THE COCKTAIL ITSELF is simple: one part gin; one part sweet Italian vermouth rosso; and one part Campari, a bitter, ruby-red Italian aperitif that traditionally derives its gemlike color from crushed insects, and whose recipe is so secret that supposedly some ingredients are shipped to the factory director in unmarked paper bags, like naughty magazines.
All of this is stirred, not shaken, and served over ice with an orange slice (or peel).
This is the Negroni, one of the classier classic cocktails, a libation that is refreshing and invigorating, balanced and heady, and surprisingly strong all at once. The Negroni’s origin is far from simple, however. Rife with contradictions, apparent lies and even crazier possible truths, the conflicting stories of the true creation of the Negroni are a twisted set of yarns involving multiple generations of European royalty, high fashion, West Africa, an Italian cowboy and some journo from Spokane.
The best-known story: The Negroni is traditionally said to have been invented in Florence a century ago by one Count Camillo Negroni, a picaresque Italian adventurer and sometime Western cowboy who took his favorite cocktail, the “Americano” (aka the “Milano-Torino,” comprising equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth), and had his friendly bartender make it stronger by adding gin. This is the classic story, complete with “facts,” like the bartender’s name (Fosco Scarselli) and the year (1919). The bar where it reportedly was first mixed, the Caffe Casoni on the Via de’ Tornabuoni, still exists and is currently owned by fashion designer Roberto Cavalli. There is even a photograph said to be of Camillo Negroni that is, however, likely of somebody else.
The scandalous alternate story: There is currently a living noble Negroni, a French Corsican/Puerto Rican named Noel Negroni, who alleges that there was never a Camillo Negroni in his family tree, at all, and that the man in question is a fiction dreamed up by a liquor company. Noel supposedly has the documentation to prove it: a fat family history painstakingly compiled so that an earlier Marquis de Negroni could be accepted into — no kidding — the Knights of Malta. (Noel even occasionally reiterates this fact in the comments section of cocktail articles, as he does here: thirstymag.com/negroni-drink-recipe/.)
Anyway, according to Noel, the Negroni cocktail was invented roughly 50 years earlier, by a different Count Negroni, one Count Pascal Olivier de Negroni, dashing brigadier general and cavalier. This man did exist (there is a real photo, with glorious mustaches), and he was not Italian but French, a decorated Corsican hero of the Franco-Prussian war who invented the drink as a digestive aid for his wife while stationed in Senegal in the mid-1800s, after which it became a big hit at the officers’ club in Paris. Now, this version must contend with the sticky wicket that Campari itself was not invented until 1860, but as the stated date of Pascal’s creation of the Negroni seems to float between 1855 and 1865, it’s possible.
But did that first Camillo Negroni, the Italian, even exist? Some sources, including renowned cocktail historian David Wondrich, claim that he did. According to Wondrich, Camillo was recorded as a passenger on a ship to New York in 1892, and while he himself might not have been a count, his grandfather Luigi Negroni was. His descendants (or at least, some Negroni descendants) later founded the Negroni distillery in 1919 to bottle the cocktail as “Antico Negroni” in 1919, right after this Count Camillo Negroni is said to have invented it. That sounds like an awfully quick turnaround for a commercial endeavor — I mean, I’ve spent months and months waiting for a board game from Kickstarter — but it’s possible.
I cannot decide which of these colorful stories I prefer, but I would like to spitball a third possibility: Perhaps both versions are sort of true. While the Italian Negroni distillery has been producing its beverage from the same recipe for decades, the evidence for Corsican Count Pascal’s creation of the drink in Senegal seems to rest largely on a letter in which he described a drink containing vermouth that, apparently, was widely referred to as “a Negroni.” But it seems that no primary-source written recipe of Pascal’s drink exists, so maybe he simply invented a different vermouth-based drink and, because he was named Negroni, that drink, which is now lost to history, was given the moniker among his milieu at the time.
Either way, both “Count Negronis” (real or otherwise) sound like rollicking good sports who could handle themselves in a fight and were fun at parties, so I’m sure neither would mind a little controversy.
If you are interested in a fascinating, detailed breakdown of the whole saga (with citations), I will refer to you to the bartender/drinks historian Ben Leggett’s exhaustively researched article, to which I am indebted: drinkingcup.net/negroni-cocktail-invented-africa/. (Note: There is currently one comment on that article, and it’s by Noel Negroni.)
Oh, and if that weren’t enough, the tale even has a local angle that plays like a game of telephone: Cocktail writer Gary Regan relates in his book “The Negroni” that Wondrich told him that, in 1928, a journalist named Bob Davis claimed to have met that first Count Camillo Negroni in Italy, describing the man as an Italian cowboy who rode a Mexican saddle and spoke English like an American buckaroo. The paper Davis wrote for? The Spokane Chronicle.