Drinking the Negroni is a bit like falling in love.
You walk into your favourite bar, making yourself comfortable. You’re not in the mood for big changes, so you tell the barman that you’ll be having the usual. He nods curtly.
Then, suddenly, something catches your eye. A stranger, startling in red. There’s a whiff of something exotic to the stranger. A foreign name. An accent that’s unmistakably Mediterranean.
The stranger sits down next to you, close enough for you to take in the perfume. Like its owner, it too is seductive, sensual. Spice and earth, flowers and summer heat. It’s intoxicating.
The first contact is electric. A million sensations, yet beneath them all is an endless cascade of bitterness, jagged rocks on a seabed. You drown momentarily in the dark, grasping depths, overwhelmed by sheer force of personality.
You want to run- you are repulsed by such intensity. Repulsed by unyielding strength and bitterness.
Yet you find yourself pulled into the stranger’s orbit, despite yourself. You resist.
Soon, you return to the stranger’s embrace. You find layers unfolding like a crimson bloom. You are consumed by the play of a hundred different paradoxes, each fascinating. Waves of sensation courses through you- a beautiful symphony. You are trapped in a bittersweet prison.
You’ve fallen in love with the Negroni.
There are few drinks that command the kind of attention that the Negroni does. Celebrated by bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts nearby, it’s one of the world’s great cocktails. It belongs to the same club as the Martini, The Old Fashioned, and the Manhattan. Unlike the others, it even has a week themed after it.
Yet, few, if any, will tell you that their affair with the Negroni was love at first sip. Like in our story, the initial contact is almost always intense- intensely bitter, intensely herbal, and intensely strong.
Over time, one can see the genius behind it. Its bitterness awakens the tastebuds and gets the juices flowing. All the drink’s other qualities seem more intense because of it. There is certainly a sourness in the drink, if one uses the traditional Italian sweet vermouth. There is also a rich sweetness from the fortified wine. The aromas from botanicals in all three components- gin, Campari, vermouth- offer a bouquet of the forest- bark, flower, herbs and leaves.
Such is its complexity that it makes a return visit worthwhile. There’s always something new to discover.
Count Camillo Negroni was an Italian bon vivant. He was the kind of aristocrat who spent 20 years wandering America and made a living as a rodeo cowboy. Like many gentleman adventurers of the day, he enjoyed his drinks stiff.
At the time of his return to Italy, the Americano was popular in Italy – a combination of Campari, sweet vermouth and soda in place of gin. The Americano is a descendant of the Milan-Torino (Mi-To), which is made with Campari (from Milan) and Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth (from Turin), without the soda. The Mi-To is itself a variation of the To-Mi, which uses Amaro Cosa, a bitter Italian aperitif, instead of vermouth.
In 1919, the good Count was drinking at the Cafe Casoni in Florence (which lives on as the Caffe Giacosa today), when he decided to apply his fondness for spirit. In an immortal moment, he told the barman to replace the soda in his Americano with gin.
Yes, a classic was born because an Italian count found a cocktail too weak for his tastes. We owe him a debt.
Making a Negroni
It’s actually fairly simple to make a Negroni, It has a kind of Italian elegance about it- sophistication and charm without fuss.
Take equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth and London dry gin, stir with ice till freezing cold, then garnish with an orange peel and serve. If you want to enjoy it the Italian way, have it before dinner with some light snacks.
That’s it. Anyone can do it at home without specialised equipment. You don’t need special training. That’s the beauty of it.
In fact, there’s very little you can do to ruin a Negroni. It’s simple, but remarkably flexible. This mutability lets you change little details to suit your own particular inclinations, however.
Making your Negroni
First, the choice of gin and vermouth. Any combination of London dry and sweet vermouth will do to preserve the general structure and taste profile of the drink. That said, each gin or vermouth adds something different to the drink and changes it subtly. A delicate gin like Hendrick’s tends to get lost in a labyrinth of herbs, but if you like a lighter touch, then by all means, use it and tone down the Campari.
A more traditional juniper heavy gin works well for an integrated flavour – a Tanqueray, Sipsmith or Beefeater are all good choices. In keeping with the Negroni’s Florentine origins, you might even enjoy playing around with the gins of our gin renaissance. We like St George Terroir and G’vine Floraison.
The choice of vermouth is often more restricted, thanks to the lack of supply. Martini and Rosso works fine, and is available at many supermarkets. Dolin Rouge is lighter, drier and more subtle than the rest and can be paired with a light gin. Punt e Mes is much more bitter, and Carpano Antica Formula is sweeter and fuller in texture and flavour.
Bear in mind the relationship between gin, vermouth and Campari. They work best when the power of the flavours are consistent. Our favourite combination is Ford’s and Carpano Antica Formula, a strong – but balanced- combination.
A whole new world
The Negroni makes a great template to experiment on. You can change the ingredients’ proportions to your liking. Adding more gin is a common choice for those who, like, Count Negroni, prefer a stronger drink.
You can also choose to drink the Negroni on ice or straight up. The former is a long sipper, and because of the extra dilution, slightly less boozy. The latter is stronger and needs to be enjoyed swiftly.
The choice of garnish is influenced by the serve. For those on the rocks, an orange peel, slice or dehydrated wheel all work fine – there are slight differences in freshness of aroma and aesthetics. For the short serve, a peel works best.
You can also change the spirit completely, which makes the resulting drink, technically speaking, not a Negroni. We like mezcal, which kicks the herbal flavours up a notch and adds smoke.
We also like the Boulevardier, which uses Bourbon or Rye and inherits their sweet grain and oak flavours.
For some really creative concoctions, however, we must look to the professionals. Whether it’s adding entirely new flavours or taking them away, minds are hard at work tweaking the classic.
It’s Negroni week next week (5th to 11th June) and many Singaporean bars are showcasing their particular twists, and donating money to charity for each glass sold (so there’s really no excuse not to grab one).
We’ve got a short listing here (in no particular order):
- Nutmeg and Clove: Nanyang Negroni and Sous Vide Classic Negroni. Sold in bottles of two different sizes 100ml ($20++) and 500ml ($68 ++). With every purchase, Nutmeg & Clove will donate $5 to Beyond Social Services, dedicated to helping people break out of the poverty cycle. The Sous Vide Classic Negroni intensifies the different components while the Nanyang Negroni features no Campari at all, and uses goldthread infused-Hendrick’s Gin and Lillet Blanc for a fruity, floral, yet herbal taste.
- Tippling Club: Sonic Negroni. A combination of Fords Gin, Campari, Martini Rosso and Cocchi Torino. The drink is bombarded with Sound Waves to emulate a barrel-aged flavour and is finished with a house-made Negroni jelly. Part of the proceeds will be donated to Hagar International, a charity devoted to helping restore the lives of women and children in Afghanistan, Cambodia & Vietnam who have been exploited by human trafficking.
- Mitzo Restaurant & Bar- Uncle Negroni. A combination of Genever infused with red dates, Vermouth del Professore and Bitter Campari, barrel-aged for a month. Drop any amount of cash in the charity box at the bar and redeem your Uncle Negroni. All proceeds goes to Bundesverband Kinderhospiz e.v., German Child Hospice Association that is committed to providing medical and nursing care for sick children, while enriching the lives of these children and their families.
- Tess Bar & Kitchen: Match Maker ($22++). Wild Turkey 81, Lapsang Souchong vermouth and Campari are paired with spiced Campari ice cream. A new presentation for the classic, which delivers a very different experience. With each drink, $3 will be donated to the Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund, dedicated to giving each child a promising future.
- Sugarhall: Other than serving up their own twist on the classic, Sugarhall will be hosting three guest bartenders on 8th June, Thursday, as part of a charity event. Symphony Loo (Neon Pigeon), Charmaine Thio (28 Hongkong Street), Joe Schofield (Tippling Club), and Sugarhall’s own principal bartender, Rhyse Borland will be presenting their takes on the Negroni. Each of the four will be donning fresh, customised aprons, which are to be auctioned off to raise funds for the charities of their choice. You can find out more here.