The Negroni: Bitter? Sweet.

negroniThere has always been a special place in my heart for the Negroni. Not always. I stayed away from them in elementary school, naturally. I don’t think I even tried my first until well into my twenties. And I’m not quite certain I liked it then.

But I liked the idea of the Negroni. It was and is a sophisticated, world-weary drink– one with Italian origins and bitter complexity, yet remarkably, charmingly straight forward. It is not a drink that should be knocked back like whiskey, nor can it be co-opted or diluted with other ingredients and still be called by its proper name. It is the sum of its equal, co-dependent parts: gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. It must be savored and considered.

If a person could model one’s self after a cocktail, I knew that the Negroni was exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I kept trying. So far, so good, and with minimal damage to my liver.

The Negroni doesn’t have the wide appeal of the Martini or even the Manhattan, which is, in my case, precisely the point. It isn’t necessarily an exclusive drink, but it does attract discriminating drinkers. They know who they are.

Or, at least, quickly find out who they are not.

For example, several years ago, some co-workers and I took a new server out one afternoon for a drink at a place around the corner from our restaurant. It was a warm day, so we decided to sit outside at some little tables on the sidewalk, have a smoke, and get to know our new little friend over a drink or two.

My friend Greg was managing that day, so he came around to have a chat and took our drink order while he was at it. We, the old-timers, called for Negronis. When Greg asked the new girl if she would like one as well, she spoke these precious words:

“Oh, sure. I’ll have a niggeroni, too.”

Then came the long, extremely uncomfortable silence made all the worse by the fact that she said this to a black man. If looks were hunting knives, she would have been flayed alive by everyone within earshot. What made it all the more surprising was that she hadn’t the slightest idea what she had just said. Greg generously attributed her utterance to poor Italian pronunciation, which is more than the rest of us allowed her.

And, after all that discomfort, she told us she didn’t like her Negroni and sent it back to be replaced by a Cosmopolitan. When she got up to use the restroom, one of our party re-christened her “Chili’s” because he felt she might be much more at home working at a place that sold Awesome Blossoms than with us. The name stuck around for about as long as she did. That drink we bought her as a welcome ended up being her departing gift, too, since that’s precisely what she did shortly after.

Apart from its cachet of clique, what I love most about the Negroni is that it is deliciously louche. It hints at danger and moral decay more precisely than any other drink, save Absinthe. Just ask Tennessee Williams. Of course, he choked to death on a plastic bottle cap, so it might be easier to simply watch Lotte Lenya*, Warren Beatty, and Vivien Leigh drink them in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and enjoy the ensuing destruction. They weren’t exactly good for Mrs. Stone, nor were they especially good for Mr. Beatty’s awful Italian accent, but they certainly helped to lubricate the plot. (*After searching for a video clip from the film, I stumbled upon an article by Toby Cecchini in the New York Times referring to Lotte Lenya as, well, louche. It must be true. For a wonderful description of the drink and its components, read his article Shaken And Stirred; Dressing Italian.)

There is a time and a place for the Negroni: swank apartments at midnight, dimly lit trysting places at any time of day, on the sly in a toney sanitarium– appropriate situations, all of them. They should never under any circumstances be drunk over a quick lunch with your parents or ordered from bartenders who inhabit the jungles of South America. I speak from experience. I don’t care if there is a casino on the premises. You might win at the crap tables, but you will almost assuredly lose the battle with the bartender.

The Classic Negroni

The cocktail owes its name and its existence to one Count Camillo Negroni of Florence, Italy. According to Eric Felten’s enjoyable read, How’s Your Drink?, Negroni’s preferred drink at the Caffé Casoni was the Americano, an admixture of Campari, Cinzano, and club soda. One day, he asked the bartender, Fosco Scarselli, to fortify his drink with gin. The cocktail was an unqualified success and its intake spread first around the city, then the world.

Ingredients:

Makes one Negroni

1 ounce of good gin. Please do not stint.

1 ounce Cinzano Rosso vermouth

1 ounce Campari.

Ice cubes, preferably made from Italian spring water. Or tap if you must.

Orange peel or slice for garnish

Preparation:

Into a cocktail shaker, add all ingredients except the orange. Shake or stir, according to your own preference. Strain into chilled cocktail class. Garnish with orange.

Sit back, and enjoy the ensuing existential train wreck.

As an added bonus, while I’m on the topic of train wrecks, enjoy a clip from a famous television personality I would never expect to see drinking a Negroni. In my opinion, she doesn’t get it quite right, just pouring everything over the rocks without proper mixing as she does. Then again, she does only have 30 minutes to make an entire meal.

Enjoy.

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About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
This entry was posted in Liquids, Rants and Stories, Stage, Film, and Television. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Negroni: Bitter? Sweet.

  1. Consuelo M. says:

    Thank you for the reminder and history of one of my old faves, and the clarification that there is no Vodka Negroni. Whenever I order a Negroni I feel like I’m part of a secret elite club that actually loves the herbal essence, yes I said it.

  2. Nicky D. says:

    I like mine with just a splash (splash being a relative term) of Campari. Keeps the bitterness subtle, light, and understated.

  3. Jay in (not of) L.A. says:

    If I could drink without throwing my life away, I’d totally try this.

  4. michaelprocopio says:

    Sway Low– Yes, you said it. Herbal Essence. I just went over to their website and found that they have interesting titles for their hair care products:

    “No Flakin’ Way” — three guesses what that’s used for.
    “Drama Clean”– Well, shampoo is supposed to clean, after all.
    “Dangerously Straight”– shampoos, conditioners, and styling products for straight hair.

    I’d bet my bottom dollar there is a gay man behind this.

    Nicky– Bitterness is always best when subtle, light, and understated. And I see you have adopted the use of listing commas. Well noted, love.

    Jay– if I could drink with you without you throwing your life away, we would drink our Negronis as we chain smoked in a dark, overly-decorated piano bar where only the darkest of Sondheim was played.

  5. Pingback: Getting Smart: A Drink for Every Mood | Bay Area Bites

  6. jfm says:

    I find that with experience, I wish the campari to be more prevlent, so:
    1, 1, .5 – gin, campari, sweet vermouth.

    yummm

  7. Frumpulent Grumpton says:

    One of the first few times I had this drink, I ordered it from a black waiter. He needed me to restate my request. (I think sincerely – maybe from my mumbling – not based on potential racial misunderstanding). Maybe he appreciated that it was indeed a legit beverage. Anyway, I love the drink. The bitterness is what you need to whet the appetite. Creamy, sweet drinks are no good to get you in the mood for a steak or fettuccine alfredo. And that waiter was a good fellow before – and after – my potentially confusing request. :) I try to say it as “Nay-GROW-nee” to be as clearly non-offensive as possible!

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Frumpulent– Nice name, by the way. I am so glad to hear I am not alone in my experience. Nay-GROW-nee. And, do you mind if I borrow the phrase “bitterness is what you need to whet the appetite”? It’s right for so many occasions.

  8. jfm says:

    I find that many bartenders, especially young ones don’t know how to make it….so, I oblige, after asking if they have campari. Of course part of the bargain is that it should be one “on the house.” I have succeeded many times – when all the planets are aligned.

  9. keis says:

    I am in love with this drink. Nothing else compares.

  10. Kim says:

    Love this. I do add a splash of club soda.

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