During the day, the two iron portcullises at number 10 Via Fratelli Calandra are tightly closed. There are no signs, and the graffiti that lines this quiet road in Turin, Italy seems to indicate a general state of abandon. But after 10 pm (every night but Mondays), two small lanterns turn on, and one of the shutters rises – the only signal that Tamango pub is open.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that this bar – home to a strange ruby-coloured cocktail called Tamango that’s thought to have hallucinogenic effects – sits so close to Palazzo Nuovo, one of the main buildings at the University of Turin. You can essentially walk from the centre of reason and logic to something more resembling the crazy world of Alice in Wonderland in a matter of minutes. As such, students – and nightlife goers – tell many stories about the mysterious drink that’s often described as Italy’s answer to absinthe.
She jumped out of a moving car in search of a fountain, fell asleep under its stream of water and later escaped from a hospital in a wheelchair.
Twenty-eight year-old Andrea Lavalle recalled spending two hours running after a dog in the park after drinking more than one. And Tullia Pertusio said when she last had Tamango more than 10 years ago (during a night when she drank three) she jumped out of a moving car in search of a fountain, fell asleep under its stream of water and later escaped from a hospital in a wheelchair.
As a student at the university several years ago, I heard tales of a guy dancing on a rooftop after having just a few Tamangos. But when I tried the drink, which gave me a burning sensation from my throat down to my stomach, I didn’t finish even half the glass. Ever since, I’ve had unfinished business with the cocktail, so I paid Tamango pub a visit on a recent trip to Turin.
The bar was very small, with just a handful of small tables and a few extra seats around the counter. The low lights and scent of burning incense evoked the mystical nature of the Tamango drink, which was named after the slave who rose up against his owner in the 1829 novel Tamango by French author Prosper Mérimée (which was later made into a 1958 film by American director John Berry). However, among students, the concoction is better known for its high alcohol content, obscure ingredients and powerful after effects.
“Tamango is made with a mix of plant and root spirits and infusions,” revealed Elena Di Lorenzo, who created the cocktail and opened the pub 36 years ago with her late husband, Bosco. “After travelling around the world, we discovered different plants and roots that were used inside drinks to cheer up weddings, funerals and other events. Each plant or root has a different effect or purpose.” Tamango, prepared with a mix of African plants and roots, gets its red colour from roselle leaves (a species of hibiscus), which, according to Di Lorenzo, prompts a sense of euphoria and a desire to dance.
“In theory, you should drink half of it in one shot and later sip it,” she said. “It is not hallucinogenic, though. This alleged effect depends on how your body reacts to it. It is also not made with pure alcohol – that would make it too simple.” As her bartender started to prepare Tamangos for me and my friend Rafael, Di Lorenzo winked at me and smiled. “I can’t tell you more than this, the secret is part of our story.”
Rafael had suddenly started to speak in German, and half of a few Chinese students – who dared ordering more than one – were already sleeping on the tables.
Our drinks, served with ice and a lemon wedge, arrived in plastic cups. At first sniff, my Tamango smelled like gasoline. And with just one sip, my throat started to burn as if it were on fire, just like it did years ago. After half a cup of the cocktail, I started to feel my hands getting warmer, and a tingle climbed up my arms. However, this time, I managed to finish it – in two hours and 30 minutes.
At that point, I was done – but others at the pub were in worse shape. Rafael had suddenly started to speak in German, and half of a few Chinese students – who dared ordering more than one – were already sleeping on the tables.
Despite being 85% alcohol, Tamango is not the pub’s strongest drink. Its “bigger brother” Devasto (which means “devastate”) has slightly more. Turns out, all of Tamango pub’s cocktails have to be drunk with respect and humility. If you dare to challenge them with arrogance, you’ll pay the price.
“If you didn’t get beat up as a child, don’t worry,” said Rafael, still speaking in German. “Tamango will do it when you’re an adult.”