On this episode of the “Cocktail College” podcast, host Tim McKirdy sits down with Nicolas O’Conner to discuss the Americano. A precursor to the Negroni, the Americano replaces gin with club soda to create a perfect low-ABV apéritif cocktail that activates the taste buds from every angle with its mix of sweet, sour, and bitter flavors. O’Conner shares his thoughts on the cocktail, and explains how different vermouths, apéritifs, and club sodas interact with one another. Tune in for more.
Nicolas O’Conner’s Americano Recipe
- 1 ½ ounces Campari
- 1 ½ ounces sweet vermouth
- 2 ounces club soda or sparkling mineral water
- Garnish: orange wedge
- Fill a Collins glass with ice cubes.
- Add Campari and sweet vermouth.
- Top with club soda or sparkling mineral water.
- Stir gently and garnish with an orange wedge.
Check Out the Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: We’re joined today in the studio, figuratively speaking, by Nicolas O’Conner. Nick, thanks so much for joining us, man. Looking forward to digging deep on the Americano with you today.
Nicolas O’Conner: Yes. Thank you so much for having me. Very excited. Very excited.
T: I think I said this when we had a call about this previously. The first thing I think about when I’m imagining this drink is that Americano song, what is it? The Italiano Americano, that one, the classic.
N: Americano, Americano, Americano.
T: That’s the one. We’ll see if we can put that in the intro.
N: For sure. It also had that really annoying club version remix, about 10, 15 years ago, that was everywhere, the really up-tempo one that every DJ had playing.
T: Yes. I’m not into that, but that was right as I was starting to go out, visit bars, and stuff. Like you said, yes, people used to do the old robot dance to that one. I don’t know. I feel like, unlike this drink, that’s something we could comfortably leave in the past and never revisit.
N: Yes. I don’t know. Something tells me I’ll hear it a couple more times before my time is through.
T: I think so. What about this drink, though? What about the Americano? Thoughts for yourself when it comes to coming into this, coming on to the show talking about this drink, before we dive into the components and the history, but it’s your relationship with this one. Where will you stand with this?
N: Well, the Americano for me is, I think, by far, my favorite low-ABV cocktail, whether we’re doing spritzes or things like that. I love the Americano, and it’s really a go-to for me. I have a lot of drinking experiences where lower ABV really behooves me and really helps the situation because I could drink for longer, or I have a lot more “day” to go. It’s my favorite daytime drink. I just think it’s very complex, but it’s still really easy. It’s a true apéritif, so before a meal, it’s great before conversation, and it’s just an easy drink that also 95 percent of bars will have all three ingredients that you need. It’s just readily accessible, and it’s easy. Probably does affect me after a couple, but I don’t think so. I love how versatile the cocktail is.
T: Like you said, much less so than a Negroni, for example. I say that too, because oftentimes, basically, when people talk about Americanos, they’re just talking about it possibly being this inspiration for the Negroni. I don’t know, maybe we’ll get into that, and the history, but like you said, this is a lower-ABV one. I think too, fantastic fodder for this show, because it seems simple enough, but I’m going to bet that someone like yourself, someone with many years in the industry, you got things that you’re focusing on, you got ways that you can dial this up, that you can elevate the drink or you can make sure that it’s on point, it’s not just splash of this, splash of that. I’m imagining here we’re going to get into all of those topics.
N: Yes. Oh, it’s great you brought up a Negroni because the Americano is the precursor to the Negroni, but I got to it, and I’m sure a lot of people too, with how popular Negroni’s become, came from the Negroni first and then went backwards. As you know, I found about the Negroni first, and I would have a bunch of Negronis, and then when I found about the Americano, I was like, “Oh, wow, this is such a lighter, easier version.” A lot of that range that you can use with a Negroni also, I think, translates so well. We do at my bar here in Los Angeles, we do a Lapsang Souchong infused with vermouth. We actually take Antica to form a Carpano and we infuse that with the Lapsang, which is smoked Chinese black tea, and it’s almost like, I would say it’s an equivalent to say like a Oaxaca and Negroni. You get those smoky overtones, but the effervescence and the bubbles really pop through and you get this smoky current underneath. It’s really nice. Yes, there’s just really a lot of ways to play with it, because you have your classic sweet notes, and your bitterness, and then that pop-up effervescence. There’s a lot of room in there to add floral notes, juicy, more citrus notes. You can add a lot of stuff, and it’s really fun to play with. Plus, since you’re using that lower ABV, I think everything blends a little bit easier too, especially if you wanted to just play around at home.
T: Nice. Great point from yourself too, on this being like — I’m going to assume the story is the same for a lot of us unless you maybe spent a lot of time in Italy or you’re from Italy, that we probably found this drink by way of the Negroni, but it is the precursor or believed to be. Then, hey, we’ll get into components in a second, but you remove the sparkling component of this and then you have another drink completely, which is the Milano Torino, I believe. It’s funny this way that the Negroni template has built upon these other cocktails, but we, these days, discover them in reverse. I think that speaks to a lot about just the success of the Negroni in recent years.
N: Oh, well, the Negroni is singular at this point, I think, in cocktail culture. Things like the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned. If we’re talking the Mount Rushmore of cocktails, the Negroni, I think, is something that’s now up there but has come in the last 10, 15 years with people paying really more attention to what they drink, and I think the American palate, also expanding and wanting more bitter notes, more savory notes. Negroni, it’s like, because it has such old history, but it’s almost like it’s having such a new renaissance. At our bar now, we make more Negronis than we make Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, which is crazy because I never thought that would happen.
T: That’s crazy.
T: That’s wild. Again, as well, we did touch upon this in our Negroni episode whereby, you can believe it or not if you want, but the story goes the Count Camillo, he’s sitting there, he orders an Americano, and he’s saying as well, “I want it stronger, so you bring in the gin.” Again, this speaks to where we are today, which is that you can sell the Americano as a drink to guests by saying, “Oh, hey, you like a Negroni? Oh, you’re going to love the Americano.” It’s funny that the roles have reversed and things have turned on their heads.
N: Oh, definitely. It makes sense too if you look at the history. It’s either Count Negroni or for General Negroni, as well. I know he had spent a bunch of time in America, so then going back to Italy, he had caught on to the trend of using these full, robust cocktails from America, and was like, “I want to do that to an Italian classic.” Instead of watering it down with soda water, let’s add gin and try it with that, and that’s where it comes from. You hear a lot of conflicting stories or whatever, we’re talking over 100 years ago now, but that makes a lot of sense just in the reverse. It’s funny, every time you order an Americano, or not every time, but a lot of times I order an Americano, the first question I get is, “Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t serve coffee.” Everyone thinks that it’s the Americano which is espresso with water. The reason that drink came around is because we’re used to our coffees, so when Americans would come over to Italy, they would have the espresso and it was just too strong. They wanted to water it down. I think it’s funny that we like our coffee watered down, they like it strong. They like their cocktails, and their aperitifs lower and we like our cocktails big and boozy. It’s funny how it’s been born through both, and just everything they call the American the lighter stuff, and then it comes through. It’s just interesting how that’s all come about.
T: Of course. Look, ingredients, if people don’t know, I’m sure they do, or they could have guessed it from the conversation to this point, but it’s Campari, sweet vermouth, and sparkling water. We’ll get into those, but here’s a question for you related to what you’re just talking about there, is that where the inspiration for this drink’s name comes from, that idea of diluting something down? Is that something we know? Or what can you tell us about the history of this drink?
The History of the Americano
N: Well, I did a bit of deep diving before this, and there were two stories that I came about. There’s one that I’m pretty sure it’s 90 percent of the stories I read, then there’s one, the story that I like better, so I’ll do that one second. The first story, it’s called Americano because it was originally called, you brought this up earlier, the Milano Torino, which was the mixture of Campari and then vermouths from Torino. I think it was Punt e Mes at that point. Torino’s great, that’s also where Capano comes from. It’s really a great place for vermouths. That was the original drink. That’s, I believe, around in the 1860s, it’s actually Gaspare Campari, who created Campari, had a Café Campari. He started mixing these two things together, and that was the original-ness of the drink. You see the name Americano start to pop up in the ’20s and ’30s, and it’s coinciding when prohibition began in America, and a lot of Americans would travel to Europe, go to Europe, move to Europe and would just start consuming cocktails at a huge rate. The Americano was just incredibly popular with Americans. I think the Italian palate, I can’t speak for all Italians, but the Italian palate is generally big sweet flavors, big bitter flavors. I think that was always a little bit of it. Adding the club soda helps to lighten those expressions a little bit, but you still do get that bitter and that sweet.
N: That’s around the ’20s, ’30s.
T: The name we assume therefore just comes from maybe it was a drink that people-
N: “All these Americans keep drinking this drink. These damn Americans won’t stop drinking all the vermouth and Campari, let’s call it Americano.”
T: With the soda, for refreshing. I want to bet maybe that’s because our culture over a year, certainly over time, and probably back then, was not as accustomed to bitter complex flavors like the combination of Campari and sweet vermouth. Maybe just adding that sparkling water makes it more palatable for the Americans visiting in their hoards.
N: Yes, for our simple American palates.
T: Before you go into the next one here, because of your preferred tale, can I propose an idea here. I’m going to say, if we were reinventing this story in 2023, do we think that the drink that becomes known throughout Italy as the Americano is the Aperol Spritz? Obviously, the Italians like their spritzes, they like their Aperol Spritz, but we have this notion that, you go anywhere in Italy and you can get an Aperol Spritz, you go to Napoli, you go to Sicily and they’re drinking these things, but that’s really not a part of their culture. Italy, being so regional as it is, I don’t know, I find it interesting that this drink, the Aperol Spritz, has taken on a new life here in the U.S., then we are changing how things are being done in Italy. Does that make sense? Does that track any of that? You know what I mean?
N: Yes, and it’s interesting because Aperol actually advertises the Spritz. When you buy a bottle of Aperol, there’s often that little tag on it that has the recipe for a spritz in it. I think they’re also trying to push that to American culture because it’s a good way to move and sell that. I do think that going along the same lines of watering down the espresso to make the Americano, this having a club soda, an Aperol Spritz is, Aperol to Campari, it’s even a little bit less bitter, more sweet, I would say it leans more to the sweeter side, and you get less of the bitter notes. Yes, it makes sense that it would hark back to that we’re trying to make things easier for the tourists, for the people coming through, whereas it might not have the same relevance to locals. I’d be curious to know what a true Italian barman thinks of the Aperol Spritz at this point.
T: Well, I bring that one up as well. I have the slight advantage here of having — I think I can say this, yes, we’ll say it. Anyway, I’ve got a writer from Italy working on a piece about this for VinePair. Just want to lay that marker down here in case anyone else hears this and they’re like, “Oh, that’s a good story idea, we’ll try and jump you.” We’re on this already, we’re covering it.” I had that insight beforehand, but you’ll see that soon on VinePair.com. Keep a lookout for it.
N: Nice. The second story I like, which seems a little more far-fetched, and I only found it one place, but in 1933, so around the time, we’re starting to see the Americano written down, Primo Carnera became the first Italian heavyweight champion of the world. When he came to America, he won the belt for the first time. Back in the ’30s, it’s still a big deal now, but the heavyweight championship was bigger. There was no basketball, there was no football, baseball’s national pastime, but being the heavyweight champion is huge. We’re talking to the most famous people in the world. When Primo Carnera from Italy won it, he went back, and I guess that was his favorite drink. During his celebration tour back in Italy, everyone would drink the Americano or the Milano Torino, if the story holds true back then, to honor him that he had conquered America. They called it the Americano.
N: It was like his drink and he had conquered and won the heavyweight championship. I like that it was like a pugilist, an Italian pugilist celebration tour, got the name, but it’s much more likely that it’s just because so many Americans ordered it.
T: Hey, I like this story, and by the way, you bring up one of my old-time favorite words there, pugilist. What a word.
N: Oh, yes.
T: Doesn’t get enough play these days. Not that I have a lot of occasions to use that word in, but I like that one. I don’t know.
N: What’s interesting about the term pugilist, I love the word as well, but there is a positive connotation to beating people up for a living. That might have caused a slight downturn in usage because, “You know, let’s all have an Americano and get along.”
T: Yes. Nice. Very nice. Before we do a jump into those ingredients though, just across the board, as a bar operator, is this a cocktail, you mentioned the popularity of the Negroni before, is this one that sees a lot of traction or is it more of a summertime thing? You are also there in L.A., so it’s summer, like nine months of the year at least, but-
N: It’s always summer.
T: Where do you feel like this stands?
N: We have two bars in New York too, so it’s two bars in New York, one here in L.A., and I’ll say this, my bar is definitely more of a nighttime-type thing. We don’t open until 5 or 6 o’clock at night. We always have a very lively atmosphere. Honestly, the Americano almost never gets ordered.
N: I’d say I’ve made a handful. I ordered a lot, but I’d say it’s been ordered maybe a handful in the last five years. I can’t even remember the last one anyone ordered. I’ve done a lot of work, especially consultant work with restaurants, and it gets ordered much more during the daytime or with food, I find.
T: That makes sense.
N: The nighttime drinker doesn’t go too much to it. A lot of times though, I’ll have people come up to the bar and it is evening or later towards the end of the night and they want something, like not just low ABV, but just something lighter and something easier. I’ll often offer up an Americano or riff on an Americano to keep the ABV down to keep people going. I make them more than they get ordered. I have had a couple of people be like, “Wow, I love this drink. How can I order this again?” I’ll give them a little breakdown of what the Americano is. Generally, it’s gotten easier and easier because you just tell them, you’re just like, “You know what a Negroni is?” They’re like, “Oh, yes.” “It’s like that but with club soda instead of gin.” They’re like, “OK.”
T: Nice. Hey, what about that food pairing option there because again, we spoke about Campari, sweet vermouth. These are complex ingredients, and then you’re bringing those together. There’s a sweetness, there’s a bitterness, herbaceous, how food friendly is this of a cocktail?
N: Very, very much so. It is truly an aperitif cocktail. Aperitifs are to spike the palate, get all the juices flowing in the belly, and get you excited and hungry to eat. There’s also the bitter and the sour notes that come through it. The little bit of sour and then the sweet notes really do to drive hunger and get you to salivate a little and want to start eating.
T: You’d gear it more to pre-dinner with some bites versus this is something maybe I can have alongside a starter or an appetizer.
N: I think either beforehand or during the appetizers, starting it out. I like to start with a nice little Americano either right before or during appetizers, then I like to move into wine for the main course.
N: There’s something about getting the bubbles in there and some of those bitter notes. It’s really nice to then go into the food and then allow the food and the wine later on to pair together.
T: Here’s another little detour for us too, so obviously last year, we saw the Negroni Sbagliato really take off in popularity again, but this whole thing that everyone in the bar world was like, “What the hell?” They were like, “I like my Negroni Sbagliato with Prosecco.” It’s like, “That’s how it’s made.” You know what I mean?
N: It was that viral clip, the one from the “House of the Dragon.”
N: Sbagliato with Prosecco. Now everyone, and I must admit that the way she said it, I wanted one immediately. She did say it great.
T: I tell you what, she sold it.
N: You don’t have to specify.
T: Exactly, but have you ever tried this drink with Prosecco instead of sparkling water? Does that work?
N: I have, actually. It does work. It does bring out a little bit of a pop. I actually tried this, when I knew we were going to be doing this, I’ve pretty much been drinking nothing but Americanos or variations for the last two, three weeks. I did, especially because we had to cancel once or twice, I’ve kept on it. I did try it once or twice with Champagne. Going through, especially this like how many I’ve had recently, I find that I actually prefer it with, I like mine a little bit longer and a little bit taller. I actually like it more subtle and pulled back. The original recipe calls for like one ounce, like 30 ml, one ounce Campari, one ounce vermouth, and a splash of soda. Even in a rocks glass, so it is still pretty compact. You’re getting a lot of the bitter and the sweet notes right there and just using the bubbles. I prefer it all in a Collins glass, a highball with a lot more club soda and even a little bit higher pour of, I like to do one and a half ounces, and then do almost two to three ounces of soda. I like it thin like that. I like to really feel the bubbles and the bite of, I like using Seagram’s, like a tighter seltzer. Really getting more of that and slightly dampening down the huge bitter and sweet notes and getting a little bit more out of the drink. While I did like some, I liked the dry notes that would come from the Champagne while still getting the effervescence, I felt with that, it’s all a bit rich for me. Maybe that’s why I’m a true Americano.
N: I like it a little more thinned out. It does work with the effervescence and the champagne, but for me, I prefer it I think a little bit the classic, longer.
T: Are you saying today on rec that you’ve purposefully delayed a couple of these “Cocktail College” recordings because you’ve been enjoying this drink so much, so you’re like you’re want to stay on this kick, so, “I’m just canceling recording so I can drink more Americanos.” Is that what’s been going on here?
N: Oh, yes. I was drinking Americano during the first one and then I faked technical difficulties just so I could keep drinking. Got to justify ordering extra vermouth. All of a sudden, my bar has a very specific — we don’t carry more than four of any one expression. We only have four vodkas, four gins, we really curate what we’re presenting to people. I just have two vermouths but all of a sudden, for preparation for this, I ordered five vermouths. I have to justify that somehow, so I had to keep drinking Americanos.
The Ingredients Used in Nicolas O’Conner’s Americano
T: That’s a really great point, though. I think we can dive into this now, which is this section of the show, we always go ingredient by ingredient and we talk about them. Look, we mentioned this in the Negroni episode too, but does it have to be Campari? If you’re in that mindset, does that actually mean that the sweet vermouth is the more important component of this cocktail because the Campari is non-negotiable? What do you feel about that? Lead us into that category and we’ll talk about it in broader terms, but how do you feel about that, though?
N: Sure. I don’t think that Campari is essential. A red bitter is, but I don’t think Campari is. I think that’s the classic way, and 95 percent of the times they ever have it, it’s with Campari, and it’s great with Campari. Nothing against Campari here. I love, with these cocktails, that we’re over a century old, it’s almost like, you know what copyright law is like 100 years, whatever, and after that you can use a song for whatever you want or the images. I feel like it should be the same with cocktails. Again, going back to Negroni, which we’ve talked about a lot, even 10 years ago, when me and one of my other owners, we would go out and, for lack of a better word, we’d try to poach bartenders, but we don’t say that. We tried to go find good people-
T: Chat with the local talent.
N: Yes, exactly. We’d go to a bartender, and we’d be like, “Hey.” If they had good movement, they looked right in the place, we’d just go up to them, we’d say, “Hey, can you make us Negroni? Not with the sparks. Make the Negroni how you like the Negroni.”
N: We found the best bartenders that we found, made the Negronis, they were amazing but they made them their way, there was a little difference. You can make 1, 1, 1 and be like, “It’s great.” It was those subtle little changes that they made that separated them. I love when you have these entities that have been around for so long, you should definitely play with it. If you’re staying with the true feeling of the drink and you’re hitting those sweet notes, and you’re hitting those bitter notes, I don’t really care what you use.
T: Before we carry on for a second there, I’ve got to ask, not that you’re doing it anymore, but hypothetically speaking, if you were doing that now, because I know that talent is hard to come by these days, for many different reasons.
N: On the record, we have never poached anyone.
T: I know that never happens.
N: We’ve never poached anyone, on the record.
T: That has never happened once. If you were going to-
N: Never lured someone away.
T: -here’s how I would have done it. Not that we want to get into OJ here and now, but what I was saying is 2023, if you were doing that, would you still go with that Negroni test or would there be a different test that you would use where it might be the final one of the audition there that they don’t realize they might hypothetically be under?
N: I will say this, and this is a credit to the bartenders, at least that I cross paths with, I think skill, knowledge, and ability over the last 10 to 15 years, it’s just grown so much. It’s unbelievable, actually. Now I actually wouldn’t use that same test now because I think just so many people now can make a Negroni. 10, 12 years ago, if you knew how to make a Negroni and you made it your way, we knew you’d read a book. We knew you had done a little extra work. Not only that, but it’s like you probably did the bare minimum to get the job and are pretty good at it, but then you also went the extra mile just to learn a little because you have that interest in your craft and what you’re doing. It really sets you apart a little bit. Now, the Negroni is such a part of culture and bar culture that it’s just like everyone should know how to make a Negroni. That doesn’t necessarily make you a top-notch bartender because it should just be part of your repertoire.
T: What would be a better candidate for that drink?
N: Now, I think what’s great, it does depend on where you are a little bit, but with the way bars have expanded now, and the amount of ingredients and how much stuff is made in-house, now I almost leave it up as a bespoke cocktail. Because I’ll drink anything, they’re all my friends. I like sweet, sour, a bit of spicy. I like gin, vodka. I like it all. I’ll leave that up to the bartender and it’s like, “Make me what you want to make.” If there’s a confidence in the way they make and deliver it, and it tastes good and has a palate, I think it really shows a confidence in the bartender and what they can do. I think unless you’re going to a dive bar or something where they don’t have a range of ingredients, I think there’s just so much more that people can do now. Back in the past, you’d go somewhere and the bar would be a nice place, but they wouldn’t have the range of ingredients or cocktails or whatever their menu was with just like five classics or something. Now, you go and almost every place has like 10 of their own signature cocktails and all this stuff. It’s really fun.
T: Wow. Good times.
N: Oh, great times. It’s amazing. With the bartenders getting better and better, so as I think I touched on this earlier, I think just the general palette of the bar-going patron is just so much better than it used to be, and it’s allowed so much more freedom within the glass. That’s what I have most fun with is just what we’re doing in the glass. I order a lot of Americanos during the day and stuff, but I don’t really have a go-to order these days. I want to experience the moment, the cocktail, the ambiance, and what people are working on. 90 percent of my orders are off either a signature menu or bespoke from someone that’s working.
T: Bartender’s choice. Nice. All right, let’s get back to that Campari then or the bitter red aperitivo category. I think for the purposes of this episode and our listeners and the folks that tuned into this, I reckon Campari, we’re good on. We know the history, we’ve covered it in other episodes before. We’re good with that. I would love to hear some alternatives that you’ve come across here, what you’re looking for from those ingredients, and how they work in this drink. Also, are they all Italian-made but from competing brands? Or are there some American-made examples that you’ve come across that you’re like, “Wow, this is cool. This is a good substitute for Campari in the Americano.”
N: With alternatives for Campari, if I want a bit of a bigger flavor, because Campari is really nice, you get the bitter and bold in there, but if I want a little bit heavier, especially because as I mentioned earlier, I like a little bit more soda water in there. Sometimes, I want a little bit more bitterness, a bigger drink that comes through, I’ll use Contratto bitters, which is done with a brandy base, so it already just has a heavier side to it, which I really enjoy sometimes because it gives it a little more weight. It stands with the vermouth a little bit more. I think it really pulls the flavor of the juice. I really like Contratto. Sometimes, I use something that’s a little bit lighter than Campari, like a Cappelletti.
N: Or Select, which is really good, which is from Montenegro.
T: I like the Select as well. Yes, that’s a really nice one. They also do their Aperol Spritz alternative with the cheeky little olive garnish. I like that.
N: Definitely. There’s some really cool stuff, too, outside of Italy. The thing I’ve gotten, I only tasted it about a year ago, but I believe it’s either from New York or Chicago, but it’s called Faccia Brutto which I think means like “the ugly Italian.”
T: If you don’t mind me, yes, Faccia Brutto, I think they call it, but if you don’t mind me coming in there. Yes, it’s a phenomenal product.
N: Oh, it’s one of the best. It’s really awesome. It’s one of the best new products I’ve had actually in a long time. I don’t know how new it is, but it was new to me. When I first tasted it, I love the branding too, the coloring. It’s got a great smell.
T: It looks Italian, right?
N: It’s really balanced.
T: The branding.
N: For sure. I couldn’t believe it when I looked at the back and it said “Made in Brooklyn.” I was like, “Oh, really?” Yes, it’s really cool. That one’s really balanced. I love how its sweet notes and its bitter notes are really in the middle and balanced. To me, Campari will come a little more on the bitter side, and Faccia Brutto still has that deep, bitter, herbal feel, but then it also has just a really nice, sweet balance to it. Makes it really clean and easy. The one other one, just to shout out, which is actually much lighter is I like the Lo-Fi, their red bitter, their Aperitif, Lo-Fi Aperitifs. I believe Campari comes in at 23 percent, 24 percent alcohol, whereas the Lo-Fi, I think is down at 16 percent, 17 percent. Again, it’s a little lighter, a little lower. When I’m about to eat, before I eat a meal or something like that, I don’t want to really fill up, I’ll go with maybe something a little lighter like that, which has also more floral notes to it, which I think really comes out and aids with the sweet vermouths really nicely.
T: Nice. What about those vermouths? You mentioned earlier infusing Carpano Antica with tea there. Remind us of the tea.
N: Yes, the Lapsang souchong tea. It’s smoked Chinese black tea. I’m not 100 percent sure of this process, but I think what they do is they actually take the tea and then they bury it and burn pine needles over the top, and it gets this huge, smoky dark, and it’s a black tea. It’s a ceremonial-grade tea in China. It’s not used all that often in regular Chinese life. Ever since I found it around 10 years ago, I love using it as a smoky side note especially with how popular mezcal has become. 10, 15 years ago, much less mezcal around. My mezcal hack would be to use Lapsang souchong because it gives it this great smoky overtone, but now there’s a mezcal on every corner.
T: Nice. Just in terms of vermouths again, in general there, because you take a, for example, a Martini Rossi or a Dolin Rouge, you compare that to a Carpano, my God man, the Carpano’s such a big hitter, and it has this like baking spice, wintry profile. For myself, at least, that’s where I see it. What’s your thinking for this one? Are you using that because it’s robust?
N: Well, even the mouthfeel of Carpano. Antico from Carpano, or Cocchi di Torino, they’re just much bigger, they’re all secret recipes, so we’re not quite sure what’s in it, but they’re using, probably a bigger botanical profile. They’re testing a little higher in ABV, and they have that mouth feel, that richness that really comes through whereas something like Dolin Rouge, which I like, which is much lighter, much easier. I love Dolin too. I think that they all work great. Again, it’s about where maybe you want to be with that cocktail at that moment. If you want something that’s a little bubblier, you want to have maybe three or four, or you haven’t started drinking yet, go with something a little lighter with the Dolin and you can match that with the Lo-Fi or even the Faccia Brutto, which is a little more balanced, I think, than the Campari. If you know this is going to be your cocktail tonight, your after-dinner, you want things a little bit heavier, maybe cut down on your soda water a little and use a Cocchi di Torino or the Antica Formula Carpano and match that with your Campari or your Contratto, bigger flavors. You really can play and mix around with it. I don’t think there’s necessarily a favorite way for me either. It depends on my moment and my spot.
T: Final ingredient here, and this is one that I really want to get into for a second because you mentioned Seagram’s earlier as your club soda, your sparkling water component. I spent a little bit of time between L.A. recently and New York. I’m based in New York, but I’ve been out there. One thing I noticed, Mineragua, it’s everywhere and I’ve never come across it in New York, and people in New York, they’re all about Topo Chico at the moment, but I’ve seen Mineragua everywhere there. Is that the cool kids’ water over there?
N: Yes. Well, the Latin influence, the Mexican influence on Southern California, San Diego, Los Angeles, which have amazing cocktail programs, but the influence is just so heavy. It’s interesting, not to jump up too far away from club soda here, but I’d say it switched about three, four years ago, like just before the pandemic and then coming out of it, our top sellers on the menu were always vodka. Always vodka and maybe a whiskey would sneak in there. It’s been about, I think the last three, four years, all of our top sellers, and that’s in New York and in Los Angeles are either tequila or a mezcal based. It’s really interesting. I think that trend is moving too, especially in L.A. in a lot of the flavors, I find so many drinks out here that have tamarind in them. They’re using tomatillos and using very Latin flavors. I think the Mineragua, and it’s funny. I brought up Seagram’s earlier, which is my favorite. Seagram’s is really biting. It’s like you take one sip of Seagram’s, it’s like, “Ah.” You can’t drink multiple sips at once because it’s really crisp, really biting. I think Mineragua has that same — it almost burns a little bit. It’s so carbonated. Whereas something like traditionally this drink and like the Americano was actually featured in a James Bond book, it was the first drink he had and everything, and he just did a splash of, like, Perrier, which is almost the opposite, tight little bubbles, not as much, really light. It’s funny that I think we’ve moved now to have these big, big bubbles and a lot more carbonation. Actually, I like it. I like it.
T: I think that’s what people love about Topo Chico as well here. They claim that it stays effervescent for longer. It’s got these attacking bubbles too, but again, I’m not sure how much that’s proliferated on the West Coast here. Obviously, it was a Texas thing originally, but folks are going crazy for Topo Chico in New York.
N: I also think too, when you have a higher carbonation level, and it has a little more effect like that, it slows the watering down process a little bit. Like you had mentioned, it maybe stays bubbly for a little bit longer. With the extra carbonation, you have less of it burning off and it waters the drink down less, which I think is great. You get some of those truer flavors coming through.
How to Make Nicolas O’Conner’s Americano
T: Fantastic. Now talk us through the preparation of this. I’m going to ask you to tie yourself down to one recipe and two definite or three definite components for this. Can you talk us through this as if you were making it for us in the bar? We’re one of these few people that’s coming into your bar and asking in one bar, a few for now at least, we’ll see what happens after this. How would you make that for us? Can you talk us through?
N: The first question I’d ask honestly, if you walked in and you said, “Hey, I’d love an Americano,” I’d be like, “Great order.” I’d be like, “I can totally make you an Americano, but would you like me to make some riff on it because we try to be fancy.” I’d be like, “Want me to make some fun riff on that, play with that.” If they were like, “No, I just want Americano,” I’d be like, “Great. Still a great order.” I would do it, so the way I would do it, I had mentioned earlier, the classic recipe is one out Campari or red bitter, one out sweet vermouth and then splash club soda or mineral water. From there, there’s a myriad. I’ve seen everything from any type of fruit or zest you can think of or a slice of orange zest, lemon zest. That’s the basic. For me, I prefer it with a little more of everything, like I mentioned earlier. Instead of having it in a rocks glass and that pour of what, around like two and a half, three ounces of cocktail, I like to do an ounce and a half of each. An ounce and a half of the sweet vermouth, an ounce and a half of the bitter, and then a hitting about two ounces, I’d say, of club soda. I usually just top with it, but I’d say it’d be around between two and three ounces. I like to serve that in a Collins glass or a high ball. I like the little wedge of orange. I prefer the orange zest to the lemon zest because I like how it’s a little bit warmer, a little bit bigger, and a little less tart. It warms up and I think it pairs much better with, especially, the vermouth. I like it in an orange little piece because I like to eat the orange. I’m just a sucker for that. I like interactive garnishes. I want a garnish that I can take a bite out of. That’s how I would perform it.
T: You’re serving that on the rocks?
N: Yes, definitely.
T: Ideal world, would you have one of these nice big spears of ice in that Collins glass or would you just go a couple of cubes?
N: I love people’s ice game. People have gotten crazy with the ice game, and I think it’s great. The less surface area, the less rate of dilution, I totally get and understand. At our bars, we have a cold draft system. We do the one-ounce cubes and we just decided in each of our locations, especially the New York ones where there’s no space that we wanted to allocate more of that space instead of having that specific ice program and either making our own ice or ordering the really expensive ice, we just stick with the one-ounce cubes. I like their rate of dilution, I don’t think it’s too much and it’s good enough ice. We don’t actually do anything with the specialty ices. I think that’s great, but I don’t think it’s essential. I think it’s aesthetically really pleasing, and it’s really cool if you have that thing. I think just some standard good cubes. If you don’t want that, like, pebble ice, chipped ice cube, whatever you want to call that stuff because that’ll dilute so quickly. Not to mention, you have to put so much to fill in the glass. If you have some solid, like one-inch cubes, I find those work great.
N: Sorry, nothing against the ice programs out there, I love that. I took a class, I got to cut one of the bricks, it was really fun. With our bar, we created pretty much everything in-house except the liquor itself. We have a dedicated prep guy who does 35 hours a week of just prepping. We keep them juicing rather than cutting ice.
T: Yes, that makes sense. Like you say, there’s cold draft cubes as well. They are such high quality too that-
N: Oh, it’s amazing.
T: -if you got them available, there’s nothing to worry about.
N: Right. Yes, definitely.
T: Any final thoughts from you today on the Americano before we move into the next section of the show?
N: Nothing too much we haven’t covered other than it’s just an awesome drink. I really geek out on the history of the cocktails and where we got to where we got to. It’s just fun to watch how region, tradition, and culture can dictate how things come up and then it reaches a global scale, and then all the interpretations of that. I just think the Americano fits on so many different levels of its history. It’s classic. It’s got a cool backstory. It really comes from the region it comes from. It’s incredibly Italian, yet it has this American influence to it. I think it has a ton of history to it, and I think that’s really fun when you can know more background to what you’re actually consuming. It just rounds everything out. I think it’s just great. We’re not getting any more cocktails like that. There might be some weird Jerry Thomas thing that gets unearthed that becomes popular again, like the Penicillin or something, but there’s not too many more of these iconic cocktails. It’s pretty great.
Getting to Know Nicolas O’Conner
T: Fantastic. All right then, let’s do that, let’s move into the next section of the show or get to know yourself a little bit more as a bartender and a drinker, beginning with question number one, what style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
N: Yes, so I touched on this a little bit earlier. We only carry four expressions of any type. We really curate what we present to our customers, and we have a pretty expansive menu of custom drinks, and most of our orders come off of those drinks. With our back bar, we want to keep it simple but also present some fun things. As I’d also mentioned recently, how popular mezcal and tequila are right now, anything agave-based. I’d say that really takes over the back of our bar. I’ve found that we’ve started to sell so much more of that, that it’s moving a lot. Again, we only carry four types of any one kind. We have a very balanced back bar. I will say the bottles that are flying off the shelf would be your mezcals and tequilas, and not only on like a base level, even our top-shelf ones, the more expensive, the better stuff people are really, really like going out there and trying it and falling in love with tequila, the agave plant. It’s too bad it takes them so long to grow.
T: I know, and you start getting into wild agave species of varieties in mezcal and you’re like, “14 years. Wow.” All right. Dreamed that one by the half-ounce.
N: It’s sadly unsustainable too. It’s, “Get your mezcal and tequila now because five years from now, everything’s going to be double the price.” It’s going to go crazy.
T: Yes, it is wild, this agave boom. Such a fascinating and incredible category of spirits there. Question number two.
N: Yes, definitely.
T: Which ingredient or tool do you believe to be the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
N: I was really thinking about this one for a long time. My first initial thought was the jigger because if you don’t measure, you don’t measure. I think when I came down to it, I actually think the most underappreciated thing is hospitality. It’s weird to put that, but I feel like there’s so much more than just what goes into your mouth. It’s all about when you go to a bar and you want to have a great cocktail, it helps. There’s good music playing, there’s good lighting, there’s good mood, the temperature’s right, everything’s feeling good and you place your order and you get a nice bartender who’s attentive, gets it to you, it’s nice. It doesn’t have to be over the top, but having that whole experience and that interaction makes everything taste that much better. I think so much we get, as bartenders, and I’ve done this over the years, especially, at the end of a six-hour shift, but we get bogged down in everything that’s happening, all you have to do as a bartender and then also nailing your specs and making the perfect drink and all that, you forget that it’s almost like a dance between you and the customer, or at least it should be. I really find in, like, hospitality and interaction and communication about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it really goes a long way and really helps to open up and create regulars and just make that amazing experience. I think a lot of bartenders can really nail the specs, and that’s a great-tasting drink, but there’s more to it than just measurements. Yes, I think that there’s a lot. It’s funny, I started with the jigger. I started with the jigger which was specifically measurements, and I was like, “You know what? No, it’s not about that. It’s the other way.” You have to have both. I definitely think that if all I did was just get people drunk, like, what have I been doing for the last 18 years? But no, we’re providing an escape for people. We’re providing a relaxing time or a break from whatever ails number, whatever they’re doing. I don’t know, I think that’s really, really important.
T: Yes, great point well made, and great advice. Speaking of which, question number three here, what’s the most important piece of advice that you’ve received while working in this industry?
N: It does go along the lines of what I was just talking about is that it’s too, of the great mentors that I’ve had throughout, all of them were really about creating a full moment, like really creating everything. Like at our bar, we design our own candles, so we control the smell, we curate all our playlists. We really try to create this sort of magic environment and elevate it. It’s not just about the cocktail. It’s so easy just to put your head down in the book and just study or just come up with new drinks or just come up with all that, but it’s really about how everyone is affected by it and how everyone moves. That advice coupled with “you’ll always have another customer next, just keep going.” I think those are the two. It’s like, make the best of each little moment, but don’t get too caught up in any of it because you’ll have another customer next. Just make the best out of each of those little moments because one customer might actually just be turbulent, there might just be issues. Don’t let that derail you for the next five, for the next 10. Keep each little interaction as its own moment and just try to make the best of each moment and the best cocktail in that moment and everyone will have a good time and you’ll make tips too.
T: Very important part there. Good. I think it’s definitely worth mentioning that at the end. Question number four here. If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
N: This is why I canceled two episodes because I couldn’t think of the answer to this one. No, I’m just kidding. This is the tough one because as a degenerate bar out of the last 20 years, that’s where I found my home. It’s my home, away from home, is bars. There’s so many that have been so amazing that we’ve lost recently too, with the pandemic and everything. It’s really sad. I think if I had to take it back to one bar, it would actually be a bar restaurant. It was in Santa Anita off of Rosemead Boulevard here in east L.A. It was a place called Bahooka. It was like a Polynesian, Hawaiian-themed bar and restaurant. It was built in the mid-50s. Every booth, I think, inside of it, there were 142 aquariums.
N: Every table and booth had an aquarium behind it. There was this fish up front, this giant aquarium, the fish had lived for 25 years. Her name was Nelly. It was like this huge fish that had grown from this little thing. It was like it had been there for 25 years. They served all these crazy tiki drinks and big, bad cuts of meat with pineapple on the top, that kind of thing. It wasn’t necessarily the best-crafted cocktail, but it was just so much fun there. It’s actually in the opening scene, or one of the opening scenes, of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
T: Oh, really?
N: Of the Terry Gillian movie, yes. There’s this weird Polynesian-style restaurant they’re in with all these aquariums that’s really dimly lit. That’s Bahooka. It closed suddenly. It closed pre-pandemic. It closed about seven years ago, and the building just sits there, it’s still empty. It’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s across from a high school. It doesn’t make any sense, but it was one of those magical places in time, and it was one of the first bars I started going to. That’d be a fun last bar to go to.
T: I think that’s a great answer. Yes, for sure. Final question for us today. If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
N: Oh, so this is another tough one because, again, I said this earlier, they’re all my friends. They’re all my friends and I want to say goodbye to them all. I think I would want to go to the start with my first cocktail I ever had, which may or may not have been with a fake ID, we won’t talk about that. The first drink I ever had was a Scorpion Bowl. I don’t know, I saw it on the menu, it served two and I ordered it for myself, first drink. I think I thought, “Scorpion. It sounded just so cool, like a scorpion bowl.” Little did I know there’d be gin 151, light rum, vodka, dark rum, like all that stuff in it. I definitely got sick that night. I had a Scorpion Bowl, and it was great. I’d probably want to go in as I go out. Plus, I’d probably make one that served seven or eight, because if it’s my last drink, right?
T: Yes. Exactly. You have a little bit of fun with it as well, setting stuff on fire, potentially, the presentation, go out on a high.
N: Yes. There’s this legendary bar in Los Angeles, it was called Hop Louie, which is right here in the heart of Chinatown. I can see it from where I live. It’s closed. It closed a couple of years back, but the building’s still there. It’s this really iconic building. I never found evidence to back this up, but they claimed to just have created the Scorpion Bowl and that’s where I had had it. The place had been open since the ’40s and ’50s, and I found nowhere in any research that they actually did that. I think the bartender was just saying that. Specifically, it would be the Hop Louie Scorpion Bowl would be the last one I made. RIP Hop Louie.
T: Oh, very nice choice there for you. Oh, Nick.
T: Thanks so much for joining us today. It’s been a blast here chatting about the Americano, but not only the Americano, we covered things like Primo Carnera, pugilist. It’s been wonderful.
N: Oh yes, such a great time. Thank you so much for having me.
T: Looking forward to the next one, man. Thanks again.
N: Yes. We need to meet up soon and have an Americano. I’ll make you a Lapsang souchong one-
T: Oh yes. I’m in, I’m game. I’m down there. I’ll be over there in no time. We’ll see you soon.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.