The Italian Negroni
A traditional Negroni. Photo by Michael Shivili
Given that Italy has just celebrated its national day, la Festa della Repubblica
, on 2nd June, I thought we should raise a glass of its most typical cocktail in celebration. British tourists may think first of the ubiquitous Aperol spritz
whenever Italy is mentioned, but ask an Italian and they will tell you the national cocktail is the Negroni.
Oh how I love a good Negroni!
If you’ve never tasted this classic Italian cocktail, you’re in for a treat. A good Negroni represents the perfect combination of strength, sweetness and bitterness and comes in a fabulous deep red with a chunk of orange on the side. As an aperitif, it has so much going for it. It’s fresh and sharp enough to enjoy al fresco on a hot summer evening, before a casual dinner of roast chicken salad, but it’s also rich enough to serve before a more formal affair with multiple courses and a flight of fine wines. Believe me: I’ve done both, and several stages in between!
The Negroni is bitter. It’s a drink for adults who have out-grown the need for everything to taste like pop; a proper, grown-up cocktail. The bitterness comes from two directions: first, from the Campari, a favourite aperitif drink of mine that is flavoured of gentian root – fresh, citrussy and bittersweet; secondly, from the vermouth, deep and herbal. Add to that heady mix a shot of gin and you’re bound for aperitif paradise.
Photo by graindivresse
The Campari gives Negroni its characteristic colour. It was popular in this country in the 1950s and 60s but fell out of favour as drinkers discovered fruity drinks and sweet flavours in the late 70s and 1980s. Recent years have seen a resurgence of bitter drinks, and Campari has led the field. Retro styling and 1950s nostalgia have helped, as have Campari’s long-standing commercial relationship with modern, eye-catching artists and designers. It is very much the drink of the moment.
That it should be so is ironic, as the Negroni celebrated its centenary earlier this year. It grew out of an older cocktail, the americano. An americano mixed vermouth and Campari with a little iced water, to lighten it. The Florentine Count Camillio Negroni had travelled extensively in Britain and grown to love London dry gin. On his return to Italy, he asked the bartender at his local bar to mix an americano but replacing the water with gin. A legend was born! In order to distinguish between the new drink and the older one, the bar tender garnished the americano with a slice of orange, the Negroni with half a slice.
You may have seen cocktail waiters shaking gin and Campari together and straining them into a Windsor martini glass. If so, you’re drinking in the wrong bars. A true, Italian Negroni is served in a heavy-bottomed tumbler and is always constructed in the glass over ice. There’s something quite manly about it, I think. Its advantage for aperitif- hosts is the simplicity of its recipe. It’s all equal quantities, so you can mix them in front of your guests with all the flourish and confidence of an Italian waiter and never have to worry about what you’re measuring.
Ideal foods to serve with a Negroni are, of course Italian. How about putting together a sharing board of sliced ham or salami, small cubes of smoked provolone or scamorza cheese, olives and grilled artichokes in oil? More adventurous hosts could try making their own bruschetta, served warm and topped with tapenade or finely chopped tomato flesh with a little basil.
The Perfect Negroni
Half-fill a heavy tumbler with ice cubes and add:
A measure of dry gin
A measure of red vermouth
A measure of Campari
Stir steadily for about a minute, lifting the ice cubes through the drink, rather than just whirling them around, and garnish with half a slice of orange.
Modern cocktail waiters have played variations on the original theme, making changes to the gin, the vermouth, the garnish and even the very colour of this iconic drink. While all of them have their attractions, and I regularly drink some of them, none of them, to my mind, has ever bettered the original. If you want advice on which vermouth and which gin to use, I’d say to be bold: go for a really rich vermouth like Antica Formula
or Cocchi Toscano
if you can find them and a strong, sharp gin like Masons or Tanqueray. Having said that, you’ll feel just as Italian sitting in the sun with a Negroni made with supermarket gin and vermouth. It’s all about the style.
If you’d like to try a very unconventional version, try and get hold of a bottle of Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto
. It’s a relatively new liqueur from northern Italy that tastes of bergamot – the citrus fruit that gives Early Grey tea its distinctive character. Use this with sweet, white vermouth bianco and a softer gin to make a refreshing white Negroni. Garnish with half a slice of lemon this time.
Whichever version you enjoy, the modern white one or the classic red one, don’t forget to raise your glass to the memory of Count Negroni and his travels in London. Cin-cin!
This article first appeared in a shorter form in the blog – blog.theaperitifguy.co.uk
– in September 2018