With the recent resurgence of bitter cocktails, the classic Negroni and its modern variations are taking off.
I HAD MY first Negroni in a lava cave in Kenya, mixed by an Italian and served by a Maasai warrior. All other cocktails pale by comparison.
A classic Italian libation, the Negroni is thought to have been developed by Count Camillo Negroni in Florence about 100 years ago. Made of equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, it is a compelling balance of sweetness and bitterness, simplicity and complexity. With the recent resurgence of bitter cocktails, the classic Negroni and its modern variations are taking off.
After returning from Africa, I bought Campari and Italian vermouth and began mixing Negronis at home. I was hooked. When I mentioned it to a friend, she said “A what?” Then she looked it up online and found the Negroni described as “a thinking man’s drink.” Hmm.
I began experimenting with this equation of Spirit + Bitter + Sweet = Negroni. There are endless combinations. (We might have to call this the thinking woman’s drink.) Start with one of the variables — bitter/Campari — and swap it out for another Italian amaro like Aperol, Averna or Amaro Nonino. Cynar is a personal herbaceous favorite, made with artichoke.
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Next, experiment with the sweet variable, testing different vermouths such as Carpano Antica Formula, Punt e Mes, Dolin and Cocchi. For a lighter version, use Cocchi Americano or Lillet instead of red vermouth. Lighter still would be to replace gin with Barolo Chinato, port or wine. A wine-based Negroni is worth trying, especially in spring or summer.
For a festive occasion, use sparkling wine instead of gin. The Negroni Sbagliato (sbagliato in Italian means wrong) was born, the tale goes, when a busy bartender mistakenly grabbed prosecco instead of gin, inadvertently creating yet another delicious drink.
Purists might scoff, but this alluring marriage of bitter + sweet doesn’t need gin to fly. Other Negroni variations include the Rosita (with tequila) and the Boulevardier (with bourbon). Why stop there? Why not rye, pisco or cachaça?
Andrew Friedman, chef/owner of Liberty Bar on Capitol Hill, loves the versatility of the Negroni. “It’s the world’s most fun jigsaw puzzle,” he says. There’s that thinking part again. Liberty has a few Negroni cocktails on its menu, including a barrel-aged version and a Blanco with tequila, Suze and Dolin Blanc. Friedman’s personal favorite combines mescal, sweet vermouth and Campari.
One of my favorite discoveries last summer (courtesy of a recipe from the restaurant Nostrana in Portland) was a homemade grapefruit juice-Campari granita shaken with Plymouth gin — frothy and icy, sweet and tangy, perfect on a warm evening. So pick your spirit, your sweet and your bitter. Play with proportions (who says we have to use equal parts?). Garnish with any citrus. Add orange or grapefruit bitters. Try rocks or up. The sky’s the limit.
Negroni Week is coming up in early June, and bars around the world will celebrate the Italian cocktail and support charitable causes. Several bars in the Seattle area are participating, including Liberty. With a whole week of Negronis, I might have to abandon thinking and simply enjoy tasting.
1½ ounces white tequila
¾ ounce Campari
¾ ounce sweet vermouth
1. Stir over ice and strain.
2. Serve up in a martini glass with an orange twist.
— Liberty Bar