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Negotiating the Negroni

Jack Bettridge
Posted: June 6, 2014

In case you don’t shake it up with the cocktail crowd, it’s Negroni Week.

First, you might ask, what is a Negroni? (Simple answer: mixed drink, equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth and gin. Abstruse answer: twist of orange turned into a transformative experience with the above alcohol served over ice in an Old-Fashioned glass.)

Next, you might ponder, why an entire week for Negronis? Couldn’t you get it done with in one day? The main answer is charity. More than 1,300 bars worldwide have agreed to donate $1 per Negroni served during the observance, so having it last a week ups the ante. (Visit negroniweek.com for the list. You’ve still got through Sunday.)

But this imbiber posits that another reason exists: the basic Negroni is simply a starting point for exploration into variants: some already known and others waiting to be invented. If you begin with the basic template and switch out the spirits portion (gin), you can fine-tune the flavor of the drink, while retaining its basic tenor: an afternoon or evening libation that wets the whistle, invigorates the palate and dreams of bigger things to come.

Proof of the formula’s elasticity is that the Negroni itself is actually a variation of another drink. The Americano was invented in the 1860s by Gaspare Campari, the Milanese “drinks master” who also gave the world the bitter aperitif named for him. For this cleansing taste sharpener, he mixed sweet vermouth and Campari and topped it with seltzer. Supposedly, the name comes from its popularity with American tourists, however, there is also a type of bitter vermouth called americano (amaro being the Italian word for bitter).

The drink’s popularity spread, and then in 1919 along came Count Camillo Negroni. As well as being a gentleman, he was something of an adventurer. He had toured America as a gambler and a cattle puncher (cowboy). Back in his native Florence, he asked his favorite barman, Fosco Scarselli, to put some more punch into his Americano. The response was to replace the soda water with gin. It became the count’s standard cocktail and his name stuck to it when friends became fans and started ordering it for themselves. The Negroni family would go on to create its own preformulated, bottled version of the same.

By the late 1920s, Erskine Gwynne, an American expat in Paris, invented the Boulevardier, this using equal parts Campari, vermouth and whiskey. The third component can be Bourbon or rye, and most modern recipes have bumped the whiskey quotient to 1 1/2 parts, often with a lemon twist. The Boulevardier has found a recent vogue in bars across the country (even where there are no Boulevards), and High West, a Utah whiskey distiller, came out last year with its bottled version.

The Boulevardier’s popularity suggests even more deviation, and, in truth, lots have been tried. In support of National Cognac Day—which fell smack dab in the middle of international Negroni Week—the Cognac maker Courvoisier introduced its Negroni Française, made with 1 1/2 parts VSOP, 1/2 vermouth and 1/2 Campari. Campari’s own Cocktail Compendium lists a slew of Negroni types, including those with rum, vodka, Tequila, mescal and even a prosecco-informed version.

Surprisingly, they all work. Somehow the two tectonic plates of the bitter Campari and the sweet vermouth collaborate to create a firm foundation for whatever spirit they are asked to support. And, while the two aperitifs dominate, they still allow the third ingredient to make its own subtle presence known. More surprisingly, little mention of a Scotch Negroni is in evidence. So naturally we tried that. The best call is something very peaty as that flavor makes itself heard above the clamoring aperitifs. A smoky Scotch Negroni also makes the best pairing if you happen to be enjoying a cigar at the same time. Which we were.

Many cultural references go with the Negroni. Best remembered is the '60s movie The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, in which Warren Beatty as a young gigolo lubricates the rich widow Vivian Leigh with the drink. He’s learned the move from his (what-do-you-call-them) female-pimp, played by Lotte Lenya. This is a delightful coincidence because Lenya later played the villainous Rosa Klebb in the Bond flick From Russia With Love. And in turn the Americano was the first drink Bond drains in the first book of the canon, Casino Royale. He later graduates to Negronis on film (Thunderball). In Thank You for Smoking, the protagonist swills Vodka Negronis (presumably a good pairing with filter-tip cigarettes, although we didn’t try it).

Part of the Negroni’s charm is that despite its intense complexity, it is a decidedly simple drink to make. No shaking (unless you want to), no muddling, and none of the foams or fuzzing that the Cocktail Renaissance is known for.

1 part Campari

1part sweet vermouth

1 part gin (or whatever spirit strikes your fancy)

Pour over ice in an Old-Fashioned glass. Briefly stir. Garnish with orange slice or twist. In deference to the Americano, top with a splash seltzer if you choose.

Have a good rest of Negroni Week.

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