before I can pull my hand away, he holds on tighter.
“I’m sorry about the masks, you know,” he says. “I know it’s the bartending agency’s policy and not you, but just know every time you put that on, they’re taking away your freedom.”
I look at the wad of cash in my palm. I look at him.
“Absolutely,” I say. I call out “Arrivederci!” and I’m off.
The Perks of Sipping on Elderflower
Last summer, abroad in Copenhagen, as I strolled the streets and lapped up the 10:00 p.m. sunlight, I made my most important decision of the day: which neighborhood to explore next. These days, I shuffle from class to class, headphones on, shivering in the wind tunnels, mulling over my thesis and my inbox. Needing a change, I decided to pair a classic Danish summer beverage, the elderflower cordial, with the new Norwegian movie The Worst Person in the World, whose protagonist (not even remotely the worst person in the world, it turns out), is also a lover of summer wanderings through a picturesque Scandinavian city—for her, Oslo.
Elderflower is both a little precious and pretentious, just like seeing a movie at Film Forum. It sits squarely in a tier of cocktail accouterments that one would find only in a specialty-drinks-only bar where all the concoctions are $14 and made with egg whites, bitters, tinctures, or charred sprigs of herbs.
But as I discovered in Denmark, elderflower enjoys more mass appeal in northern Europe than in the United States, where it’s still rarefied. I was obsessed with elderflower-anything while in Scandinavia. The floral drink, pear, or maybe lychee-esque—just like the citrusy sea buckthorn (havtorn) juice that I consumed in equal quantities—felt, as the summer wore on, like something worth delighting in daily. And so I drank cocktails, sodas, and even sweet hard ciders infused with elderflower (the latter drink, called Somersby, was purchased from 7-Eleven, a more venerable purveyor of liquor in Copenhagen than in the U.S.).
In my New York kitchen, I paired an exceedingly beautiful bottle of St. Germain—an elderflower liqueur—with gin and lime, fusing two classic warm-weather ingredients with my new favorite flavor. The drink ended up strong and heady. It was more bitter than the cocktails I used to drink while people-watching in Copenhagen, but it still evoked a magical summer of diving into the harbor, breakfasting on cardamom buns, and exploring the Danish beach town of Skagen, a dreamy, artistic haunt of a resort town at the country’s northern tip. Stateside, the taste at least cut through winter’s monotony.
The Penchant of Venice
A gin and tonic has been my drink of choice ever since I allowed myself to acquire one. Of course, I copied my mother, a fact which she was unaware of until obliged to pick me up from a high school party. From the passenger seat, I drunkenly confessed the culprit of my inebriation.
Last July, after working in restaurants for a few months, two friends and I found ourselves in Venice, and my tastes traveled with us. The trip had been delayed by a full year for obvious reasons that were heartbreaking at the time but which now made, for someone with a late August birthday, certain adventures slightly more legal.
Clearly well-versed at directing wandering tourists, our hostel director offered us a map that resembled a landmine. Big Xs were drawn over well-trodden areas that felt more like constructed movie sets than pockets of a living and breathing city. At the upper-left corner of the page, he wrote out a list of recommendations, promises of authenticity. I made out an appealing scribble: “Cynar Spritz.”
Made with artichoke liqueur, dry Prosecco, and club soda, my Cynar Spritz tasted bitter and herbaceous and sprightly. As our ordered refreshments arrived, the mere sight of the Cynar’s light brown hue made it seem somehow more respectable than the bright orange Aperols that overpopulated café plaza countertops and just as respectable as the hearty gin and tonic—a reaction that divulged both the youthful drive and my longing to appear cultivated in my drink decisions.
There we sat. We laughed; we basked; Emma ordered a Campari, a glass of wine, and an Aperol Spritz with an ease that exuded curiosity and confidence. Tupelo stuck to gin and tonics with an admirable loyalty for which I affectionately teased her, remembering the times she had mocked me back in the U.S. every time one was in my hand.
I suspect that the drinks perched upon those small tables, made rickety by the cobblestones below, had revealed our hopes for adulthood. For Emma, this had meant freedom and excitement; for Tupelo, a time of personal tastes, unanchored to family; and for me, a divestment from mimicry in favor of authentic desires.
Playing with Fireball
I squeeze the curvaceous gym water bottle into my mouth like an athlete in a Gatorade ad, which is to say I don’t dare touch my lips to the spout that four others had sucked. It’s a low-budget ad—we’re in a packed basement in Chicago, and in lieu of Cool Blue, we’re drinking warm Fireball, the first taste of hard liquor I’ve ever had.
It splashes the side of my cheek and slides down my throat. I cannot stomach the sweet, syrupy whiskey and start coughing immediately. My brown spittle dots the wrist of my white American Apparel long-sleeve crop top. I am an angel for Halloween. Under my white skinny jeans I’m wearing a pair of tan shorts that create all sorts of visible grooves beneath my pants. I spend the night readjusting the shorts to try and hide them. Three of us are angels, three of us are devils, and all six of us graduated from Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Jewish Day School two years ago.
I slither through the crowd toward an emptier room to recover from the sip in solitude. Wiping my mouth and searching desperately for water, I try to channel the graceful grimace of a middle-aged man drinking his nightly brew. He slams down the old fashioned and winces, pushing through fiery pain till he reaches a drunken bliss. Too bad I coughed up the entirety of my sip. There will be no bliss for me.
The bottle belongs to Daniella, another friend from BZAEDS. She’s dressed in a tight black SWAT team costume. Though we attended middle school, ballet school, and synagogue together, our paths have diverged so much that while she’s supplying assorted squeezy bottles of warm alcohol to the party, and I wouldn’t even begin to know where to acquire liquor, let alone have the ingenuity to disguise it in a decoy bottle. After a few minutes watching the colorful bouncing screensaver on the monitor in the home office, I emerge from the room ready to fake another sip.
Passing the Bar
Some months ago, near the 100th Street entrance to Central Park, in 100-degree heat, a schvitzy softball captain who had just led his ragtag team to victory broke a huddle by soliciting places to celebrate. Someone—probably a league regular who ventured to the North Meadow once a year, no more, no less—suggested Tap a Keg. “My neighborhood bar,” whispered the left-fielder in the back. Only the inept catcher, heaving with visible thirst, heard him.
I’d never said these words aloud, and they felt quite good, and as I steered the team to 105th and Broadway, I tried to explain myself to myself. A neighborhood bar is, first, a bar in your neighborhood. It is usually, but not always, a dive; it is dark. It does not serve good food, but you can bring good food—Mama’s Too, Roti—and no one will mind. Mine has a jukebox and a pool table; if you’re lucky, yours does, too. A neighborhood bar is not a local watering hole where everyone knows your name, but a dependable den of anonymity. Do they recognize you? Maybe, but they don’t care enough to think it through, and neither do you. During the shoulder seasons, you forgo the neighborhood bar in favor of a destination bar or a friend’s neighborhood bar, which you convince them not to forgo because you like to see other neighborhood bars so you can rest easy knowing that yours has superior, which is to say worse, lighting. You don’t stumble into your neighborhood bar; you trust-fall into its loving arms, in one fluid motion that starts in your apartment. And you do not order cocktails there, because they taste bad.
There it was, hungover from the aughts, sidling up to Serafina like the endearing stalwart inside—the one who doesn’t butt into your conversation but is ready to chat if you are. And there was the Jameson in the well, ready for me and some of the other twenty-somethings and most of the fifty-somethings. Some ordered so confidently that I imagined they came from whiskey stock. I don’t: My mom’s a hapless lightweight confined to hop-less craft beer, and if my dad nurses anything, it’s a charmingly sweet rum drink. They’ll never know the cold confidence of grabbing a thick juice glass and taking a clean swig. Neat or rocks, single or double—it’s my impossibly sensible treat, though that night it was the captain’s.
The martini cries out for satin dresses exposing bare shoulders to the winter wind blowing into a sceney restaurant. The Manhattan demands a dimly lit nook on a brisk fall evening. Sazeracs crave the cymbal of soft jazz in late spring. Of the classics, the Negroni is the least fussy cocktail. It doesn’t ask for a season or an aura.
I don’t have any good reason to order a Negroni instead of a boulevardier or a glass of Côtes du Rhône. Both might go better with steak frites. But only the Negroni prompted Sam Rockwell, upon seeing that my best friend ordered one at the East Village bistro Lucien, to say to the waiter, “I’ll have what he’s having.” Obviously, I had to go and order one, too. And as I sipped it through the evening, it somehow waged a war of independence against my dinner.
My inner contrarian wanted to stray from the espresso martinis that the TikTok influencers were fawning over at rooftop bars across the city. I had lost interest in the sappy elderflower gin and tonics that had marked my spring. The old Negroni was, surprisingly, a new adventure. It accompanied me through an afternoon of people-watching in the West Village, through sunset lounging at the pool, and into the burgundy booths of Frenchette in the fall. The cocktail enabled a seamless transition from summer to après-ski, curing both perspiring noses and aching muscles.
The Negroni strives to be easygoing. It’s open to variation in its quest for universal appeal: You can swap gin with bourbon, add a dash of bitters or a slightly charred orange peel, top it off with club soda, infuse it with chai. But venture too far—yes, I’m talking to you, mezcal fiends—and you risk upsetting its delicate liquor to liqueur balance. The one-to-one-to-one ratio of Campari to gin to sweet vermouth is more precarious, more sensitive, than the sturdy cocktail wants it to be.