The Negroni may only have three ingredients, but its charms are without number, argues Naren Young as he charts the rise of the bartender’s favourite cocktail
The story sounds too ridiculous to be true: it’s 1919 or thereabouts and we encounter a Florentine gentleman, a Count no less, who is quite the barfly apparently, spending most of his time frequenting the city’s bars and cafes. He spends time in America as a cowboy and a gambler. He moonlights in England from time to time, drinking gin and doing whatever it is that aristocrats do. He eventually returns to Florence – and what does Count Negroni do? Why, he creates his own cocktail, of course.
During this post-war period, Italy was teeming with Americans, and the Americano – that refreshing mix of Campari, sweet vermouth and soda – had been the Count’s (and the city’s) favoured mixed drink. According to Camillo Bosco, past president of the Italian Bartenders’ Association, the first version of this drink was actually called the Torino Milano because of the fact that it was made
with Campari (from Milan) and Amaro Cora (from Turin), served on the rocks with a lemon peel. In Milan, they favoured the softer and more agreeable Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth, and this eventually morphed into the Americano we know today, when said Americans preferred a little soda in their mix.
Count negroni spent time in america
as a cowboy and gambler, as well as time in london
Feeling unhappy with something so, um, civilised, the Count pops into the Caffè Casoni (now closed and called the Caffè Giacosa, owned by designer Roberto Cavalli) and asks bartender Fosco Scarselli for something with a bit more kick. He eschews the soda in lieu of gin and pretty soon everyone around town wants their Americano the ‘Negroni’ way. That story can be found on countless drink blogs, chat rooms, cocktail forums and Wikipedia, which often means nothing when it comes to fact.
And it all reeks of nonsense. Or, so I thought until some research took me to the book Sulle Tracce del Conte: La Vera Storia del Cocktail Negroni, which was published in 2006 by the Tuscan bartender Luca Picchi, a long-time member of the Italian Bartenders Association. I first learned of this tome from drinks historian David Wondrich and, when he says read something, well you just read it don’t you?
It is, I discovered, a rather difficult book to track down – and it’s written in Italian (although it’s being translated now by Livio Lauro and should be available soon). But these minor hiccups weren’t going to stop me getting a little bit closer to the real origins of one of the greatest drinks in the cocktail pantheon – certainly my all-time favourite drink (heck, if they made Negroni toothpaste, I’d use it).
There is one fanciful story floating around on the web that suggests that the drink was created by a French brigadier, an idea that certainly makes for some interesting online banter if nothing else. Even the noted historian and collector Greg Boehm is adamant that it’s a French creation, but I’m afraid I just don’t buy it. Why would a country as proud as France use two quintessential Italian products? Picchi’s book, however, has cleared up any confusion I might have had about the fact that the Count not only existed, but that the story is indeed true.
Camillo Negroni was born in Florence in 1868 to an Italian father and an English mother, both of noted aristocracy. During his well-travelled life, he did indeed spend time in America as a cowboy and gambler (you can see why things initially seemed a little farfetched), as well as time in London (where I assume he developed his taste for gin). In Florence he would have a drink at the Grand Hotel every day, but on his way would stop by and visit his friend, bartender Fosco Scarselli at Caffè Casoni. Then on one unspecified day between 1919 and 1920, the Negroni was born. It’s a romantic story that is now solidified in fact – and the rest is history.
Gran Classico Bitter
And yet there are very few cocktails where the words ‘acquired taste’ are more appropriate than with the Negroni. While many of us love this drink unabashedly, your average consumer has probably never heard of it and many more can’t identify with or enjoy that characteristic dry bitterness that comes when gin and Campari unite. One answer is to introduce the novice with a lighter-style Negroni using, say, Aperol, Lillet and a soft gin such as Plymouth, Hendrick’s or Tanqueray No.Ten.
So why has the Negroni become the perennial favourite amongst bartenders around the world? Certainly simplicity has something to do with it, because if mixological history has taught us anything, it’s that almost all of the world’s greatest cocktails have only two or three ingredients.
Maybe it’s also the revival of gin that has helped. Maybe it’s a move (finally, thankfully) away from the sickly sweet and towards the drier and more refined. Maybe it’s the complexity of the botanicals floating around in the vermouth. Or maybe it’s just the fact that a great drink such as this is more than a sum of its parts.
‘The Negroni, like so many of its three-ingredient classic drink brethren, is a great litmus test of an unfamiliar bar and bartender’, waxes Joaquin Simo of cult New York bar Death & Company. ‘How long has that sweet vermouth been sitting on that speed rail? Did you ask me what gin I prefer? Are you assuming equal parts or are you throwing tons of booze into my aperitif that I may not want nor need? For a simple drink, there sure are a lot of ways to screw it up.’
There is nary a classic cocktail in existence that hasn’t been altered and doctored in some way. But it’s only in the last few years that have we seen bartenders experimenting more with the Negroni, a drink which, at face value, appears a lot more difficult to tinker with than others because of its simplicity.
Changing up the gin and vermouth is of course the easiest way to begin your Negroni transformation. Genever makes for a wonderful base, adding a malty nuttiness that is utterly unique in flavour. A blanco tequila makes a mean Negroni, while I recently had one made with rhum agricole that was delicious and with that characteristic funk that comes from this complex spirit. Just no vodka please. Not that I have anything against vodka, but its sheer neutrality adds nothing to this drink. Are we cool?
One popular drink in Italy is the Negroni Sbagliato (which literally means ‘wrong Negroni’) that was created in 1972 at Milan’s Bar Basso. It is essentially an Americano topped off with Prosecco instead of soda and is equally refreshing. At the New York tiki bar, Painkiller, owner Giuseppe Gonzalez has a Negroni Swizzle that is served on crushed ice with a splash of soda. I’ve also tried Negroni sorbet, Negroni granita, a blended Negroni (strangely delicious), an edible Negroni at Restaurant Alinea in Chicago and those made with gin infused with peppercorns and vermouth soaked in black tea. There’s rarely a Negroni I won’t like. Serve it up in an old shoe – I won’t care.
‘The negroni is a great litmus test of an
unfamilar bar and bartender’ Joaquin Simo
Inspired by 69 Colebrooke Row and Tony Conigliaro’s foray into ageing his own cocktails, talented Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler has been doing the same but in used barrels as opposed to in bottle, as Conigliaro does.
‘We procured a small number of used whiskey casks from the Tuthilltown distillery in New York and proceeded to fill them with a large batch of Negronis,’ says Morgenthaler. ‘And that’s when the magic of barrel-aged cocktails grabbed our attention. After six weeks in the used bourbon barrel, our Negroni emerged a rare beauty. The sweet vermouth so slightly oxidized, the colour paler and rosier than the original, the mid-palate softly mingled with whiskey, the finish long and lingering with oak tannins.
We knew we were on to something unique, and immediately made plans to take the cask ageing programme to the next level.’
Case study: The Negroni American Bar, Munich
This jewel box of a room has been run by one of Germany’s finest bartenders, Michele Fiordoliva (who is originally from Italy’s Marche region), for over a decade. This is not your typical trendy Munich lounge. Rather, it is a classic American bar, finished in dark woods, with a brass foot rail and a cocktail menu that stretches into the hundreds. And should you like a little tagliolini and truffles with your Negroni, they have a Sicilian chef working the stoves.
ALTERNATIVE NEGRONI RECIPES FROM BARS AROUND THE WORLD
‘The Saler’s Gentiane is the key ingredient in this drink (pictured, right) as it works as a slightly less intense Campari but it brings so much more than just bitterness/dryness. It has a wonderfully complex, earthy flavour and some even detect a little bitter chocolate and artichoke. Cracking stuff.
Winter Tequila Aperitivo
‘This is a simple tequila Negroni with a hit of warm stewed fruit character from the sherry. The reposado, in particular the Gran Centenario, has the vanillins and nuances from the wood to match the sherry, yet still retains the flavour that we love in tequila: earth, spice and sweet vegetal goodness.’
Artichoke Smoked Negroni
‘Being Italian and living near Rome where artichokes are in a lot of local dishes, I was curious to switch the Campari with Cynar, a beautiful Italian bitter liqueur made with artichokes and various herbs that really help to prepare your stomach before your meal (as well as the smoked salt rim that helps your mouth in producing more saliva). In this drink I would prefer a milder and less junipery gin such as Plymouth to showcase a little more of the artichoke bitterness of the Cynar itself.’
‘I really like to work with tea infusions and in this drink the taste of the Lapsang Souchong
Author’s note: I must give special thanks to my dear friend Stefano Catino, an Italian bartender from the Cinque Terre, who made the historical facts in this story come to light by driving to Florence to meet Luca Picchi on my behalf and translating his wonderful book for me.
The bartending world thanks you!
Many thanks to Polpo for hosting the Negroni shoot.