Tuesday 2 March 2021

Negroni Safari

David T. Smith,  drinks writer and sometime contributor to this blog, has just published a new book on the Negroni cocktail. You may wonder how one can fill a book on the subject of one cocktail, but this volume is essentially a collection of variations, from subtle tweaks on the classic form to seasonal variants and radical reinterpretations.

In its basic form the cocktail is a blend of equal parts gin, Campari and red vermouth, and it has enjoyed quite a renaissance over the last decade or so. Generally speaking I take a dim view of people who peddle so-called variations of a drink which in reality are just borrowing a name that people will recognise and perhaps trust—the world is full of “[insert word] Martinis” which in fact contain none of the ingredients of a Martini but are simply served in what is often called a “Martini glass” (more properly a “cocktail glass”). Yet the Negroni is more open to legitimate variation than a Martini because it has more ingredients and each has many varieties—there are legion gins out there, plenty of red vermouths, and even Campari is part of an Italian tradition of bitter, herbal amari.

I developed a taste for Campari while honeymooning in Venice in 2000. A huge Campari sign loomed over the Lido (now gone, I think) and the locals’ aperitif of choice was the “Spritz”, a mixture of Campari, white wine (sometimes sparkling) and fizzy water. The Austrians who ruled the place in the early 19th century started all this, using seltzer water to thin the strong local wine. Nowadays Aperol (sweeter, fruiter, less bitter) has taken over from Campari in the Spritz—Venice is filled with tables of bright orange drinks where they used to be red—and you have to ask specifically for a Campari version, although in fairness it was always acceptable to make it with either, as well as Select Pilla or Cynar, an amaro flavoured with artichoke.

A bright red, bitter drink that's bottled at 25% ABV, Campari was invented in Turin by Gaspare Campari in the early 1800s and his son was responsible for the iconic advertising images that helped promote it through the 19th century and beyond. The recipe is allegedly a closely guarded secret but is said to involve some 60 ingredients. In flavour it comes across as herbal and citric with a bitter finish. Its colour traditionally comes from cochineal, a cactus-boring insect from South America, though in 2007 they replaced this with an artificial colouring.

The Negroni owes its existence to another cocktail, the Americano. By 1862 Gaspare had his own bar, Caffè Campari, in Milan, where he devised a blend of Campari, sweet red vermouth and soda water, calling it a Milano-Torino, after its origins. It later became known as an Americano because of its popularity with tourists. Legend has it that, in 1919, one Count Camillo Negroni went into the Caffè Casoni in Florence and asked the barman, Fosco Scarselli, to beef up his Americano with gin. (Whether at this stage the gin actually replaced the soda, I’m not clear.) This became Negroni’s favourite drink and it took his name. (To give you an idea of the cultural significance of the drink, there is actually an ongoing spat about who invented it, with the contemporary Negroni family insisting that their ancestor Count Pascal Olivier Negroni is the real creator. They even claim that Camillo never existed, though it’s fairly certain he did; the truth about his alleged careers as a cowboy and riverboat gambler are another matter. See www.drinkingcup.net/the-real-count-camillo-negroni for a taste of the vehemence.)

Mr Smith’s book, written with Keli Rivers, includes a range of variants where the role of the Campari is played by other bitter drinks, as well as some long-established concoctions which are essentially Negronis with the gin replaced by another spirit: the Boulevardier, first published in 1927, uses bourbon and the Old Pal, from the same era, uses rye whiskey. I myself have previously experimented and found that it works with tequila, Cognac, rum or Scotch, and similar variants appear here. 

Other versions focus on the fruitiness of Campari and the fact that a Negroni is traditionally served with an orange slice garnish, and add orange, grapefruit or pineapple juices. David also suggests pre-mixing a batch of Negroni and letting it “age”, or trying one of several types of White Negroni, using white vermouth and something like Suze to create an almost colourless version (see also this delightful version made with Luxardo Bitter Bianco).

Inevitably there is a “Royale” version with Champagne (although a Negroni Sbagliato, using Prosecco instead of gin, has been an Italian tradition since the 1980s), a Christmas-oriented Snowball version with Advocaat, even a “float” version with ice cream. But perhaps the strangest is the “clarified” version, where a convention Negroni is mixed with lemon juice and milk—the acid curdles the milk which draws the colour from the drink, so that when you strain it through a cheesecloth or coffee filter you get something that tastes like a Negroni but is a pale straw colour. Whether this is worth the effort only you, gentle reader, can decide.

Negroni will be published by Ryland Peters & Small on 9th March, RRP £7.99

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