In this age of Mad Men-style drinking, Manhattans and Martinis (of the gin variety, please) get plenty of well-deserved love at the bar. But it has taken vermilion-hued Negroni—a bracingly bitter Italian concoction long cherished by bartenders and in-the-know aficionados—a bit longer to hit the mainstream. Events like the second-annual Negroni Week (June 2-8) have certainly helped spread the drink’s gospel by uniting 1,000 bars, restaurants, and specialty shops around the world to showcase Negroni recipes in the name of charity. But veneration of the equal parts gin-Campari-sweet vermouth cocktail goes far deeper than any short-lived promotion.
“It’s the simplest, but most perfect execution of balance: spirit plus bitter plus sweet,” says Meaghan Dorman, who presides over the New York bars Raines Law Room and Dear Irving. “Also, it has the same kind of addictive quality as a Dark and Stormy—sometimes you just have a Negroni craving that sends you on a hunt for the nearest cocktail bar.”
A classic Negroni
Unlike other cocktails descended from murky origins, à la the Margarita, the Negroni’s unfathomable past is, by most accounts, actually true. In 1919, the tale goes, an Italian bon vivant by the name of Count Camillo Negroni, who spent his cushy days gambling and working as a rodeo cowboy, stopped off at his favorite café in Florence for a drink. But his usual Americano—Campari, sweet vermouth, soda water—wasn’t strong enough for the nobleman this time around. When he asked for the soda to be replaced with a wallop of gin instead, the classic Negroni was born.
Purists cherish the Negroni for its trifecta of traditional ingredients; no other iteration will do. Yet a drink so timeless and unfussy begs to be tinkered by today’s inventive barkeeps. “I am intrigued at how this seemingly simple recipe can be anything but,” says Dave Newman, proprietor of Pint + Jigger in Honolulu. “The amount of Negroni variations I have had at different bars, or even created myself, is mind-boggling.”
It’s the simplest, but most perfect execution of balance: spirit plus bitter plus sweet.
There are a number of reasons the Negroni remains too irresistible for a creative bartender to stick only to the tried-and-true rendition. According to drinks guru David Wondrich, its simple formula makes it particularly malleable: “Each of its ingredients is in a category rich with alternatives—lots of amari, lots of vermouths and fortified wines, and lots of gins and other highly-flavored white spirits—and it’s extremely easy to make.” The recipes might be infinite, but Wondrich is quick to point out that “not one of them is better than a plain old Negroni.”
Not all barkeeps agree. The precursor for these motley adventurous tweaks was the Negroni Sbagliato, in which Prosecco replaces gin and turns the bitter cocktail into a brunch-appropriate libation. Since then, we’ve seen countless Negronis: ones with amped gin ratios, ones with softer gins that shy away from heady juniper notes, and ones that favor the nutty flavor of Genever.
Negroni at the Gilroy in NYC
Oftentimes, the drink isn’t even made with gin. Consider the Boulevardier, essentially a Negroni with bourbon or rye. Tequila and rum are also popular—and delicious—stand-ins. It might seem blasphemous, but some avoid quintessential Campari all together in the name of lighter, easier-to-drink Aperol, or the fuller, more viscous Gran Classico. One vermouth will accentuate botanicals where another will put the spotlight on spice, creating myriad alternatives to the controversial Carpano Antica Formula that many love and others deem disastrously overwhelming for this particular cocktail.
Despite the cry of classicists, the Negroni has succumbed to its fair share of bells and whistles that go far beyond the mixing and matching of spirits and amari. At Apartment 13 in New York, a Tanqueray No. 10 Negroni is misted with Tobala mezcal. Jeffrey Morgenthaler, of Clyde Common in Portland, OR, ushered in the barrel-aged cocktail trend when he put large batches of the cocktail in used whiskey casks from Tuthilltown Distillery. There are bottled versions tricked out with bubbles, like the Naren Young created for Saxon + Parole in New York. And at Pint + Jigger, Newman makes a sous-vide Negroni, combining gin with Campari, Noilly Prat sweet vermouth, and charred barrel chips in a 120-degree immersion circulator for two days before filtering and bottling the liquid.
There are now carbonated Negronis, barrel-aged Negronis, and even sous-vide Negronis.
The Negroni obsession has spread to the kitchen as well. Hit up the Varnish, the popular downtown Los Angeles speakeasy, and hope it’s a night the quivering Negroni Jell-O shots are available. In Boston, pastry chef Kate Halowchick makes a sweet vermouth carrot cake with gin-soaked oranges and Campari cream cheese at Jm Curley, while in Portland, Negroni is one of the addicting flavors on offer at ice-cream mecca Salt & Straw.
“I love everything about a Negroni: the whiff of orange oil, the slippery texture on my tongue, the bitterness that lingers when all the other flavors fade,” says Allison Kave, co-founder of the forthcoming Brooklyn bakery-bar Butter & Scotch, where Negroni pie will be one reason to visit. “Looks can be deceiving, and I love the contrast of our light, creamy, sweet-looking pie with the true Negroni flavor that hits you as you bite in, balanced with a salty, buttery crust. All the principles that make a Negroni the perfect cocktail make it a pretty damned fine pie as well.
Negroni pie at Brooklyn’s forthcoming Butter & Scotch
Any worthwhile New York bar will have a bartender who knows how to crank out a proper Negroni—whether it’s an unsullied classic or a new-school riff. If you’re in NYC, here are five places where you can explore the full gamut of the modern-day Negroni.
NYC’s Essential Negroni bars
Amor Y Amargo
This tiny East Village bar with a penchant for bitters should be any drinker’s first stop for a proper Negroni. “I’m a classicist, so all classic cocktails compel me,” says barman Sother Teague. “It’s also that I’m driven to make things that are simple, but to excel at every step. A Negroni at face value is simple, yet to master it—as well as the limitless variations—is quite a feat.” Amor y Amargo stocks more 15 vermouths and fortified wines, 90 bitters, and 50 tinctures, so the Negroni variations are, as Teague says, “virtually limitless.” Now that warmer days are here, you’ll find him waxing lyrical about the Italian in Mexico (blanco tequila, Amaro Montenegro, Cocchi Americano Rosa, Scrappy’s Seville Orange bitters.) (443 E 6th St; 212-614-6818, amoryamargony.com)
The Negroni at this lively New Orleans-meets-Williamsburg cocktail den is an ode to the prototype, made with London Dry gin, Cinzano vermouth, and Campari, served on the rocks, with an orange twist. For an effervescent flourish, bartenders will sometimes add a welcome splash of Champagne. (298 Bedford Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 347-335-0446, maisonpremiere.com)
Of course you can get an everyday Negroni at this Upper East Side haven—Spring 44 Gin, Punt e Mes, Campari—but then that would mean missing one of its clever variations, like the Nutcracker, with George Dickel white corn whiskey No. 1, Carpano Antica Formula, Campari, and walnut liqueur. “The Negroni in its original form offers an almost perfect harmony. It begins floral, transitions to sweet, and ends bitter and dry. This offers just the right length, just the right complexity, and is just challenging enough to warrant some reverence and respect,” says co-owner Josh Mazza. “The challenge for a bartender is to take that perfect framework and dress it differently without losing the harmony. It’s not as easy as it would seem.” Mazza’s current favorite? The Oaxaca, in which Carpano Antica and Campari mingle with Ilegal mezcal to create “smoky, peppery, and rich chocolate undertones.” (1561 Second Ave; 212-734-8800, thegilroynyc.com)
At Lincoln you get the Negroni you want. This fancy Italian restaurant at Lincoln Center is known for its custom Negroni bar, overseen by beverage director Aaron Von Rock, as much as its pasta. Guests can mix and match spirits like Plymouth gin, or the more unconventional Leblon cachaça, with offbeat bitter components including Cynar or Cappelletti Specialino from one column, and vermouths such as Lillet Blanc or Dimmi Liquore di Milano from another. (142 W 65th St; 212-359-6500, lincolnristorante.com)
Those who prefer their Negroni with more of a gin punch will gravitate toward Eric Thornton’s Onward and Upward. His recipe at this beloved Carroll Gardens Italian restaurant calls for three parts Brooklyn Gin, two parts Amaro Nonino, and one part Cardamaro amaro. Says Thornton, “I love the Negroni for its depth, richness, complexity, and of course its bitterness, but what I really like about this recipe is its softness and balance, and the way it showcases the delicate, fresh botanicals of that lovely gin.” (457 Court St, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn; 718-403-0033, frankiesspuntino.com)
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