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The Negroni: A Beautifully Bitter Answer to Sweet Cocktails

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A Negroni

I worked up an appetite for Campari earlier this summer when I visited Italy. This bitters, with the bright red color, is an apéritif, an herb-infused alcohol served largely before dinner as a means of working up your appetite for food.

It was one of several herbal and vegetal intoxicants that cast its spell over me, and I loved trying various amari as well as Cynar, an artichoke-based drink that went well with a splash of peach soda. I’m not fond of overly sweet cocktails, such as cosmos or the various candied martinis that are all too common nowadays. So, the bracingly bitter difference that these alcohols  brought to cocktails made them a pleasure to sip and study.

I realize that you won’t find Cynar at every bar in town — perhaps not any bar in town, though I have seen it at Twin Liquors, Saglimbeni and Spec’s for about $27 a bottle. Campari, however, is a little more popular (and it’s also priced around $27 a bottle).  It’s usually tucked in with the other supposedly weird bottles, with labels bearing names such as Pimm’s No. 1 and Drambouie, all of which were purchased by the bar manager who was there three or four years ago and they were promptly turned to dust catchers after he  moved on to another job.

And that bottle of Campari generally means I can get a Negroni, though, more often than not, I have had to explain (and occasionally explain several times again) what is in this classic drink.

Not familiar with this crazy red beauty? It’s been around for close to a century, according to Wikipedia, and in all that time, its recipe hasn’t changed: It’s equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari with an orange twist. What could be simpler, right?

Well, in an age when classic cocktails are precociously trendy and bartenders prize themselves on being able to layer a true Ramos gin fizz or  whip up a whiskey sour with egg white, getting a Negroni has not been easy. A few bartenders have refused to make any drink they’ve never heard of. One bartender seemed to believe that those three liquors should not be mixed together, because I was served each separately and left to mix my own.

A Negroni at Zinc

Kudos to the folks at the Havana and at Bohanan’s Bar for knowing how to make a Negroni properly without asking questions. And thanks go to the bartenders at Zinc, the bar at Oro in the Emily Morgan and the Blue Box because they at least asked what was in the cocktail, listened and then made one to order. The recipe is so easy that most tasted just like they did at home, though I suspect a dash or two of bitters might have been splashed into one or two for a little added spark of flavor, though the blend of herbs and spices in Campari offers quite an explosion on their own.

You can vary the recipe. I found one cocktail book that made a Vodka Negroni, substituting vodka for what the author referred to as the medicinal quality that she detects in gin. My counterargument is that you can at least taste something in gin; I still haven’t found much need for vodka because I don’t need alcohol that badly to settle for something flavorless. (She also uses more vodka than Campari and vermouth, which is shifting the focus in the wrong direction, as far as I’m concerned, but chacun à son goût, as the French say.)

That probably explains where the lighter appeal of the Americano comes in. This cocktail, which actually predates the Negroni, uses club soda instead of gin, leaving you with a fizzy mix of bitter, herbal Campari and lightly sweet, fruity vermouth. Trivia fans will know of the Americano because it is the first cocktail ordered by James Bond in the novel, “Casino Royal,” according to

So, during the waning days of summer (as least I like to think it’s waning), try something a little different to take the edge off the heat.

For more Campari cocktail recipes, click here.

1 part gin
1 part red or rosso vermouth
1 part bitters, such as Campari

Pour into a shaker with plenty of ice. Shake until cold. Pour into a rocks class, ice and all. Garnish with an orange peel twist. Some like to strain the drink into a chilled martini glass.

From John Griffin

Vodka Negroni

1 ounce vodka
1/2 ounce Campari
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
Splash of Perrier (optional)
Lemon twist

Fill cocktail shaker with ice cubes. Add vodka, Campari and vermouth. Stir and strain into glass over ice cubes. Add optional Perrier. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Makes 1 cocktail.

From “Modern Cocktails & Appetizers” from Martha Gill


1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
3 ounces club soda

In a highball glass filled with ice, pour in Campari and vermouth. Stir. Add club soda and stir.

Makes 1 cocktail.

From “Pink Panther Cocktail Party” by Adam Rocke


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One Response to “The Negroni: A Beautifully Bitter Answer to Sweet Cocktails”

  1. John Griffin says:

    Went back to Blue Box Saturday and the Negroni was made with Lillet instead of Campari. It added a clove-allspice element that made the drink more spice-oriented. No less wonderful, yet wonderfully different.