I wasn’t very impressed when I first touched a Negroni to my lips. The mix, in equal parts, of Campari, vermouth and gin made me wince. Not able to finish the drink, I think I may have poured it down the drain.
“I can’t drink bitter stuff” I must’ve thought to myself. I didn’t know it then, but bitter Italian spirits – from Campari to Amaro Averna to Fernet Branca – would become my favorite, and my favorite drink would become the Negroni.
After drinking a great many variations of this three-parted drink since that fateful day, I’ve got a lot to say about the Negroni. And, as it nears its 101st birthday this June, I decided it was a good time as any to jot them down.
What is the Negroni?
The Negroni is an aperitif cocktail, a drink served before dinner, often with accompanying snacks, that is drank to “open” the appetite. The ruby red drink is made of equal parts bitter orange flavored Campari, sweet red vermouth and bracing London dry gin.
Legend has it that the drink was created in Florence in 1919, when a certain Count Camillo Negroni, who requested his Americano – equal parts Campari and vermouth topped with soda water – be made a little stronger. So, the bartender switched the soda out for gin, and the rest is history. Allegedly.
This romanticized telling of events is so set that it’s even mentioned on the Negroni’s Wikipedia page. But in recent years, members of the Negroni family have taken it upon themselves to set the record straight. They say there was no Count, instead insisting a General Pascal Oliver Comte de Negroni – a Frenchman – created the drink in Senegal after 1870.
Still, the story is complicated further by drinks resembling the Negroni which pop up years ahead of these two creation stories. These drinks, called the Camparinete, Campari Mixte, and Dundorado appear in two French and an American cocktail book, respectively.
What Makes a Negroni?
Today, the Negroni isn’t just those 3 equal parts gin, vermouth, and red liquor. There’s the original, and there’s also many riffs and spin offs.
One is the Boulevardier, which switches out gin for bourbon. Then there’s the Cardinale, which swaps red vermouth for dry white vermouth; and the Old Pal (more of a riff on the Cardinale), which calls for bourbon’s spicy sibling, rye.
From there, people seem to have given up on naming their riffs. Besides the Kingston Negroni – using Jamaican rum – you’ve got the Mezcal Negroni, the Scotch Negroni, Tequila Negroni. Some menus even forget about the Cardinale, calling it instead the “Dry Negroni”. But having the name “Negroni” in these drinks at all seems like a misnomer.
Much like the plethora of “[Something] Old Fashioned” following the Old Fashioned craze, these new drinks don’t get new names. It’s not a Negroni or an Old Fashioned or a Martini unless it follows the original to a degree; if there’s a change its a riff that’s deserving of a new moniker.
That’s not to say a Negroni can be riffed upon while keeping the original in mind. I’ve tried a variety of Negroni riffs – some with the word Negroni in there, others with new names – while I was living in China’s cocktail mecca, Shanghai.
Here, aperitivo culture was and still is having a moment. At one of the city’s more popular aperitivo spots, Funkadeli, they’d have a special monthly event for the Negroni. Called the “Ministry of Negroni”, the bar would be taken over by guest bartenders from around the world, tasked with providing three variations of the beverage for one night only.
Of the variations I was able to try at these events, two that stand out are the Negroni Inaspettato and the Viceversa Negroni. The first, crafted by Vincenzo Losappio and Carlo Simbula of Milan bar the Spirit, had the addition of chestnut foam, providing a nutty aroma and warm flavor. The second, from Shanghai-based Italian eatery Va Bene, saw the Campari completely separated from the drink in the form of “caviar” to be eaten or added to sweet white vermouth and gin – mixed in a separate glass – as desisred.
Perhaps the most enlightening experience I had in Shanghai was at a pop-up by the famous New York aperitivo bar Dante NYC. Here, bartender Naren Young provided his Dante Negroni – which sees the equal parts ratio skewed in favor of more gin; and the Negroni Frappe, which sees added crushed ice, bitters and orange juice create a decidedly lighter beverage.
What’s the “Best Negroni”?
What makes a Negroni good, or the best, is more of a matter of preference than anything.
That being said, it’s hard to get the right gin with the right vermouth to match up to the strength of Campari. When I was slinging drinks for private events in China, for instance, my go to recipe for a Negroni was Gordon’s gin, Martini & Rossi red vermouth, and Campari. While easier to stock these spirits on a limited budget, they made for a truly unmemorable cocktail.
This lackluster drink set me on a quest to make the perfect Negroni. One that, I was certain, would please myself and others.
After 3 years and multiple attempts, I had found the trifecta. The perfect Negroni, in my mind, should contain a juniper-forward, but not too strong, dry gin; a markedly sweet red vermouth (a bit of minty notes are also okay); and, of course, a bitter Italian liquor.
But which to use?
After these experiments, I thought I’d found the answer in Bombay Sapphire Dry Gin, Carpano Rosso Vermouth and Campari. But the possibilities are endless.
Plus, liquors might vary in strength from country to country. An example was when Young made his Dante Negroni in Shanghai. He explained to me that while he’ll use Bombay Sapphire in the US, the strength isn’t the same in China, so he opted for Beefeater paired with Cinzano Rosso vermouth instead.
Even the Campari can be phased out, like in one of the tipples I had at Ministry of Negroni. Using a dark red Venetian bitter Aperitivo Select in lieu of its Milanese cousin, the aptly titled Negroni del Doge was easily drinkable and light.
Still, I like bitter, and I like Campari, so I usually opt for that. As for vermouth, Carpano’s Antica Formula is the go-to for many thanks to its smoothness and mellow vanilla notes.
Polarizing as anything is these days, one things for sure: the Negroni may not have started out as my favorite tipple, but its bittersweet nature and place in the aperitivo pantheon has won me over after years of experimentation and enjoyment.