Negroni cocktail

Negroni: Three-Parts Winner

20 July, 2022

From the bartenders’ handshake cocktail to being sold in cans in supermarkets and restaurants, the negroni continues to dominate menus across the globe. Millie Milliken takes a closer look at the evolution of the Italian classic.

It’s a well-trodden trope of the drinks industry to tirelessly bang the drum of ‘the next big thing’. For a while it was rum (the most sold spirit over lockdown according to reports); then there was the CBD brigade; and lest we forget, the hard seltzer. But there was also the Negroni. For a long time it was the bartender’s cocktail of choice – the badge of honour, the bitter buccaneer, the classic that might just catch on with consumers who weren’t afraid of a short, strong sipper. 

Back in January, this magazine asked 100 global bars to rank their bestselling classic cocktails for its annual Brands Report – and for the first time in eight years, the Negroni topped the list. 

Classically made up of equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari, it’s a cocktail with a simple proposition and yet one that seems to have captured the hearts of drinkers and the imagination of bartenders alike. Its roots aren’t solid, but the most accepted tale is that it was invented in Florence by Count Camillo Negroni in the early 20th century when he asked a bartender to swap out the soda in his Americano for gin – and with the added garnish of orange peel the classic, supposedly, was born.

Fast-forward to 2022 and the classic is undergoing an almighty revolution. In July of this year, the House of Negroni (a movement launched to celebrate the cocktail and all that goes with it) held its first UK takeover at Savile Row’s Cad & Dandy – a three-day pop-up event at the tailor with bartenders on hand to serve drinks alongside food from awardwinning chef Robin Gill; bartenders are canning their recipes, such as Whitebox Drinks’ eye-catching (and delicious) Pocket Negroni; and restaurants are even making their own gins to us in their house serves, like Stuzzi in Harrogate.

GROWING UP

But how – and why – has the Negroni finally found its footing off Italian shores? “One of the key elements of the Negroni is that it is very versatile,” explains Francesco Delfino, bar manager at Henson’s Bar and Social at Mimi’s Hotel Soho, nodding to its role as both an aperitivo and digestivo. “We are in a period called the ‘Second Golden Age of Cocktails’ where everyone is discovering all the classic drinks that were forgotten during the disco era.” 

He’s not wrong: close on the Negroni’s heels in this year’s Brand Report were the Old Fashioned and the Dry Martini.

That consumers are rapidly drinking cocktails usually reserved for the knowing wink over the bar from bartenders has worked wonders for the Negroni. 

“Speaking from my own experience it was a drink that was introduced to me by a more senior bartender early in my career. It felt like I was being shown an important cocktail and ritual,” says Jono Mayes, national bartender advocacy and engagement manager at Campari Group UK. 

“It feels like, in the UK, it was a drink loved by bartenders first. As bartenders we are always looking to introduce the guest to their new favourite drink. So, when someone shows a liking for the interesting, the characterful, the bittersweet, there’s only one path we’re taking them down.”

Over in New York City, a bar that has earned notoriety for its Negronis is Dante. Although when it opened in 2015, it was a much different story. “When we first opened … many of our guests had never heard of a Negroni, much less tried one,” says the bar’s co-owner Linden Pride. 

“As trends in NYC have shifted towards a slower, aperitivo-style of drinking, it’s amazing to see how the Negroni has skyrocketed in popularity. Now, instead of being an aperitivo bar trying to get people to try a sip of a Negroni, we’ve become a Negroni-lovers’ destination – something we had hoped for, but couldn’t imagine seven years ago.” 

As a way of bringing Americans into the fold, Pride and the team launched ‘Negroni Sessions’, a twist on happy hour to introduce drinkers to the world of Italian bitters and vermouth. 

It is a leaning towards more bitter drink profiles by consumers that Rob Wallis, co-founder of Moth Drinks, sees as one of the leading factors for Negronis “going mad”. He must be on to something as, in May this year, his company’s canned Negronis were taken on by 900 Tesco stores across the UK. 

“We picked the Negroni to be part of our range out of a love affair we had with it, and then it just became a very commercial proposition. We now have a Negroni listed in Tesco – three or four years ago the idea of a 100-year-old, 15% abv drink in somewhere like that … it’s amazing,” he says. 

Wallis and fellow co-founder Sam Hunt both come from bartender backgrounds and have also worked hard to incorporate brands they love in their Negroni – namely Tarquin’s Cornish Gin, Asterley Bros vermouth and their own homemade amaro.

Canned Negronis have also meant that on-trade venues not set up for turning out stirred-down cocktails in large numbers can have a slice of the pie too, with a quality-driven product perfectly made every single time. As Mayes points out, it’s an easy drink for food-loving consumers to get to grips with and Moth has certainly capitalised on the opportunity. 

Working with Homeslice Pizza and Picturehouse Cinemas, Moth offers the outlets well-turned-out Italian cocktails at the opening of a fridge, allowing for speed of service and minimal manpower: “If you can pour a Coke you can pour a Moth.”

TWIST, SHOUT

The Negroni is also a great base for bartenders to play around with. A quick shout out on social media and the top recurring favourite is the Negroni Sbagliato from Milan’s Bar Basso. Delfino takes me through some of the variations on the classic including The Cardinale (dry vermouth instead of sweet vermouth), The Boulevardier (same structure of the Negroni but with bourbon instead of gin) and the Old Pal (rye whisky, dry vermouth, Campari). 

“We have also played around with different spirits, such as rum and genever,” he adds, “but I love working with agave spirits usually. One twist I made was with Bruxo X Mezcal, Select Aperitivo, port and Vermouth Classico del Professore. I think that you can use any spirits as long as you balance everything.”

Mayes advocates seasonal twists: “Fruity, summer-inspired twists like the Tropical Negroni using coconut rum in place of the gin, with a little fresh pineapple, are delicious … The Watermelon Negroni from Tayer & Elementary has become legendary,” he adds, while also suggesting using coffee liqueur instead of sweet vermouth in the colder months.

Perhaps one of my favourite twists comes from Canvas Cocktails, a premium home-delivery cocktail service that just launched its first full-term menu, in the form of its Strawberry Negroni.

Co-founder Jonny Shields explains why it is the perfect cocktail format for the brand’s pouch cocktails: “Negronis batch really well because it has a high abv, but beyond that I think it is really rife for twisting, pulling and pushing. It is such a simple cocktail using equal parts of three different things and with ours specifically we wanted a more approachable way of trying a Negroni … We’re focusing on audiences that want to try cocktails but don’t sit at the world’s best bars.”

Combining Sipsmith Strawberry Smash Gin, Campari, Belsazar Rose vermouth, strawberry syrup and water, the team has created a lighter and brighter version of the classic that softens up the profile for a more accessible serve. For Shields it is all about making the cocktails attractive and understandable to the consumer: “I don’t want it to be flavour-led twists only, but we’re an online business and people need to know what to expect – referencing classics and familiar flavours does that.” 

Over in NYC Dante has around a dozen variations on the Negroni (alongside its classic, which is actually served on tap). The Negroni Sessions menu features the likes of the Chocolate Negroni (Fords Gin, Campari, Punt e Mes, Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao, Chocolate bitters) and the Golden Sbagliato (Cappelletti, Cinzano Rosso 1757, Italicus, prosecco). It also has a Vintage Negroni recipe featuring Campari from the 1970s – something that the World’s Best Bar, London’s Connaught Bar, is also indulging in.

Whether you’re sat at the best bar in the world, grabbing a slice of pizza or doing your weekly shop, it seems the Negroni is never far from the 2022 drinkers’ grasp. “It’s a testament to where the UK’s perception of great cocktails has got to,” concludes Mayes.

For Wallis, it is just the beginning of where the Negroni and its counterparts can go: “It is such a cornerstone of cocktails, it represents a whole category – the Negroni is just the tip of the iceberg.”





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