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In the second of Square Meal’s close-ups on the world’s best-loved cocktails, Ben McCormack explores the history of the Negroni – and where you can drink it now
Some cocktails ooze class. Which barfly hasn’t experienced the frisson of imagining he’s a tuxedo-clad James Bond when ordering a classic Vodka Martini? And no matter Sex and the City finished three years ago: the sassy New York spirit of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha will live forever – as long as there’s a Cosmopolitan on the cocktail list. Such drinks have a sophistication and pedigree that a Screaming Orgasm somehow lacks.
But no cocktail has classier credentials than the Negroni. The story goes that this mix of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth was invented at Bar Casoni in Florence around 1920, when one regular, Count Camillo Negroni, asked for his Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth and soda water) to be made with gin and no soda.
Pro-American goodwill in the wake of World War I had established the Americano as the most fashionable cocktail, but once Casoni punters started ordering their Americanos ‘the Negroni way’, a classic was born.
A Negroni involves the sort of timeless simplicity bartenders adore: stir equal parts of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth with ice and garnish with an orange slice.
‘All the great cocktails are made with three ingredients,’ says Stuart Hudson, senior bartender at Soho bar and members’ club Milk & Honey. ‘But for something that’s so easy to make, the Negroni often gets messed up. Having one ingredient out by just 5ml will unbalance the whole drink. The perfect Negroni should have an equal combination of the three flavours coming through.’
Flavour is the main reason many people don’t order a Negroni. Campari, a combination of oranges, herbs, spices and peels, is famously bitter. Invented in Milan in 1860 by coffee-shop owner Gaspare Campari, it is drunk in Italy as an aperitif. Aperitivo means ‘opener of the palate’ and its bitter flavours stimulate the digestive juices before a meal and cleanse the palate. So although the Negroni makes a great pre-dinner drink, it is out of kilter with many people’s preference for sweet, fruity cocktails.
Hudson is convinced this will change. ‘Bitter flavours are one of the last qualities the human palate learns to appreciate,’ he says. ‘The younger someone is, the sweeter their palate. So, as the current generation of cocktail drinkers gets older, drier cocktails will come to the fore. A Negroni is a drink for people with a mature palate.’
He wouldn’t think of altering the Negroni recipe, beyond adding soda water to make it a thirst-quenching long drink for summer.
But Mickael Perron of bar consultancy BarNowOn reckons the recipe can be adapted to suit different tastes, pointing out that the Savoy Cocktail Book has five Negroni recipes.
‘The Negroni is more than a cocktail; it’s a professional method that you learn as a bartender. It’s all about keeping the balance between three different products. Once you’ve learnt this, it’s something you can adapt.’
For a fruitier Negroni, Perron suggests replacing the vermouth with Cherry Marnier. Or, for a refreshing long drink, using passionfruit juice rather than soda water. The brand of gin also affects the drink. For instance, using Miller’s Gin will bring a peppery flavour to your Negroni, Perron advises. Although he isn’t fussy about the vermouth he uses, Hudson recommends Punt e Mes.
Other variations on the Negroni include the Negroski, in which vodka is substituted for gin, and the Negroni Sbagliato, which replaces the gin with Asti Spumante. Some Negroni fans like to muddle oranges and add the strained-off juice and oils to the original three ingredients. And in the USA, a Negroni is sometimes served straight up in a martini glass – though Perron advises against this. ‘Without ice, you don’t have the dilution and chilling of the drink, which really allow the flavours to develop.’
Still, it’s hard to improve on the original, simple Negroni recipe. ‘It’s a legend on the cocktail list,’ says Perron. ‘No bartender who calls himself a bartender will not know how to make it.’ And if ordering a Negroni makes you feel like a member of the Italian aristocracy, so much the better.
25ml sweet vermouth
Combine all the ingredients in an old-fashioned glass with ice and stir gently.
Add a hefty orange slice as a garnish.
Aurora Great Eastern Hotel, Liverpool Street, EC2 Tel: 020 7618 7000
Donovan Bar Brown’s Hotel, 33 Albermarle Street, W1 Tel: 020 7518 4062
Lost Society 697 Wandsworth Road, SW8 Tel: 020 7652 6526
Milk & Honey 61 Poland Street, W1 Tel: 020 7292 9949
Red 5 Kingly Street, W1 Tel: 020 7434 3417
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2007