So, who invented the Negroni?
I’ve yet to meet a Negroni I don't like. I could argue the minutiae of using hand chipped, brilliant clear ice; getting the cocktail's three ingredients to agree on the correct proportions; or stirring them in a fancy crystal Japanese mixing glass until the solution reaches the perfect level of dilution. And don’t get me started on vermouth. But I’m not going to bore anyone with such feeble matters. All Negronis taste good, seriously.
I went to a rather shabby Italian café in New York's West Village the other night, and as I sat there in front of their Bud Light tap handle, under a flatscreen showing ESPN, I reluctantly ordered a Negroni. I figured such basic feats of mixology should be appeased in these confines. The apathetic chap behind the stick poured the gin (Beefeater, a good place to start), Campari and Cinzano Rosso vermouth into one of those generic, heavy based tumblers that every college bar in the country carries without a second thought.
All Negronis taste good, seriously.
In it went, straight over some sad, wet ice. A superfluous slice of orange was nonchalantly tossed in. Have I made a horrible mistake? Clearly not, as I suck it down in a matter of seconds, and as I order up another of his pedestrian versions, I stand by my comment that there isn’t a Negroni on the planet that doesn’t have my name on it. I eventually stop at three and pay the check.
But it wasn’t always this way; my Negroni love affair, that is. The first time most people try this drink, the words "Negroni" and "acquired taste" turn up in the same sentence quite often. The Negroni has, of course, gone on to greatness, planting its own flag right at the top of cocktail’s Mount Olympus with a select few that includes the Martini, Old Fashioned and Manhattan.
The story of the Negroni dates back to Florence circa 1919, but the seeds of its creation were planted even earlier. In the trendy cafes of Milan at the turn of the century, the locals could be found imbibing a simple concoction that was known as the "Milano Torino"— or "MiTo"—named after its two ingredients: Campari from Milan and vermouth from Torino (the brand of vermouth was Cora, still produced in tiny quantities but not available in the United States).
Before long, throngs of American tourists—perhaps trying to make this rather curious beverage whose flavor profile was completely polarizing—were requesting their Mitos topped with sparkling water. This new creation would soon be coined the Americano, which to this day remains one of the world’s great egalitarian highballs that any budding home enthusiast could recreate without guidance from YouTube. But if you’re looking for a cocktail to get licked, don't look to the Americano.
Enter Count Negroni. For the longest time, there were many cynics, myself included, who thought the fanciful story of a Florentine Count creating this iconic cocktail was a little farfetched. Was this nothing more than a marketing ploy from Campari to sell more Negronis, and, by extension, more of their product? But my unabashed love for Negronis and my hobby as a somewhat investigative drinks journalist would require digging a little deeper into the annals of history.
The most common story centers around a small place called Drogheria Casoni and more specifically a bartender named Fosco Scarselli. The Count in question, who probably had a lot of spare time, as counts typically do, would visit Scarselli on his way to see and be seen at the trendy Plaza de la Republica. His titanic feats of drinking were the stuff of legend. He could take down up to 10 Negronis in a single sitting, although at that time the drink would have been served in a small cordial glass and most likely made with Old Tom, the de rigueur gin style of the era.
Hold the soda per favore. Soon enough, others were asking for their Americanos to be made 'the Negroni way.'
Camillo Luigi Manfredo Maria Negroni was born into nobility in Florence in 1868. Both his mother and eventual wife were partly British, and it was during his time in England that he is believed to have developed a taste for gin. Upon his return to the Tuscan capital, he would ask for his Americano cocktail (by now the drink was even more popular than ever with Americans who, with the onset of Prohibition, had descended on the bars of Europe with an insatiable thirst for alcohol) with a lick of gin. Hold the soda per favore. Soon enough, others were asking for their Americanos to be made "the Negroni way."
Luca Picchi is another Florentine bartender, still very much alive, who has become the modern poster boy for the Negroni. Not just because he makes a great one at the Café Rivoire where he tends bar, but because of the 20 years worth of relentless research he has dedicated to the drink, dispelling a few myths and factual inaccuracies along the way. He even put to bed a theory that the Negroni was created by an army general from Corsica whose original family surname was Negrone with an "e."
In 2000, he published a book called Sulle Tracce del Conte: La Vera Storia del Cocktail Negroni (On the trail of the Count: The True Story of the Negroni), written in Italian and rather difficult to find. The book is now being translated into English for the first time and will be released this month with updated facts and photos. It highlights the rather peculiar detail that Camillo Negroni spent some time in the U.S. as a cowboy and gambler in Wyoming. He initially visited the States in the late 1880s to avoid the Italian draft, eventually returning to Florence in 1905.
In 1921, a Scotsman from Dundee named Harry McElhone took ownership of Paris’ famed New York Bar, adding his name to the moniker. In 1927, he published a small cocktail book called Barflies And Cocktails, which listed several iconic drinks that would put his bar on the international map: Monkey Gland, Sidecar and White Lady. In that now famous tome, he also included the first known recipe for a Boulevardier cocktail, essentially a bourbon-based Negroni, a more robust interpretation that was named after a Parisian literary magazine around the 1920s.
Toby Cecchini, noted author and veteran New York bartender, has had the drink on his menu at Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar since he opened in 2013. He’s even written about the drink in The New York Times, saying:
... the Boulevardier is a marvel of a cocktail with an enviably colorful peerage, and it’s effectively the bastard child of a Negroni and a Manhattan. In colder months, it’s a magnificent drink to have as a fallback when you want something richer and more complex than just a whiskey but can never seem to think of what else to order.
Also in McElhone’s book, he chronicles another wonderful Negroni variation called the Old Pal, made with equal parts Canadian whisky, Campari and "Eyetalian" vermouth. I actually prefer a more peppery yet softer rye whisky (especially Michter’s) because let’s face it, Canada doesn’t produce many decent rye whiskies anymore. This is indeed a delightful and highly underrated cocktail that is rarely seen in today’s bar rooms. I find it an especially appropriate Spring Negroni.
Another Negroni imposter reared its head in the early 1970s at Milan’s Bar Basso, a rather opulent café that opened in 1947 and is still operating today. In 1972, so the story goes, one of the white jacketed bartenders reached for the prosecco instead of the gin when making a Negroni and created an immortal drink whose name "Negroni Sbagliato" translates into "bungled" or "wrong" Negroni. It’s not too dissimilar to the Americano but with a more lively kick from the bubbly wine.
The Sbagliato is another lesson in simplicity and is a far more sophisticated brunch option than the ubiquitous Bellini ...
The Sbagliato is another lesson in simplicity that's a far more sophisticated brunch option than the ubiquitous Bellini or even worse, the Mimosa. It’s also about as perfect as a drink can be when day turns to night and, if you’re lucky enough, when the sun is setting. Bar Basso serves its Sbagliatos all day and night and in preposterously oversized wine glasses that look more like chalices, with a single monstrous cube of ice chilling each drink down slowly.
One of the more revolutionary Negronis—at least at the time—was the "white" Negroni, created in 2001 by famed London bartender Wayne Collins. He used Plymouth gin (delightfully soft and earthy), Lillet Blanc and Suze, a French bitter aperitif which would have been essentially unheard of back then but is now growing in popularity amongst the bartending cognoscenti. My own gift to the Negroni world is a chocolate version (stay with me here), which is pretty damn tasty if I do say so.
Now, finally, the Negroni is a global phenomenon. It has long been the bartender’s cocktail, whether on duty or off, and it is bartenders' collective infatuations which have propelled the drink into the lexicon of recognizable classics. The Negroni, as much as any other drink in existence, is a sign of sophistication, of elegance. There are dedicated Negroni bars, such as Mauro’s Negroni Club in Munich, opened 17 years ago by Italian expat, Mauro Mahjoub, a long time Campari ambassador and Negroni evangelist.
The Negroni, as much as any other drink in existence, is a sign of sophistication, of elegance.
On his menu he lists 13 different variations, with unlikely ingredients such as cranberry juice (Negroni Moderato), añejo tequila (Negroni Sombrero), Frangelico (Negroni Western) and Galliano in the rather catchy sounding Negroni Bunga Bunga. I’ve sat at this bar, replete with dozens of Negroni-related relics locked inside glass cabinets and it is, unsurprisingly, one of the world’s great rooms in which to enjoy the king of all aperitifs.
Closer to home, at The Gilroy on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, beverage director Joshua Mazza has seven versions on his menu. The Lincoln, a bougie Italian restaurant uptown, offers a "Negroni Bar" where guests can choose from a definitive list of gins, vermouths and aperitivo bitters, or order up a barrel-aged Negroni, a technique that's exactly as it sounds, pioneered in 2010 by Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler and now copied globally.
A barrel-aged Negroni might once have been considered revolutionary, but in recent years I’ve seen Negronis infused with fresh truffle, chamomile and chocolate. Some have used mezcal, grappa, rhum agricole and pisco in lieu of gin. Bars are serving them carbonated, on draught and in sorbet form. I’ve worked with chefs on creating edible Negroni marshmallows, cotton candy and Jell-O. A talented Australian bartender, Jason Williams, has even worked with a local distiller to create a gin to be used specifically in the Negroni.
At my new bar, Dante, in New York’s Greenwich Village, we’ve just started an aperitivi hour called The Negroni Sessions, where 10 Negronis are offered during the week from 4 to 6 p.m. My personal favorite is a tequila-based version called the Unlikely Negroni (it does contain banana, coconut and sesame, after all), proving that this venerable drink can indeed veer away from the standard classic recipe.