Good drinks tell a story, and this is the story of those drinks. Here, we'll be serving up a remedial cocktail lesson for bartending beginners to help you get the most out of your glass, with recipes, interviews, and histories coming right up.
"The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you," wrote Orson Welles while working on the film Black Magic in Rome in 1947. It's one of the earliest reports of the relatively new Negroni. "They balance each other," he remarked, and indeed, balance is the operative word in this aperitivo (to use the Italian term for an aperitif). The Negroni is a perennial bartender favorite whose simple three parts are usually mixed equally, though some like a touch more of their gin, Campari, or vermouth (rosso, red and semi-sweet).
As the Martinez is to the martini, so the Americano serves as a precursor to Negroni, so we'll start there. A mixture of Campari, sweet vermouth, and club soda, the Americano was originally served in creator Gaspare Campari's bar, Caffè Campari, during the 1860s.
Though there's some dispute as to which Count Negroni is responsible for the transition from soda to gin, it was most likely Count Camillo Negroni in 1919 at Florence's Caffè Casoni. That account is backed in the new book The Negroni: Drinking to La Dolce Vita, with Recipes & Lore by Gary Regan, and was originally posited in the 2000 book Sulle tracce del conte. La vera storia del cocktail Negroni (On the Trail of the Count, The True Story of the Negroni Cocktail). Count Negroni was, hilariously, an Italian count who spent many years in the U.S. working as a rodeo cowboy before returning to Florence, and allegedly one day asking for gin instead of club soda in his Americano.
Still, that doesn't mean there aren't points of dispute, from what type of gin to employ to which vermouth to mix to — dare it be asked — whether to use Campari or Gran Classico. The variations are endless (the Boulevardier is a favorite for its substitution of whiskey for gin) but as for that last question, Campari seems the appropriate choice.
Invented in 1860 by Gaspare Campari in Novara, Italy, Campari is one of those proprietary, secret recipe liqueurs, though we do know that it was originally colored with red carmine dye, derived from crushed cochineal insects. Or at least it was until 2006, when Gruppo Campari ceased using carmine.
And, on the subject of famous directors and italian drinks, as Regan notes, there's a lovely ad for Campari directed by none other than Federico Fellini. Have a look.
Campari, the Milanese say, must be drunk three times before it is enjoyed, so let's say that you've got to try two or more Negronis before you pass judgment. San Francisco, taken as a whole, has embraced the Negroni, with The New York Times calling it a "stronghold" as far back as 2002. Here, there's even a Northern California Negroni Council certifying various bars, and a Negroni Week to be held again this June from coast to coast.
Not about to wait until next month, I spent an evening pouring a few Negroni variations back at Nopa. The San Francisco bar and restaurant that seemingly lent its name to the whole neighborhood currently features a "Chasing the Negroni" series (or "program" as some might say). There, you'll find "cocktails that follow a similar structure and purpose, although the base spirits, bitters and fortified wines change throughout."
Using the Negroni's balance as a goal and something of a formula, almost anything is possible, including this clever take by way of New York City's Death + Company. It's a creation of Joaquin Simo made with a uniquely funky, tropical, and decidedly overproof Jamaican rum as its base spirit. Cin cin!
1 oz. Smith and Cross Rum
1 oz. Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
1 oz. Campari
Stir all ingredients and strain over ice. Garnish with an orange twist