“It was Sappho who first called eros ‘bittersweet.’ No one who has been in love disputes her.”
—Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet
“It is often called bitter, but it was never bitter enough for me...”
—Alexander Chee, “The Poisoning”
From the Greek glukupikron (literally sweet-bitter), bittersweet has come to mean something beautiful with an edge of pain. Saying goodbye to family members is bittersweet. Seeing an ex-lover at the grocery store is bittersweet. Graduations and yard sales are bittersweet. Dark chocolate, raw fennel. Many cocktails are bittersweet, none more so than the Negroni.
Does the English language put bitter first so that what lingers on the tongue is sweetness? Chronologically, bitterness almost always comes later. After the diagnosis, the romance, the bleary-eyed bon voyage. Sweetness upfront, followed by bitterness on the backend. And yet, we reverse the order of the original Greek.
Bittersweet: give me the bad news first.
I nearly spat out the first Negroni I tasted. Working at a college bar after graduating, I made one for my “shift drink.” It was on the menu but no one ever ordered it, and none of my fellow bartenders really knew how to make it. I looked it up in 90’s era cocktail book, the cover showing off something neon-blue in a martini glass the size of a soup bowl. While I followed the iconic cocktail’s classic proportions—one ounce each of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari—there is no doubt I made it incorrectly, shaking rather than stirring (a la Stanley Tucci). This wouldn’t have changed the flavor of the drink, but its texture, turning something that should be smooth as polished marble into a choppy pool of bitterness, over-diluted and studded with diminutive ice chips. I can’t remember if I dumped the rest of the drink out or sucked it down (probably the latter), but I didn’t like it. I wanted to but I couldn’t. It was almost unpalatable.
Around 6th century B.C.E., on the island of Lesbos, a gifted player of the lyre and singer named Sappho invented glukupikron to describe both eros (the state of being in love), and also Eros (the god she called the “melter of limbs”).
While the linking of love with bittersweet sentiment is ubiquitous to us, for the ancients it was a game-changer, concurrent with the archaic shift from oral to literate culture, from spoken words to written texts. According to the writer and classicist Anne Carson, “The poets who invented Eros...were also the first authors in our tradition to leave us their poems in written form.”
Let’s chew on this for a moment: when we started thinking about the bittersweet qualities of love, when we started conceiving, at the language level, of the erotic act as simultaneous pleasure and pain, we began, for the first time en masse, to write our words down.
But what is bittersweet about the written word? Vocables in the air were replaced with silence, the text printed on papyrus scrolls elegizing the texture of the storyteller’s voice. The epic poetry of Homer gave way to the lyric—the poetic expression of the self. A shift from the communal to the personal, from the wars of nations to the battlefields of our love lives, the desires and affairs that had always been too insignificant to sing about.
But Sappho sang. Of the nine books of verse the much-admired lyricist is said to have produced in her life, we have only one complete poem, and about 700 fragments. More bittersweet still: not one note of her music survives.
While sweetness is easy to understand, bitterness is far more tricky, inextricably linked as it is to human evolution. Some amateur Anthropological shorthand: sensitivity to bitterness, a flavor often found in toxic plants and leaves, created in early humans an evolutionary edge. In other words, your ability to detect bitterness kept you alive. The more you were able to taste it, the more you disliked it, the more likely you were to survive and to pass that aversion on down the generations. It is no small matter (and shouldn’t be taken for granted) that we were born to dislike bitterness.
Yet some prefer their coffee black, their wine tannic, as dark as the sea. Some take their toast not just toasted but thoroughly charred. Some opt for pepper-sharp arugula over pale, watery iceberg.
An aesthetic parallel emerges: a taste for art-house films, the tragedies of Euripides, the Cubist violence of Picasso, the Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani saxophone cry of John Coltrane. Some seek out a good lung-rattling howl; others, not so much. Some come to believe, as Carson says, that “beauty prefers an edge.”
The novelist Alexander Chee describes his first experiences with the Negroni as “a familiar door I just kept trying, always mistaken about what was on the other side, and never quite remembering each time.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Chee’s memories of drinking Negronis are tied with romantic impossibility, eros as desire unfulfilled. His coworker at a New York steak house, a handsome (and spoken-for) Louisianan named William, taught Chee the finer points of the Gin Martini and the Negroni off the clock, in dimly lit bars, their drinks always leading to more drinks, their mutual (unspoken) desire growing with the empty glasses. “We loved each other,” Chee reflects, “and there was no place for the love to go except into our restraint, and into these martinis, as it were, which we drank as if we could drink the feeling away, as if we could have it and forget it and be done with it, but also never let it go.”
“Bitter,” Chee says of the Negroni. “But never bitter enough.”
In the poetry of Sappho and her ilk, Carson maps out a topography of desire balancing upon three interdependent points: “writing about desire, the archaic poets made triangles with their words.” These points represent the lover, the beloved, and the thing that comes between them. This third point need not be a wedge; as with Chee and William it might be the very thing that brings the two together: the ritual of a post-shift nip.
Paradoxically, the two points are brought together, but not together. Like the three legs of a tripod, they hold up the erotic tableau. Carson sums this up in metaphors of electrification: “They are three points of transformation on a circuit of possible relationship, electrified by desire so that they touch not touching.” Perhaps the Negroni works this way too.
One: one: one. This is the classic ratio of a Negroni’s components: 1 oz. gin, 1 oz. sweet vermouth, 1 oz. Campari (or other bitter orange liqueur). These three legs pitch the harmonious representation of the bittersweet that is the Negroni.
Juniper-forward and herbaceous, gin provides the drink’s spiritous anchor. The sweet vermouth adds sugar, but also spice and wine-based length, and quite a bit of bitterness. Connecting both these ingredients is the bitter orange liqueur, the third leg of the tripod, holding everything aloft, one unanimous whole, yet keeping each ingredient distinct. Touching not touching, stirred (oh, Tucci!) for 30-40 slow seconds with good ice, finished with a flourish of orange twist—kept if served on the rocks, expressed and discarded if up.
I’m not quite sure when my love affair with the Negroni began. Suffice to say it was an acquired taste that I wanted to acquire. Little by little my palette shifted bitter. Maybe this simply has something to do with the process of getting older, the paradigm of aging as a series of losses.
We lose grandparents and pets. We lose phone numbers and car keys. We lose virginity and songs we once knew by heart. We fall in love with other people (falling as a loss: of control, of ground, of our right minds). We have relationships that last for years, and we have those relationships fail. As Elizabeth Bishop says in her famous villanelle, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” We live, and we become inured to bitterness. We lose and we gain a taste for edges.
So it seems that whether we like it or not, the bittersweet comes to us with age and experience, like our ability to understand paradox, which Carson defines as “a kind of thinking that reaches out but never arrives at the end of its thought.”
M.C. Escher’s pair of “Drawing Hands,” one forever penciling the other, the lithograph both in the process of being made and the finished work of art.
Paradoxical thinking helps us see that while bittersweet is a compound of two words, it still operates on a principle of thirds: bitter adds to sweet and their union is that third element, the thing that both connects and holds apart lover and beloved. Like the child who indelibly solders the bond between her parents while sundering their sex life.
At the time of this writing, Stanley Tucci’s Instagram video of him making his wife a Negroni has received 801,545 views in just over a week. At the time of this writing, most of the world is under lockdown, and if you’re like me, probably cooking (and drinking) more than normal.
Isn’t it bittersweet to think that it takes a pandemic to get us to slow down and reorient ourselves toward some of the things we find most pleasurable in life, acts as elemental as eating and drinking (and eros if we’re lucky)?
Tucci might make the cocktail incorrectly, but he succeeds in representing the bittersweet/erotic principle of triangulation. Beyond his urbane confidence and chiseled, polo-stretching biceps, one of the main reasons people have gone gaga over the video is because he’s making the cocktail for his wife.
Lover and beloved both joined and made distinct by the third thing, the bittersweet symbol of communion in a time when we’d give anything to be able to get together. If we zoom out far enough, we might see Covid-19 as the third point both bringing us together and keeping us apart. It might sound sentimental, but now more than ever, we touch by not touching.
I also had a William. Her name was Leila. We worked together at that college bar where I had my first Negroni. Like Chee’s William, Leila was also taken when we met, and also taught me how to drink. I wish I could say she taught me about Negronis. But when I first knew her it was whiskey sodas with lemon, or glasses of forgettable red wine. Stepping outside for smokes, and then back in for straight shots of well whiskey. Not the refined martinis of William and Chee. Looking back on our time together, what ended up being a tumultuous and thrilling four years, it all tastes bittersweet.
Like listening to her sing “Ave Maria” in an empty concert hall late at night, in full-throated mezzo soprano, for my ears only. Then watching a security guard drag her off the stage mid-song, kicking and screaming (and now, I could tell, blackout drunk).
Like the two of us skateboarding bluish seaside streets at dawn, after an all-nighter. And then having to pick the gravel from her kneecaps after she wiped out.
Like arguing with her on the southern slopes of the Acropolis, overlooking the ruins of the birthplace of tragedy, the theater established to honor Dionysus, arguing about another woman—some passing glance or innocuous Facebook comment—as if her rage was full of rapture, as if jealousy was the highest form of love.
The beauty of edges—like the rust-colored freckle in the white of her eye.
What is this persistent relationship between drinking and eros? No other gods are better at possessing us than Dionysus and Aphrodite (the mother of Eros). They hold their doors wide open and we walk in with stupid grins, slightly different versions of ourselves as soon as we cross the threshold. Generally, we’re happy guests inside their houses, but eventually the party ends, and we have to go home. We wake up heartbroken and/or hungover. It was beautiful but looks less so in the light of day. This is why Sappho made up the word.
In Fragment 31, Sappho says to her lover, “when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking / is left in me.” This inability to speak would seem ironic for a singer and poet. Beauty should be easy to sing or speak of. It comes readymade for praise, lush and luxuriant as a fig. It’s always the bitter the tongue struggles to pin down.
According to Carson, “All utterance is erotic in some way, all language shows the structure of desire at some level.” The edges of words echo the edges of ourselves, all of humanity the words of an unfathomable sentence. Language is the tool we use to bridge the unspeakable distances, the wine-dark sea between lover and beloved.
Like language, the act of drinking is as electric as eros. Like flicking on the light switch in a dark room, we sip and get buzzed. We kiss and get turned on. The mouth both the port of entry for pleasure, and the harbor from which we set the sails of all our sweet nothings.
If eros is best represented by the word bittersweet, and the Negroni is arguably the most bittersweet of all drinks, does it follow that it’s also the most erotic cocktail? The ambrosia of choice for Eros, that limb-melting deity? A fallacy, of course. But for some of us, a proper Negroni, in the right place, at the right time, rides all the right edges, is nothing less than sexy.
It’s difficult to explain the flavor of a Negroni (and my affinity for them) because bitterness eludes our logic. It makes no biological sense to like it. In its presence, the tongue sends this message posthaste to the brain: Stop—this may kill you!
But something else, something unutterable that once sang in the blood of Sappho (and William and Chee and Tucci and Carson and Bishop and Leila and all of us) calls out to be sang and tasted and touched again and again—the bittersweet forever on our tongues.
A native of southern California, Gregory Emilio has newish poems and essays published or forthcoming in Best New Poets, Gastronomica, North American Review, Mid-American Review, [PANK], and The Southeast Review. Recently, he won White Oak Kitchen’s 2020 Prize in Southern Poetry and earned his PhD in English from Georgia State University. He lives in Atlanta, where he continues to work in (and have so much love for) hospitality.