The negroni is far from new, so what sparked this current cocktail obsession?
Negroni: you know the name, you’ve had a few, you’ve no doubt mixed a couple yourself – as Anthony Bourdain once attested, throwing together this three-part beverage is “so easy a chimpanzee could do it”.
Today, the Italian aperitif is as unstoppable as the Sex And The City-induced Cosmopolitan craze of the ’90s.
Whether it’s served on tap at the pub or as a bespoke restaurant version, the negroni’s rapid growth has culminated in its own ‘week’ – a marketing coup for the maker of key ingredient Campari.
Now in its fifth year, Negroni Week netted more than $400,000USD ($520,562AUD) in charity funding in 2016, and this year directed Australian funds to rescue charity OzHarvest.
At 97 years old, the negroni is nothing new. Orson Welles imbibed, James Bond used it as his martini backup and Ernest Hemingway even named one of his nine dogs after it. So to what does it owe renaissance among international drinkers young and old?
Local sprits expert and strategist for Sullivans Cove Distillery Fred Siggins says the recent buzz is just people discovering something that’s always been great.
“It may not always be the drink you want to write articles about, but it’s absolutely part of the cocktail canon,” says Siggins.
“Our cocktail culture has graduated from dessert drinks and syrupy tropical numbers, so the classic cocktail revival really filters into the mainstream along with craft beers, natural wine, etcetera.”
It’s also one of those drinks that represents a bit of a refined palate. It’s simple, sophisticated, looks good, and tastes better – the holy trinity of gin, sweet vermouth, Campari and gin delivering a floral fusion, sweetened spice and bold, bitter finish respectively. Purists demand a 1:1:1 proportion, but many bartenders will double the gin for added oomph.
The negroni descends from another Italian aperitif – the Milano-Torino – mixed traditionally from Campari (made in Milano) and Cinzano vermouth (a product of Turin). Popular with Americans after World War II, the Milano-Turino was eventually re-christened the ‘Americano’, and then morphed again in Florence, circa 1919.
Eccentric gambler and 20 cocktail-a-day drinker Count Camillo Negroni – fresh off a series of rodeo exploits in the American Wild West – ordered bartender Fosco Scarselli at the Caffè Casoni to mix gin into his Americano instead of soda water. Mixology lightning erupted from the sky. A drink was born.
While that genesis ought to be taken with a healthy grain, the appearance of gin in the Americano gave negroni its kick, manifesting into (to quote Bourdain again) a “satanic delicious hell broth” that can and will “hit you like a freight train after four or five”.
As the drink’s popularity continues to surge, the profusion of local gins, interesting bitters and craft vermouths are tempting different ways to successfully (and less successfully) twist one.
On the upscale end, New York City’s Lot 45 in Bushwick recently concocted a $1,000USD ($1301AUD) variety, with shavings of Italian black truffle and Calvisius Siberian caviar. Break Room 86 – an ’80s themed karaoke bar in L.A – dishes up Negroni ice cream sandwiches. Everyone, it seems, is taking The Count’s recipe to new heights.
For Andrew Margan, head of Hunter Valley’s Margan Wineries, it wasn’t until he created his own vermouth that he realised the drink’s strong appeal.
“I found the sweetness of the traditional negroni too much and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Then I finally had one with dry vermouth and finally understood what an interesting drink it could be.”
As well as bespoke vermouth, Margan’s ‘Margroni’ adds sparkling blood orange to the traditional mix, inducing quaff-ability while offsetting the drink’s ‘freight train’ potential.
And while Campari seems to be untouchable in this new suite of fusions, other locals have been toying with the previously un-toyable. Applewood Distillery’s Red Okar – a South Australian homegrown riberry-cranberry Amaro – raised negroni eyebrows everywhere with its “All Aussie” recipe last year, swapping out the Campari for its homegrown blend. Four Pillars Gin in Melbourne created a spiced negroni gin, heaving on cinnamon, pepperberry and grains of paradise to cut through the sweeter spirits.
Whatever the case, don’t worry if you haven’t fully got on board this freight train yet.
“It’s an acquired taste,” Siggins says. “Don’t be ashamed if your palate isn’t there yet. You’ll love them by the time you’re bitter and old.”
In the meantime, he’ll gladly make you a lychee martini.