We need to talk about Negroni

red streets
The people’s flag is Campari red, it shrouded oft our martyred dead—what mass agitation for Campari Week might look like. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
They appropriate everything I’ve ever loved. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

This is the third annual Negroni Week. From 1–7 June, that is. I suppose it’s possible that it began in Gruppo Campari’s marketing department, rather than as a popular clamour in the pubs, bars, fields, taverns and mean streets of the world, but for Campari, I don’t mind. Partly because I love the stuff—you can read my piece on that here—and partly because for years few others I knew liked it; they groaned, mocked, doubted and feared, even if many of them know better now. I always had a sense of Campari being friendless, beleaguered, unloved, neglected, and that lingers. It was always preposterous, given its mighty popularity in parts of the world, and is now much more so as the artisans and hipsters have taken it up. Anyhow, here’s to the noble Negroni, one of the best and strongest of cocktails, and a prime way to drink Campari.

Negroni basics

Gin, sweet dark vermouth and Campari served in an old fashioned/rocks glass. Possibly with ice and an orange twist. Perhaps invented by Count Negroni.

This is how they usually tell it. In the 19th century the Milano–Torino (Milan/Turin) was a popular mixed drink in Italy; it was made up of Campari (from Milan), sweet vermouth (from Turin) and soda. After the First World War it became popular with the many visiting Americans and was renamed the Americano. In his Hemingway cocktail companion, Philip Greene speculates that Americans had developed a liking for Campari during Prohibition; it was classified as a medicinal product by the US government and was available by doctor’s prescription—Campari’s flavour does carry a suggestion of the apothecary, after all. Count Camillo Negroni found the Americano a little tame and asked Fosco Scarselli, a bartender at the Caffe Giacosa in Florence (still open), to swap the soda for gin. Other drinkers started to ask for the Count Negroni … and so it went on. This may or may not be true, but it’ll do for me.

There’s some variation, but the traditional Negroni is equal parts London dry gin, sweet vermouth and Campari (a trademarked recipe/brand), mixed by stirring rather than shaking. My colleague (and Alderman Lushington co-founding editor) Andy Hamilton says:

There is a good reason why the Negroni is known as the bartender’s cocktail; like a drunken argument, it’s full of fighting contrasts and ends in a harmonious love-in. The sweet Italian vermouth battles the bitter orange, reaching a perfect compromise, both losing their edges without losing their character, while the gin cuts through the two like a friendly onlooker making peace by force. Campari, of course, fights itself.

My Negroni

I’ve been using Tanqueray, Casa Mariol and … Campari.

The Negroni requires balance, but it’s not the balance of strong flavours being tempered by milder ones, it’s a balance of big flavours smashing into each other and reaching a sort of exciting peace. This means that a good, robust, orthodox London dry gin is generally called for. Of the standard gins, I usually go for Tanqueray or Beefeater, good gins both, and neither is shy. The more diffident notes of floral gins like Hendrick’s can be brushed aside by the Campari and vermouth. At the moment, I’m working through a bottle of Tanqueray.

Some recommend stronger gins, and that’s something I can definitely live with. Andy Hamilton plumps for the power and complexity of Blackwoods Vintage Dry Gin (special edition, 60% by volume), while Michael Dietsch suggests Perry’s Tot Navy Strength (57%). I like the Wine Society’s High Strength Gin (50%), which is also excellent value.

Bear in mind that gin is, weirdly, something of a passive partner in the negroni, and most of the time it’s better to spend your money on the most important variable, the vermouth.

If you use Cinzano or Martini Rosso for your vermouth, you won’t be overwhelmed by disaster, even if some wretches sneer at you. The vermouth I’ve been using is Casa Mariol Vermut, a Spanish/Catalan vermouth (vermut), and while I’d like to pretend that I discovered it in a small taberna in a hidden Catalan valley or as the culmination of years of research, in fact I just asked my local merchant, Corks in Bristol, for a good Negroni vermouth and they suggested this. It has been superb, just right. It’s also very reasonably priced at £16.99 for a litre. Probably my favourite is Cocchi Vermouth Torino—which also keeps the original Milano–Torino connection, but is relatively expensive (>£20 for 75 cl). Another good choice is Punt e Mes.

Vermouth zealots like to point out that it’s a fortified wine, not a spirit, so it doesn’t keep indefinitely and should be refrigerated and consumed briskly after opening. This is true, and the flavour does become thinner, diminished, with time after opening, but few of us drink enough of it to be finished after a few days; keeping it longer won’t ruin your Negronis, not quite. Most vermouths are around 15–20% by volume.

Campari is Campari; there’s no alternative*. It’s an alcoholic liqueur, a brand of aperitivo bitters. It’s powerfully bitter, inimitable and >20% by volume. Read about it here.

Two Camparis at the Florian, Venice.
Blessed Campari. The lurid, sweet-seeming colour makes the bitterness even more unexpected. I like it. Credit: Wikimedia. ‘Two Camparis at the Florian, Venice.’

I tend to follow the traditional equal parts formula, although I will sometimes add more gin (see below). My technique is simple: add the three ingredients to a good, heavy old fashioned/rocks glass (by preference; I occasionally use a stemmed cocktail glass and it doesn’t seem to hurt—the old Savoy Cocktail Book uses one) with a couple of decent-sized ice cubes (small ones melt too quickly and store bought ice is the devil’s work, flighty and fast-melting); stir for around twenty seconds; add a bit of orange peel. You can make a twist from the peel, but it’s ticklish and I’m lazy and inept. The peel does add something, it’s not just for show. Grapefruit peel and/or grapefruit bitters can make a change. I tend to favour leaving the ice in as I like the way it slowly softens the Negroni.

Some other Negronis

Michael Jackson (this one), whose laconic, authoritative pocket bar book was my first booze guide, suggests two parts gin, one part vermouth and one part Campari. Which is a heady blend, but a good one, though I wouldn’t use really powerful gin for it. He also says to use an orange slice, which again is agreeable enough, if not so rich in the oils you get from the peel. Finally, he recommends a ballon wine glass.

To have and have anotherIn To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion, Philip Greene gives two alternatives. The first is similar to mine, while the second is served straight up, without ice. Stir everything but the garnish in a mixing glass with ice and then strain into a cocktail glass and add the orange. It’s a nice variation and one I’ve been served often; it’s also the method given in the Savoy Cocktail Book. (Greene also notes that Hemingway got his Negroni wrong in Across the River and Into the Trees, confusing it with the Americano; it’s hard to see Hemingway forgiving someone else that mistake.)

In Everyday Drinking, Kingsley Amis is vague about preparation, but he does nod approvingly:

This is a really fine invention. It has the power, rare with drinks and indeed anything else, of cheering you up. This may be down to the Campari, said by its fans to have great restorative power.

Which brings us on to drinking the thing.

Serving the Negroni

Crostini. These are topped with spinach, which would either match the bitterness of the Negroni or make it unbearable. I’d give ’em a go. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Negroni is intended to be an aperitif, but it can also make a good sunny afternoon or late night drink. Although it seems like it might be over-strong, being treble-shotted undiluted booze, its pungency means that you’re unlikely to throw it down, so it may even slow your intake. Nevertheless, it’s no bad thing to eat some food at the same time, and salty bits and pieces food goes well with a Negroni. In Italy they’re often served with crostini (wee bits of toasted bread with topping), olives, nuts and crisps (potato chips, my Yanqui friends). Fiona Beckett suggests canapés topped with smoked duck or crostini with duck pate, which sounds the ticket; smoked slightly gamey fattiness would be set off the alcoholic bittersweetness nicely and fortify the stomach.

Are these Negronis?

Fooling with the beautiful simplicity of the Negroni seems redundant, and for the most part I’d be shy of it, but there are some interesting derivations. Here are two: the Boodles gin Salted Negroni (a sort of Americano hybrid, with soda—and grapefruit juice) and Eeyore’s Requiem from The Violet Hour bar in Chicago (extravagantly bitter and exotic). There’s also the more traditional Negroni Sbagliato (the ‘bungled Negroni’; it’s said that a barman invented it accidentally by reaching for the wrong bottle), with one part Campari, one part sweet vermouth and one or two parts sparkling wine. It doesn’t quite have the depth and grandeur of the original, but it’s good and refreshing and I like it a lot—it also tastes so essentially similar that you can see how passive the gin is in a conventional Negroni. The Cynar Negroni, in which Campari is switched for Cynar (also made by the Campari Group), is also quite popular and is generally accepted as a legitimate variation.

* There are actually some similar drinks that could be considered as alternatives to Campari, e.g. Contratto Bitter and Quaglia Bitter Bèrto.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, June 2015)

Image credits

Header: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0. Keep off hipsters: Infrogmation (Wikimedia Commons). GNU Free Documentation License 1.2. Two Camparis at the Florian, Venice. ‘franzconde’ (Wikimedia Commons). CC BY-SA 2.0. Crostini: Charles Haynes (Wikimedia Commons). CC BY-SA 2.0.

3 thoughts on “We need to talk about Negroni

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