If I had to narrow the ever-expanding cocktail world down to a single mixed drink that would last me the rest of my imbibing days, I would have to go with a tried-and-true classic: the Negroni.
I love the heady swirl of botanicals that comes from equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth and the bracingly bitter Campari, all stirred together with ice and served with an orange twist. (A lemon twist is a common substitute, but I find it lacks the brightness that a sliver of bruised orange or tangelo peel brings to the glass.)
So, imagine my joy at finding Gary Regan’s “The Negroni” at the library. For days, I poured over the cocktail’s colorful history as well as dozens of recipe variations, from classics such as the Boulevardier, which uses bourbon instead of gin and which inspired the name of a San Antonio group of mixologists, to newfangled types that sounded too tortured to be tried. Sure, if I were sitting in your bar, I might even let you make me a variation that contained pisco, Solera Sherry, rum, cachaca or whatever else you offered, as long as it didn’t sound too sweet. I say this because I have had Negroni variations made by bartenders who fail to understand that the bitterness is the appeal of the drink; without it, you end up with some wretched mess that’s fit only for a cosmopolitan lover. (It’s like putting simple syrup or agave syrup in a margarita: Don’t go there.)
Here’s Regan’s take on this classic, which was indeed named after an Italian count named Negroni:
I honestly don’t remember my first Negroni, but I know that the Milanese theory that one must drink Campari three times before starting to like it certainly never applied to me. Campari was a love-at-first-sip sort of thing for me. I’ve a passion for all things bitter — save for the odd ex-girlfriend.
The incredible aspect of the Negroni that not everyone understands—or agrees with—is that it works every time, no matter what brand of gin or sweet vermouth you use. And you can slap my wrist and call me Deborah if it doesn’t also work no matter what ratios you use.
Seriously, try it. Go up on the gin, the Campari, or the vermouth. These three ingredients are soul mates, and they support each other no matter how you try to fool them.
You can even mix a bottle of each together in a large glass container and let it set for a time, thereby creating your own aged cocktail. I haven’t tried that yet, but will likely do so as the holidays are approaching.
In the meantime, here are three Negroni variations from Regan’s book, ranging from the simple Boulevardier to the more complex Knickroni, which is a perfect way to test the skills of any budding mixologist.
1 ounce bourbon
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce Campari
Garnish: 1 orange slice, lemon twist or cherry
Stir bourbon, vermouth and Campari long and well with ice in a mixing glass, the strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish as desired.
Makes 1 cocktail.
From Harry McElhone/”The Negroni” by Gary Regan
Kevin Burke, head barman at Colt & Gray in Denver, says, “When we created the Bottecchia cocktail, we wanted it to be a Negroni variation, but in the spirit of Spinal Tap we wanted to turn it up to 11. Fernet-Branca replaced the gin, and Cynar was swapped in for the sweet vermouth. The salt tempers the bitterness of the amaro and adds a distinct savory element. We named the drink after Ottavio Bottecchia, a young professional cyclist who won the Tour de France in 1924 and wore the yellow jersey for the entire race (15 consecutive days). His life was cut short when he was found dead in 1927 of unknown causes. He was a known Socialist, and his politics put him in unpopular company.”
1 ounce Fernet-Branca
1 ounce Cynar
1 ounce Campari
Small pinch of kosher salt
Garnish: 1 fat grapefruit twist
Stir all the ingredients in a mixing glass without ice until the salt is dissolved. Add ice and stir, then strain into a chilled coupe. Squeeze the grapefruit twist over the drink, then discard.
Makes 1 cocktail.
From Kevin Burke, Colt & Gray/”The Negroni” by Gary Regan
Frederic Yarm, author of the Cocktail Virgin Slut blog, explains the history of this variation: “Ever since John Gertsen, who was at No. 9 Park in Boston at the time, told me about his intrigue with the Knickebein, Leo Engel’s nineteenth-century pousse-cafe with an unbroken egg yolk in the middle, I have taken to the drink as a good rite of passage. With the autumnal leaf change coming on, I was thinking about red and yellow drinks, and the vision of a strange merge of a Negroni and a Knickebein occurred. The idea of changing around Leo’s recipe was spawned a while ago from the fact that his version’s liqueur choices don’t hold up to the modern palate, but the Negroni seemed fitting for the fall color theme. I was quite pleased with the results.”
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1/2 ounce Campari
1 small or medium egg, separated, with the yolk unbroken
1/2 ounce gin
Garnish: 1 dash Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6
Stir the vermouth and Campari together in a 2-ounce sherry glass. Gently layer the unbroken egg yolk on top, then carefully layer the gin atop the yolk. Beat the egg white until stiff with a whisk, then cover the gin layer with the egg white. Garnish with the bitters.
Warning: Dishes containing raw eggs should not be served to those vulnerable people at greater risk from food poisoning such as small children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Pregnant women and small children shouldn’t be consuming alcohol here, but that’s another story.
Makes 1 cocktail.
From Frederic Yarm, Cocktail Virgin Slut blog/”The Negroni” by Gary Regan