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The Negroni – Perfection in an Imperfect World

Photo: Adam Patrick

Photo: Adam Patrick

The year is 1919. Italy is on the brink of Fascist revolution. The war has left over half a million Italians dead, the country in massive debt, and inflation soaring. The promises made by the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia are largely ignored by the Treaty of Versailles, leaving the Italians humiliated, politically. The country is in turmoil; factions of nationalists, communists, and those loyal to Benito Mussolini struggle to gain a foothold in power. The future for the Italian people is unquestionably uncertain.

The city is Florence, the spot is Caffe Casoni, and the bartender manning the stick is Fosco “Gloomy” Scarselli. As Count Camillo Negroni enters the café, the political, social, and economic chaos of the day is the furthest thing from his mind. He sits down at a corner table, scans the room, and motions for Scarselli to come, with a slight wave of his hand. As the barman approaches, he never anticipates the importance of what is about to transpire. Italy, in the midst of bedlam, is about to contribute something unintentionally remarkable to the annals of history.

Camillo Negroni, in addition to being a count, was a noted playboy, gambler, socialite, and notorious drinker. He was born in Florence in 1868 to an Italian father and English mother, both of prominent aristocracy. Having fathered an illegitimate child, he fled Italy and settled in the United States, eventually becoming a cattle rancher somewhere south of Saskatchewan, Canada. He spent time in London, among other places, acquiring a taste for good, dry gin. He returned to Italy in 1912, and eventually was allowed back into Florence, where he became a regular face in bars around the city. He would break daily for a drink at the Grand Hotel, and on the way would stop to see his friend, one Fosco Scarselli, proprietor at the Caffe Casoni.

The Americano was a popular cocktail in Italy at the time, perhaps the quintessential Italian aperitivo. It’s a fine drink, indeed, but lacks a bit of “kick” as one might say. Its roots lay in two popular liquors of the day, Campari and Vermouth. Gaspare Campari, already a master drink-maker by the ripe age of 14, developed his eponymous liqueur, and began selling it at his own café in the 1860’s. Containing more than 60 ingredients, including herbs and botanicals like orange peels, rhubarb, wormwood, pomegranate, quinine, clove, and ginseng, Campari is big, bold, and bitter, the perfect drink to stimulate the appetite. Combined with Italian vermouth, herbaceous and sweet, and lightened up with a bit of sparkling water, the drink was graceful and refreshing, perfect for relaxed café life. The Americano was essentially a “long” version of a Milano-Torino cocktail, which was Campari (from Milan) mixed with Martini & Rossi vermouth (made in Turin). The Milano-Torino, in turn, was a sweetened up, Milanese version of cocktail that mixed Campari with Amaro Cora (a light, sweet, Italian bitters with orange and cinnamon notes.) The origin of the name likely came from American expats who wanted to lighten up the drink a bit with familiar soda water.

It’s doubtful that Camillo knew any of this as he saddled up to his favorite table and waved to his friend Fosco that fateful day in 1919. What’s certain is that the Count wasn’t looking for something light and familiar. He demanded an Americano, but no soda water was to be included. Instead, an equal portion of gin should be substituted, and it should be done immediately. As word of this new, vibrant concoction swept across the city, everyday tipplers began asking for their Americanos in the “Negroni way,” and a phenomenon was born. The Negroni family would go on to found the Negroni Distillerie in Treviso, Italy, and produce a canned ready-to-drink version of the cocktail called Antico Negroni 1919. Orson Welles, while working in Rome on Cagliostro in 1947 described the drink as such, “The bitters are excellent for your liver; the gin is bad for you. They balance each other out.”

The Negroni had its fans in the states, but for the most part lived in Europe, as the black cloud of Prohibition cast its shadow over America. Those bartenders that either didn’t switch over to the non-alcoholic side of the beverage industry, or take part in bootlegging or speakeasy activities during Prohibition likely found work overseas in bars such as Harry’s in Paris. Here, great variations on the Negroni took place, such as the Old Pal and the Boulevardier. While you can find traces of the Negroni and its variants in cocktail books from the mid-20th century, it was the modern craft cocktail revolution that really revived the drink, and for good reason. It’s the perfect cocktail.

The Negroni is perfection, as good a quaff as can be quaffed. For the most part, the best of the classic cocktails all revolve around three ingredients. The Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, The Martinez, the Martini (before bitters escaped the equation), the Sour, the Daisy, and eventually, much later, the Negroni. And when you think about it, they’re all essentially based on the idea of Strong, Bitter/Sour, and Sweet. They’re balanced. No one component runs rampant over the other. But other cocktails are flawed in their approach only by being sometimes unapproachable. The Martini at breakfast? Alas, I admit to it, but try cramming some pancakes and eggs into your stomach after a couple martinis, and you’re in for a world of hurt. A Margarita with dinner? Sure, I suppose if it’s summer, you’re preparing tacos, you know when in Rome and all that. A Manhattan before bed? We’ve all been there, but in no rush to go back. Every one of these drinks has its time and place, just not every time and place. The Negroni is the exception.

You can drink a Negroni at any time of the day, any day of the year, for any reason you like. It works to settle your stomach and increase your appetite. You can drink it with breakfast, you can drink it with lunch, you can drink it at dinner, and you can drink it at two in the morning after your shift at the restaurant. If it’s snowing, a Negroni warms you. If it’s a hot day in August and you’re sitting by the pool, pour yourself a refreshing Negroni. It’s beautiful mix of strong, bitter, and sweet that has no equal and no competition. You can drink it on the rocks or you can drink it up. You can even shake it (gasp!) and it doesn’t lose any of its punch. Almost every bar on the planet has the ingredients to make it, and even if the bartender doesn’t know what they’re doing, the drink is still drinkable. It lends itself to massive interpretations, its variants winning awards for simply substituting one ingredient for another. Like it more bitter? Try Cynar instead of Vermouth. Like it sweeter? How about Aperol for Campari. Like it stronger? Double the Gin. Like it a different color? Use Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano instead of vermouth. Dump the Gin in favor of Whiskey and you have a Boulevardier. Take that and swap the sweet vermouth for dry and you have an Old Pal. It’s a template for simple perfection. Don’t feel like measuring? You can get away with it in this one, I don’t care what anybody says. Of course, not all of these variants are equally perfect, but that’s what makes the Negroni what it is. Perfection leaves you the ability to be imperfect and still be delicious.

The modern cocktail resurgence has proved to have the massive staying power necessary to propel it past a trend. However, as with any culturally relevant anything, there are those who bastardize it. Future posts may dive into the hipster douchiness that has invaded our business on both sides of the bar, but for now it’s important to make note of the fact that the Negroni doesn’t fall victim to irony. Unlike past bastions of imbibing that may have been championed solely for their history, (I’m looking at you The Aviation and The Algonquin; why do people think you taste good?) the Negroni should not be seen as proof that you “get it.” That is to lose the point. The Negroni is the anti-cocktail, the anti-trend. It’s the least intimidating, most accessible drink you can order. If you want the bartender to know you’re a bartender too, order some Fernet. Leave the Negroni to the masses. Let the people come to us and relax, revel, bask in the wonder that is our bar, our home, our temple. Let them be welcomed in and not alienated. This thing is our thing to share and to grow. Let them appreciate what we have worked so hard to change. Let them see what they didn’t know existed. This is the gateway drug, the first rung of the ladder, the point of no return. This is perfection in an imperfect world.

THE NEGRONI

1oz London Dry Gin, 80 proof (Tanqueray, Beefeater)  [Step it up to 1.5oz  Perry’s Tot or Martin Miller’s Navy Strength]

1oz Campari

1oz Sweet Vermouth (Dolin, Noilly Prat) [Step it to Carpano Antica Formula]

Stir with ice and pour over new ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with an orange slice.

THE BITTER END (Adam Patrick)

1.5oz Perry’s Tot Gin

1oz Breckinridge Bitters

1oz Carpano Antica Formula

1/8oz house-made Orange Cardamom Bitters

stir with ice and strain up in a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel.

 

Slainte!

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2 Comments

  1. Matt Pechman

     /  February 8, 2014

    This might be the best article I’ve read on this delicious cocktail.

    Reply

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