Friday, September 14, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Negroni

The Negroni is such a classic that it didn’t take long to round up a few choice quotes praising it from some estimable spirits writers. Like David Wondrich, who called it “one of the world’s indispensable cocktails.” Or Jason Wilson: “just about the perfect cocktail ... so simple even the worst bartender can’t mess it up too badly.”

But my favorite comes courtesy of that heroic appreciator of alcohol Kingsley Amis, who said of this simple combination of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari: “This is a really fine invention. It has the power, rare with drinks and indeed with anything else, of cheering you up.” Truer words never spoken.

The drink’s origin story smacks of apocrypha. The legend goeth that in 1919, Count Camillo Negroni – yes, you’re expected to believe there was a Count Negroni – requested that his Florentine bartender liven up his customary Americano by replacing the soda water with gin. The barman, a sterling specimen of his trade, did as he was asked, adding an orange twist instead of the Americano’s usual lemon to tell the beverages apart.

Here’s the thing. Not only was there a Count Negroni, and not only did the story happen as told, but the Count ended up in America working as a rodeo cowboy, sending a great story into the stratosphere. One hopes he brought enough Campari for the rest of the riders. European bar manuals, according to Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book, featured drinks made with the same three ingredients called the Camparinette and the Campari Cardinal. But it was always the Negroni in Italy, where it found favor with visitors from abroad like Orson Welles, who discovered the cocktail while filming Black Magic in Rome in 1947. Said Welles: “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.”

Balance has always been key with the Negroni, an equal parts drink. Some contemporary bartenders ratchet up the amount of gin considerably, noting that the original ratio is a relic from an era when spirits were of poorer quality. But I’m a traditionalist. There are also versions made with vodka, prosecco, even tequila. I’m sure they’re swell. (OK, fine. I’ll highlight a favorite variation next time.)

Not to say I don’t experiment. I simply prefer to do so within proscribed parameters. The Negroni I’ve been making lately uses Bombay Sapphire, a softer gin, along with Punt e Mes, a sharper vermouth that pairs up nicely with the bitterness of Campari. I also switched back to a lemon twist and found that it tied the flavors together beautifully.

Negronis can be served on the rocks, which makes for near-ideal summer drinking. Enjoy them for the next few months up in a cocktail glass as a lively reminder of the season fast fading.

The Negroni

The Summer of 2012 Variation

1 oz. gin
1 oz. Punt e Mes (in place of sweet vermouth)
1 oz. Campari

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist out of a sense of adventure.