When the Negroni was first concocted in Florence, Italy in the year 1919 the aim was to elevate a comparatively simpler Campari-Vermouth-soda combination, better known as an Americano, by replacing soda water with gin. The bartender, Fosco Scarselli, named the drink Negroni after the Italian count who demanded it in the first place—Count Camillo Negroni.
The first time you take a sip of Negroni, the reaction is bound to be a fierce one. In most likelihood, you will not like it—I know I didn’t. Yet, it is one of the world’s favourite cocktails so much, so it has a week dedicated to it. Such a dichotomous association with a cocktail is hard to understand. We are currently right in the middle of World Negroni Week (September 12-18, 2022), giving us the perfect opportunity to delve deeper into a drink that cocktail connoisseurs swear by.
The preface does paint a complicated picture of a three-ingredient cocktail. How difficult can a mix of equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari be, you ask? As writer Kevin Wilson wrote, “The simplest things are the hardest to understand,” so is the case with Negronis. Nikhil Merchant, a food blogger and consultant and a lover of a well-made Negroni explains the trouble with it, “Most spirit-forward cocktails, especially ones that are straight up spirits without the introduction of a fruit or a mixer are a strong hit to the senses. The Negroni checks all the boxes and even more with its vibrant blood-red colour. With its bittersweet profile and strong nose, it can be overwhelming to the senses, especially if trying it for the first time. While taste is subjective, the negroni is also a balance of dry, sweet, bitter and floral due to its ingredients—it lands up being one of those either you hate or love it cocktails.”
Ask a bartender, they’d find the initial negative response due to lack of exposure. Tobias Carvalho, brand ambassador for Terai gin says, “As bartenders, we say Negroni has a unique subtle flavour profile which is bitter-sweet to most people. People with a young and not-so-complex palate will find the cocktail intimidating more often than not. Negroni apart from being just bitter-sweet is herbaceous with citrus aromas. It looks beautiful and simple in the way it's presented but is usually perceived as intimidating because of the flavour profile ‘bitter’ as a word that's used to describe it.” The culprit, even though it truly isn’t, is Campari.
Campari is a liqueur that is a bitter Italian aperitif—it’s had before a meal. Its unmistakable red colour taints many a cocktail with a wonderful ruby hue and is at the heart of the complicated relationship drinkers share with a Negroni. Not much is known about the ingredients that give this liqueur its taste and colour but the aim of the spirit is to stimulate your senses, which it does in spades.
Why Negroni goes wrong
The second problem is the making of the cocktail itself. As Santosh Kukreti, head mixologist at Mumbai’s Slink & Bardot states, “It all lies in the ratio and measurements because it's only three ingredients”. We spoke to quite a few bartenders, and they gave us pointers to keep in mind while stirring up a Negroni:
1. Balance is the key: The usual 1:1:1 proportion is ideal and best to practice. Once you’re confident in your classic Negroni can you tweak the measurements to make it best work for you.
2. Quality of ice used: Block ice or big ice cubes are best. Smaller ice cubes will dilute quicker messing with the balance of a Negroni.
3. Test your vermouth: Vermouth should always be stored in the fridge; it will spoil otherwise. Some new vermouth brands tend to be sweeter, so taste and then accordingly balance it in your Negroni.
4. Dilute right: Under diluted or, even worse, over diluted will impact your Negroni. It's not as simple as adding three ingredients, the art of stirring should be mastered first.
5. London dry gin: This style of gin has been the hands-down winner for a Negroni because they’re best suited to seamlessly tie together big and bold flavours of Campari and vermouth.
But with time Negroni tends to grow on you and the more you try it, you learn to appreciate it more. Trust the process, believes Merchant who makes a delicious Negroni himself and has converted many fence-sitters. “A Negroni is a visual and sensory treat and if presented the right way with storytelling, a lot of novices can be drawn towards this drink.” Sachin Chandra, Assistant Beverage Manager- Perch Wine and Coffee Bar, Mumbai further adds that start the evening with a Negroni prior to a meal as it stimulates one's appetite. Also, to our advantage now liqueurs such as Campari and vermouth are not so hard to come by—helping bartenders make better cocktails instead of working with poor substitutes.
Thankfully, today there is an acknowledgement and appreciation for the classic cocktail. Negroni is a must-have on a self-respecting bar, and they will ensure that they will do a damn good job of it. “It is a well-known fact in the cocktail-lover circuit that if a place, bar or mixologist makes the perfect Negroni - it is inevitable that the entire menu is a worth-it shot,” Merchant points out. It’s a source of pride to have a special in-house version of a Negroni in a bar, showcasing the mixologists’ personal style.
Negroni has also seen renewed popularity worldwide. “Much of this is to be attributed to the rise of the new age speakeasy bars in the early 2000s. The trend brought classic cocktails into the sphere of the general public, and the Negroni with it,” explains Jonas Ax, advocacy lead for Bacardi India.
But let’s be honest, classic cocktails never really go out of fashion however intimidating they may be. We’ve seen it happen with the Old Fashioned before, why should it be different for a Negroni? Whatever the reason, the bittersweet Negroni is here to stay, and we are all here for it too.
Negroni variations to love
While the classic Negroni can never have a comparison, there are plenty of variations, new and old that are equally exciting. Here are some of the popular ones:
1. Punch Up - A milk-washed clarified Negroni with flavours of pineapple, coffee and honey.
2. Nightcap Negroni - Negroni infused with pandan leaves and fat washed with cold-pressed coconut oil.
3. Aeropress Negroni - Add a spoon of coffee to a classic Negroni and run it through an Aeropress.
4. Ananas Negroni - Pineapple-infused Fandango Mezcal, sweet vermouth and Campari, and lemon zest.
5. Negroni Sour - Gin, Martini Blanc, Campari, lemon juice, thyme and pomelo.
6. Twisted Mate - Dewar’s 12 YO whisky with martini Extra Dry, Martini Fiero and orange twist for garnish.