The Negroni Conquest
Jeffery Lindenmuth / October 2011
Jeffery Lindenmuth champions the quintessential Italian drink that seems poised to take over the bar.
It was 15 years ago when I first embraced the Negroni as my adopted drink, a cocktail distinguished in both its deliciousness and simplicity. At the time, few bartenders showed proficiency in rendering classic cocktails, and the Negroni had the benefit of being possessed with a easy recipe, one that can be explained in a sentence, then executed satisfactorily by any bartender: “It’s equal parts Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth—on the rocks, please.”
So enthusiastic was my consumption of the drink that a girl I was dating at the time remarked that she took to ordering a Negroni in my absence because the carmine-red cocktail reminded her of me. The gesture was flattering, yet vexing, considering she despised Negronis. She was not alone. The sublime combination of bitter Campari, herbal gin, and fruity vermouth evokes passion among its detractors, as well as its fans.
According to Luca Picchi, bar manager of Caffè Rivoire in Florence, Italy, who documents the life of Count Cammillo Negroni in his book Sulle Tracce Del Conte: La Vera Storia Del Cocktail Negroni, this trinity of elixirs was conceived by Negroni and first crafted by Fosco Scarselli at the Caffè Casoni in Florence around 1919. By Picchi’s account, the jet-setting count was introduced to gin during his travels in England and requested it be added to his Milano-Torino, a combination of Campari from Milan and Cinzano Vermouth from Turin, topped with soda (a drink later dubbed the Americano).
Fast-forward to July 2011 and Francesco Lafranconi, the Italian born corporate director of mixology for Southern Wine & Spirits, dares to tamper with perfection, inviting eight handpicked Italian bartenders to join him in reinventing the Negroni at “Negronis with a Twist,” an event held in conjunction with Tales of the Cocktail at Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans. Picchi replicated Scarselli’s masterpiece in an impressive volume of 30 gallons, while the other bartenders exercised artistic license with their compatriot’s creation.
Starting with Campari (for a Negroni without it is a cocktail ripped of its very soul), they manipulated and adjusted, added and deleted. Lafranconi proffered Il Postino: 1 oz. Beefeater 24 London Dry Gin, 1 oz. Campari, 3/4 oz. Averna Amaro, and 1/4 oz. Luxardo Maraschino, stirred over ice and served on the rocks with a briny Castelvetrano green olive and a grapefruit twist. The Citroni, from Agostino Perrone, head mixologist at the American Bar at Connaught Hotel, London, included 1 oz. Beefeater 24 London Dry Gin, 1/2 oz. Campari, 1/2 oz. Luxardo Triplum Triple Sec, 1/2 oz. Luxardo Limoncello, and 1/2 oz. Martini Dry Vermouth, stirred on ice and served on the rocks with a sprig of thyme. “I was touched by a moment of national pride, where we all felt ourselves to be empowered by the energy of the Negroni,” recalls Lafranconi. “For an Italian bartender, it’s the first drink you learn, and here we were, joined to honor the drink.”
According to Gerry Ruvo, chairman and CEO of Skyy Spirits, the Negroni is showing widespread momentum. “There’s undoubtedly something special going on with the Negroni this year. Bartenders love it, and we love seeing them have fun with it,” says Ruvo. “Given the American palate’s traditional preference for sweetness, the embrace of bitters, like Campari, marks a transformational milestone.” The Tasting Kitchen in Los Angeles and Zero Zero in San Francisco soften the Negroni’s bite by aging it in oak barrels, while Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen in San Francisco meets demand with Negroni served on tap, contributing to a surge of nearly 12 percent in sales of Campari in a year’s time.
Still an outlier cocktail, Lafranconi observes that the Negroni is the darling of mixologists and sophisticated consumers who are willing to make an effort in enjoying their drink. I believe my former girlfriend referred to it politely as an “acquired taste.” Having failed to acquire one for me, sometimes I cannot help but wonder if she ever developed one for my beloved Negroni.