Ah, the Negroni. The cocktail so good Ernest Hemingway named one of his nine dogs down in Havana after it. It’s an absolute classic drink — every bartender worth her salt has mastered it and every barfly has learned to love it.
Negronis are devilishly simple to make with only five ingredients — gin, sweet vermouth, Campari, ice, and an orange twist. Yet, measure the ratios wrong, fail to mix well, or, even worse, don’t use all of that amazing orange zest oil from the twist and you’ll have made Papa spin in his grave.
This bitter, sweet, and gin-forward drink is all about flavor. It’s a punch in the mouth from a botanical garden, grown in some sunny outpost where the temperature never drops below 50 degrees. Its sweetness hides the considerable alcoholic content that comes from three separate spirits mixed to perfection. This is a drink that activates receptors on your tongue, enlivening your palate.
A Negroni changes how you taste, how you drink, hell, how you live. And this is its story:
Back in the late 1800s in Italy, people would wander into cafes in the late afternoon and order an aperitif to take the edge off the day before heading to a dinner. A popular drink around the 1860s/1870s was the Mi-To (pronounced ‘mytho’ but with a fancy Italian accent). Mi-to is short for a Milano-Torino. Milan is the main city near Novara in Italy, were Campari was invented. And Turin was where Cinzano Vermouth was invented. Mix the two together you get a strong bitters cut with the sweetness of the vermouth. That was then topped with some bubbly soda water and a classic drink came to be.
Around 1900, there was a tourism surge of Americans in Italy. The legend goes that the drink was so adored by the American tourists that the Mi-to was renamed the Americano. Which is a pretty amazing feat of tourism. Imagine the think pieces that would be written today if American tourists’ love of the, say, Prince Of Wales champagne cocktail caused British bartenders to start calling it Princess Trump. #Outrage
About 15 years later, lightning struck in the cocktail world when one Camillo de Negroni walked into Caffè Casoni (now Caffè Roberto Cavalli) on Via de’ Tornabuoni in Florence, Italy and wanted something a little stiffer than a classic Americano. The Count of Negroni asked barman Fosco Scarselli to give his favorite drink a little more umphf. So Scarselli replaced the fizzy soda water with dry gin. Scarselli added an orange twist to differentiate it from the Americano (which came with a lemon twist) and thus spoke Zarathustra: The Negroni was born.
Okay, we know what goes into a Negroni and where the drink got its start. Let’s dive into the three main ingredients.
Reporting from Paris in 1922, Hemingway wrote of bitters. He said that they’re “those tall, bright red or yellow drinks that are poured by hurried waiters during the hours before lunch and the hour before dinner, when all Paris gathers at the cafes to poison themselves to a cheerful pre-eating glow.” Bitters, Campari specifically, is the crucial component to a Negroni, so let’s make you an expert with a little more history…
In the foothills of the Italian Alps sits Novara. It’s a picturesque corner of Italy, a stone’s throw from the beautiful Lago Maggiore and the bustling streets of Milan. In 1860, Gaspare Campari invented his namesake drink here. Campari is an aperitif bitter. This is opposed to a cocktail bitter. The best and surest way to know which is which — aperitif bitters come in big bottles, cocktail bitters come in little bottles.
Campari’s recipe became the most recognizable aperitif bitter on the market in very little time. It calls for a secret mix of botanicals, barks, and herbs, including local chinotto — an orange tree leaf that is very bitter and also found in popular Italian sodas. Another important ingredient is cascarilla bark, which is a big part of vermouth’s botanical matrix and considered a medicinal plant.
Campari’s iconic red color was derived from the inclusion of carmine dye which is sourced from the cochineal insect. As of 2006, this practice was replaced with a chemical red dye much to the chagrin of Campari purists — who still claim the flavor just isn’t the same without the ground up cochineals.
With the exception of the insects being taken out of the recipes, Campari has largely remained unchanged since its inception and remains a classic example of a great bitters.
We’ve covered the wonders of the fortified wine that is vermouth before. So just a quick recap:
Vermouth goes back to ancient times and is a bastardization of the word ‘Wormwood’ via German and French. Wine is fortified with a grape distillate before it’s barreled with an array of botanicals. In sweet vermouth’s case, a ruddy sweetener is added as well (often beetroot syrup). This creates a slightly herbal, mildly sweet, and very smooth fortified wine.
It’s believed that the redder and sweeter version was first produced in and around Turin, Italy in the mid-1700s and basically represents the same product we call vermouth to this day. Cinzano Vermouth — which was popularly used in the classic Mi-to cocktail that became the Americano — dates all that way back to 1757. It was this year that herb shop owners and brothers Giovanni Giacomo and Carlo Stefano Cinzano first made their sweet vermouth with a proprietary blend of 35 botanicals, barks, and herbs that were local to the foothills of the Italian Alps above Turin.
Overall, you can make your Negroni with a sweet vermouth that may better suit your palate since varying brands have their own ‘secret’ list of ingredients to nudge their vermouths in various herbal directions. But it was Cinzano that inspired the origins of the drink and it’s at least worth a shot when trying a Negroni for the first time.
And, finally, we have the gin. Unfortunately, there’s no dude named Jack Gin to cite as the inventor of gin like Campari and even Negroni. But gin’s history is still a lot of fun.
In modern times, gin traces its roots to the Middle Ages and the Dutch spirit Jenever. The Dutch started distilling wine and added juniper berries to hide the nasty taste from their primitive distilling techniques in old pot stills. A very long war later and the ascension of Willian of Orange to the English throne led to the English becoming very big fans of ‘Dutch Courage‘ or what we now call gin.
The English refined their distilling practices, keeping the juniper berries to add flavor and adding more botanicals and barks. By 1700 gin became so popular in England that it caused riots on the streets of London. People loved gin. People still love gin! (Though we’ve stopped rioting over it.)
It wasn’t until well into the 1800s when the column still came along and allowed for the purer distillation of neutral spirits. This gave birth to London Dry Gin which is more in line with what you’d expect of a gin today — a nice clear distillate that’s been distilled a second time with juniper and various botanicals. Those flavors are put into a ‘gin basket’ near the funnel of a pot still, so that the alcohol rising up gets infused. It’s that second distillation with the botanical ‘gin basket’ that makes one gin taste different than another. And like vermouth and bitters, gin can have upwards of 30 botanicals infused into it — making recipes for ‘gin baskets’ a closely guarded secret.
VARIATIONS AND RECIPES
Generally speaking, there are two ways to make a Negroni. There’s the cocktail bar version and the hole-in-the-wall on the backstreets of Italy version.
At a cocktail bar, expect equal measures of 1 ounce of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari to be poured into a tall cocktail mixer. Deeply frozen ice is added to the drink and stirred for up to 30 seconds to chill and mix the drink. This is then strained into a lowball or rocks glass that has already been chilled and filled with more deeply frozen ice. Finally, an orange peel is spritzed over the glass, releasing the orange oils on the surface of the drink and then more of those delightful oils are rubbed on the rim and sides of the glass.
At the hole-in-the-wall in Italy, the bartender will set up an old-fashioned glass and fill it with ice. Then they’ll pour three or four counts each of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari over the ice. That’s then mixed for about five to ten seconds with a bar spoon. Lastly, a wedge of orange is sliced and run around the rim of the glass before being dropped into the drink.
The main difference here is how the bitters, vermouth, and gin is blended. The haute cocktail bar version will give the drink a smoother, more unified taste that is deeply chilled and, arguably, more palatable because some of the harsher edges of the botanical-heavy alcohols have been balanced out. Whereas, the down-and-dirty hole-in-the-wall version is a quick mix that doesn’t over-stimulate the ingredients and keeps a heavier botanical and alcohol edge. It’s really a personal taste how you prefer it.
The Old Pal is a classic variation that switches out the gin for Rye whiskey. The rye offers a wonderfully spicy counterpoint to the herbs of the Campari. More importantly, this cocktail also switches out the sweet vermouth for dry white vermouth. The dry vermouths lean more heavily into spicy barks like cinnamon and allspice peppercorns, allowing a perfect pairing for a nice and peppery rye.
The Boulevardier is very near the classic Negroni. Here bourbon replaces gin. It’s a call back to the Prohibition-era drinks when you got by with whatever you had on hand. In this case, it birthed another classic cocktail with an American twist.
The Negroni sbagliato drops the gin for sparkling white wine — or champagne if you’re a baller. Funnily enough, this Negroni variation was made by accident when a bartender in Milan grabbed the wrong bottle. Laughter ensued and a delicious drink was born. For those of us who don’t speak Italian, ‘sbagliato’ literally means ‘mistaken.’
The Agavoni is gaining popularity in America with the massive tequila and burgeoning mezcal markets. Simply replace the gin with your favorite tequila or mezcal and let that drink shine. The smokiness of a well-aged agave-based drink adds a new dimension to the bitters and vermouth.
And, finally, if you’re looking for a place to try out all these new drinks, check out Negroni Week. Running from June 5th to 11th. Bars and restaurants all over the world will be celebrating all things Negroni. The events are charity-driven to raise money and awareness for various local causes which are important to the over 6,000 venues who participate worldwide.