The Italian Cocktail that will Change your Life
I’ve never told this to anyone before, but I am not ashamed to admit that I have a secret obsession. Yes, that’s right. I have an obsession. I tried to keep it to myself, but soon my friends found out, and I was finally able to come to terms with it. It wasn’t easy, but I have a great support system and have managed to maintain a positive outlook. Well, here it goes: my name is Jon (or Jonny, depending on my mood), and I am obsessed with Negronis.
Now, before you bust out the tissues and lament over my struggles, let me answer some preliminary questions. First, you might be wondering, what’s a Negroni? Well, it’s a gin-based cocktail that, like a lot of really good-looking and well-dressed people, was born in Florence, Italy. In 1919, a man named Count (yes, a Count) Camillo Negroni asked a bartender at, what was called, Caffé Casoni to spruce up his normal Americano, which is Campari, sweet vermouth and club soda served over ice. Campari, of course, is perhaps the most famous Italian aperitif, and to me, the second-most delicious thing to come from Italy besides white truffle pasta. Deep-orange in color, with a distinctive bitter orange flavor, Campari is the backbone of the Negroni and the root of my addiction. I used to believe that Campari was forged by a heavenly angel, but Google has recently advised me that in fact, it was created in 1860 in Novara, which in Piedmont, by, you guessed it, a guy named Campari. An interesting (and kind of gross, sorry) tidbit is that Campari’s distinct, red-orange color was originally accomplished by using the pulp of little crushed-up orange bugs! Listen, I said it was kind of gross. And while I sometimes wish I could be drinking real orange bug juice, since then, the Italians have replaced those crushed critters with regular food dyes. (You can read more about the bugs here).
The most traditional way to drink Campari, as Count Camillo did, was in an Americano. Because of its harsh bitterness, Campari is a little tough to take by itself. However, what Count Camillo discovered was that replacing the club soda with gin created one of the simplest, delicious cocktails. While Campari anchors the drink with its distinct flavor, gin lends some nice alcoholic heat and botanical flavors (juniper, chamomile, orange peel, etc.), and sweet vermouth rounds everything out with a sweet boozy, briny flavor. An orange slice or peel is then added as a garnish, which gives it even more orange flavor. Some would say that it’s the perfect warm-weather cocktail.
Please be advised that, while orange-y, Negronis do not taste like the screwdrivers (vodka + orange juice) you drank from a Poland Spring bottle at the college fraternity party, they taste more like bitter-sweet orange candy that makes you happily tipsy. One thing I should note is that there are so-called alternative substitutes for Campari in Negronis. Examples include Aperol, which is a sweeter, less bitter and herbaceous Italian aperitif, and Capitelli, which is a milder, more medicinal version of Campari. While there’s no shame in exploring substitutes for Campari, I have not found anything else that provides Campari’s subtle harsh bitterness, which I think is a critical component of the drink. So, to just keep it simple and traditional, I’d stick with Campari.
Even more awesome/sweet/pretty cool is that Negronis are so simple to make and hard to mess up. Normally, a Negroni is made with equal parts of gin, Campari and vermouth, which is then stirred and served à la rocks with the orange slice or peel. They’re also pretty good served up in a martini glass (no ice). While I did originally fall in love with the traditional Negroni, I tinkered with the recipe and will essentially never drink a traditional Negroni again. That is unless I’m actually in Italy, where I’m pretty sure asking the Italians to modify the cocktail to suit my needs might create an international incident. But, I reside in the US of A, where we’ve built an epicurean culture on taking traditional recipes from other countries and supercharging them. So, here’s how I make my patented (application pending) JR Negronis.
Before you think that I’ve butchered the drink by adding mango chutney (which by the way, is great with chicken) or something, calm down. I did two things. First, I modified the ratio of the booze, which is supposed to be 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 (boooooorrrrring), and divided the drink into fifths. I use 3/5 gin, 1/5 Campari and 1/5 sweet vermouth. To me, this tastes better, since I love gin, but I also think that the gin’s booziness and botanicals get lost when mixed equally with Campari and vermouth. Second, I do not add the traditional orange slice or peel. I don’t want to have to slice an orange every time I want to have my favorite cocktail, and I’m not the biggest fan of using an actual orange. Plus, if you’ve ever closely sniffed an orange peel, it kind of smells like a sweaty body part. Yuck. I also don’t love the flavor that an orange provides. Instead dash in some orange bitters (3-4 good shakes), which I find adds a cleaner, brighter flavor than a real orange. This is all done in a rocks glass, filled with rocks, and stirred about 50 times. And voila, there you have it, my new twist on the old classic. If you prefer the traditional recipe or have your own variation, no problemo - it’s tutto bene! Salute!
My picks for the perfect JR Negroni:
Gin: Greenhook Ginsmiths American Dry Gin (Brooklyn, NY), $38.
The Red Stuff: Campari (Milan, Italy), $39/Liter.
Vermouth: La Quintinye Vermouth Royal (Merpins, France), $25/750ml.
Orange: Suze Orange Bitters (Thuir, France), $29.
Jon Rich is In the Midfield's Men's Lifestyle Editor. He is also a practicing attorney in NYC.