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Drink of The Week: Negroni

At long last, I am finally posting the Negroni for the Drink of the Week. I am finding that there are just too many interesting twists on this classic that are worth writing about and I want to be able to reference the original.

The history of this cocktail provides a two-for-one opportunity since one cannot describe the Negroni without first referencing the Americano, and to describe the Americano requires mentioning the essential ingredient, Campari. So, this brings us to late nineteenth century Italy where production of a unique apéritif and digestif was just getting started. Campari is basically an alcoholic infusion of fruit, bitter herbs and aromatic plants. The exact formula remains a secret. By the early 1900s, Italians were enjoying Campari with soda water, and it is this simple combination that inspired a drink that became quite popular.

Americano
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2 ounces soda water

Pour the Campari and sweet vermouth into a tall glass filled with ice and stir. Top with soda water and garnish with a lemon twist.

During American Prohibition, Campari was classified as medicinal and could be consumed without penalty. In Italy at the time, locals began to notice that visiting Americans were ordering this drink, so they started calling it the Americano. An Italian aristocrat named Count Camillo Negroni was living in Florence after a colorful career in America as a cowboy and a gambler. One day, upon ordering an Americano, he requested that it be fortified with gin. Perhaps he had acquired a taste for spirits and cocktails while in America. The barman obliged and garnished the drink with orange peel to differentiate it. The Count was so taken with the new combination that he continued to order the same preparation again and again. It eventually became known as the Negroni in his honor.

Most historical accounts of this cocktail list the ingredients in equal proportions of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. Others prefer to tone down the Campari to make this more accessible. For some, proper balance is found in a boozier ratio of 3:2:1. Whatever your preference, a few dashes of bitters helps to bring everything together.

Negroni
2 ounces gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
.5 ounce Campari
1-3 dashes orange bitters

Pour everything into a mixing glass, add ice and stir to chill. Strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice cubes and garnish with an orange twist.

If you have never tasted Campari, or you are somewhat new to the bitter spectrum of flavor, this cocktail might be an acquired taste. It's usually the bitter Campari that surprises people, especially in America where bitterness in drinks is not a familiar experience. However, once you start to appreciate it, a whole new world of flavors begins to open up.

For the most incredible Negroni, try to find Carpano Antica Formula vermouth. It makes a huge difference. Also, don't be afraid of strong gins that can stand up to the herbal complexity of the other ingredients. If you don't have orange bitters, substitute Angostura (try other bitters too), and don't forget to express the oils from the orange peel. Even this seemingly subtle detail has a profound effect. Stirring instead of shaking keeps everything crystal clear, but make sure you are chilling the drink. Some dilution is important and it will take a little longer to get there stirring. I like to strain over ice spheres to minimize additional water, but many recipes call for serving this up in a chilled cocktail glass.

In addition to adjusting the proportions, the Negroni offers opportunities to experiment. As I mentioned, better vermouth, substituting bitters and selecting another gin can transform the flavor, but so can the garnish. Some bartenders garnish with a flamed orange peel, igniting the oils as they squeeze the zest over the surface of the drink. Swapping one ingredient for another is a popular way to riff on this drink. In fact, the Trident cocktail from the last post is a modified Negroni that swaps all of the ingredients!

Once you've experimented a little, you may never settle on a favorite recipe, treating each "test" as an opportunity to try something new. On the other hand, you might quickly fall in love with one version, pouring it over your favorite shape of chunk ice and finding a cozy spot to slowly sip and enjoy this classic.

11 comments to Drink of The Week: Negroni

  • Ken

    It was the Negroni in the April 2010 "No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain" episode "Food Porn 2" that finally got me thinking about Campari. Still, I did nothing about it until seeing a rerun of "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", Bill Murray's lead character drinking it constantly. So I finally went out and bought a bottle. Before making my first Negroni I looked Campari up on Wikipedia and learned of its fortified Americano origin. And that reminded me that in Ian Fleming's books, James Bond drank an awful lot of Americanos. In fact, I think I read somewhere that it was his second most ordered drink or something.

    So I tried an Americano first. But I found it too sweet.

    So then I added the proportion of gin to make it a Negroni. But I found the flavor of that to be unpleasantly muddy, as if I had spilled three completely different "secret recipes of herbs and spices" into one container. Oh, wait....

    So I experimented. And the best cocktail I managed was one part Campari to two parts Champagne (or any brut sparkling wine). Which, of course, google let me know wasn't original, and had also been dubbed the incredibly creative "Campari Champagne". Although that one has a lower, less interesting Campari ratio of 1:3.

    Another thing I noticed was that Campari seems to have strong enough bitterness and subtle enough flavor to augment or replace things which originally contained quinine but no longer do. Such as Kina Lillet, a key ingredient of Fleming's Bond's Vesper (martini), as a straight-up replacement. Or Dubonnet, the original apertif (according to Wikipedia), as an addition of one part to two. Makes me wonder if there are others.

    • Ken,
      First of all, great comment! I have a feeling your adventures with Campari may be similar to others. The fact that you quickly moved past the bitterness and started exploring balance is admirable, since this is perhaps the biggest hurdle.

      Regarding Kina Lillet, I have heard rumors of them possibly resurrecting the original formula (with pressure from notable and respected cocktailians). I actually think Campari's own flavors would transform a Vesper into something else, but you could experiment with Lillet and cinchona bark. Cinchona is the original natural source of quinine and you could certainly mix the powder with Lillet for some period to extract the bitterness, then filter. That could actually get you very close to Kina Lillet, although, without a real reference it's hard to know how much cinchona to use. Check out my post about making your own tonic for details about the bark.

      Finally, you mentioned Dubonnet and wondered if there are other original aperitifs. It's worthy of an entire post, but before I get to writing that, here's a list of spirits you MUST try as you explore the bitter side. These are commonly referred to as "potable" bitters (as opposed to cocktail bitters), and many fall into the Italian Amaro category, some considered aperitif and others digestif:

      Campari - of course
      Aperol - like Campari, but less intense, and made with rhubarb
      Cynar - dark, bittersweet, made from artichoke and other herbs
      Amaro Nonino - complex herbs and bitter botanicals, a great sub for sweet vermouth (see the Dogwood Manahattan)
      Ramazzotti - a medium amaro
      Fernet Branca - a sharply bitter Italian amaro with a somewhat medicinal herb flavor (a real CURE for indigestion!)
      Averna - Sicilian, thick, sweet herbs, roots and citrus
      Ciociaro - Italian, earthy herbal bittersweet
      Jägermeister - Yes, Jäger falls into this category—too bad it has the reputation that it does

  • Ken

    Hey, Randy. I found as I got older that I began to appreciate a degree of bitternesss.... ;-)

    Which is true, actually; I didn't start finding much to enjoy about it until my late 30s. Did you see the thing on TV about the bitter gene? Apparently, if you inherit both copies (one from each parent), then you are resigned to always finding any amount of bitter intolerable; if you in inherit only one copy, then you can get used to it; and if you inherit no copies, then you can't even detect it. I'm clearly in the 1-copy group (the largest). Also, it is apparently independent of supertasting.

    Very interesting about Kina Lillet and Cinchona, I'll try it if I find it. I'm out of Lillet (blanc) at the moment so I can't do the Campari Vesper comparison. But Lillet is only 11% of a Vesper by volume, and less by flavor given the gin and the lemon peel, so I'm optimistic....

    That's great list -- I saved it. The only one there I've had is the "Jäger". In fact I was amused upon arriving at grad school to find it on tap everywhere.... A buddy in Germany once sent me (shhhhhh...) a bottle of something in that vein, Aha Magen-kräuter Elixir. Liquid Christmas. And last year I was at an Austrian restaurant and noticed hanging behind the bar a bandolier of tiny brown-paper cylinders. Obviously had to have one. Turned out to be a 20 ml bottle of Underberg, a German digestive bitters, very interesting. Though apparently not intended to be tasted. And mildly anaesthetic, with real potential benefit for an upset stomach. Made me wonder if there are other digestives with anaesthetic properties.

  • Ken,

    Since you are out of Lillet Blanc, take the opportunity to grab a bottle of Cocchi Aperitivo Americano instead. I have seen reviews of this and even one person on eGullet that had an actual bottle of the original Kina Lillet who said Cocchi is very close in flavor! I haven't had it myself, but I am adding it to my "want" list and as soon as I see it, it's coming home with me. From what I understand, it does wonders for a Corpse Reviver #2 (which I rather enjoy already, but open to making it even better) and of course, it's bound to pep up a Vesper!

  • Ken

    Fantastic tip Randy, will do!

  • Scott

    Randy,

    Just fell on to your site, and am attracted to all things Negroni...one of my favorite bevarages for years...

    a couple of observations..

    1. made with a typical (read: M&rR, Noilly Prat, Cinzano) sweet vermouth, I think sticking to the original 1:1:1 ratio is my personal choice...however, strongly agreeing with your choice of Vermouth, Carpano Anitica does need a recipe adjustment...otherwise the drink is way too sweet, and you loose that lovely bitter quality that makes Campari so wonderful. Wont some purists call the alterna-proportions by a different named cocktail? I think we all should have license to do as we please...

    2. why add bitters: by definition, Campari is a bitter not an amaro. I will try on my next Negroni, but it seems that it would only add more herbs/spices to the already overwhelmingly herbal mix...no?

    3. to all bartenders reading: please stop shaking my negroni's!!! (and my martinis and my manhattans)

    -I have Averna in my cabinet, may try subbing that out in some proportion for my next one.
    -tried an Aperol version, not as enamored
    -have used M&R Bianco Vermouth a few times for a lighter version(similar type beverage to lilet...have a bottle of Dolin Blanc to try next
    -cannot get Cocci where I am...trying to find desperately
    -looking for Ciociaro for many fine mixes

    Have you tried the Boulevardier?

    given MY two favorite cocktails are the Manhattan and the Negroni..the Boulevardier is like a fine marriage of the two...or at least a fantastic clandestine relationship of the King of Cocktails and His Italian mistress, the Embassadoress from Italy...

    scott in
    connecticut

  • @Scott, great comments all around!

    1. Part of the beauty of making your own drink is that you can make it your way, but I think a true purest would (should) be more concerned about balance than strict proportions. Clearly, your perception of flavors in this regard has also granted you the rewards!

    2. About the bitters, you are obviously correct about Campari. But cocktail bitters are serving a different purpose than potable bitters. I agree, it's already a complex drink with the herbal sweetness, the herbal bitterness and the gin botanicals competing for attention, but it's often the cocktail bitters in their tiny quantity that bridges the gaps. I see your point that it adds even more complexity, but I see it as providing the seasoning, like salt in your soup, that let's these complex flavors mingle together. Certainly, the orange peel and the oils from it help the cocktail in the same regard, but something like Orange bitters or Angostura fills even more gaps. Think of it like mortar, filling the space between the bricks of flavor. And, why not build a cocktail with incredible complexity to challenge your senses to feast on those flavors? That's the Negroni experience for me, but I'll submit that this is probably a "drinker's" Negroni.

    3. You must try the Trident cocktail if you haven't. It's a riff by Robert Hess that swaps everything around, but it's based on the Negroni and an excuse to use Peach bitters. I too love Manhattans, especially because the flavors can change profoundly depending on the whisk(e)y you use, the vermouth, and the bitters. Check out the Dogwood Manhattan. It only works with Woodford, and it replaces sweet vermouth with Amaro Nonino. Amazing.

    I first saw the Boulvardier in Dr. Cocktail's book and marked it for a future Drink of the Week. You are already in the know, but to everyone else, stay tuned!

  • Thanks! Color mixology with glass, I suppose. Different website in any case. The rewards are nice, but they take a lot longer--I can make a Negroni a lot faster than I can make a Tiffany lampshade.

  • James Coplin

    Thanks for the link to the silicone ice mold. I've been looking for such a thing for ages! I just ordered a couple and a friend looking over my shoulder decided they needed a couple as well. Great find.

    James

    • Are you getting the Muji mold? I'm glad they are still available. There was a time when they had a similar mold that had a cylindrical exterior. Those were discontinued and it took more than a year for them to replace it with the round ones they have now. The last time I used them I came up with a neat little trick: I place a frozen cube inside first, then close it up and fill the rest with water. This leaves less liquid to freeze and that creates less expansion. Works great! No more egg shaped spheres that need to be rounded or refrozen.

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