The Negroni Variations
Another Negroni Week will soon be upon us. God help us. Be ready. Especially you, #negronitwitter
Let me begin by saying I love the Negroni, deeply, despite…everything.
I’m old enough to remember when the Negroni was first taken up by drinkers who wanted to show themselves to have superior palates. Early adopters of the Negroni would have been insufferable Gen Xers (like me) in the mid-to-late 1990s, usually someone who studied abroad in Italy (like me).
If I can pinpoint the moment when Negronis came on the radar, I would guess it was slightly after the swing-dancing, cigar-bar, martini-renaissance of the late Clinton administration (think Swingers) and right before the start of the speakeasy trend (which still refuses to die). What happened over the next decade—Negroni Discourse, ubiquitous variations on cocktail lists, Negroni Week—was perhaps inevitable.
By the early 21st century, there seemed to be three ways a mixologist could make their mark on a recipe: 1) Add a bunch of green Chartreuse; 2) substitute mezcal; 3) put your own little spin to the Negroni. By a slight majority, most chose Option 3.
This was the era of so many articles explaining that Negroni Sbagliato meant “mistaken Negroni,” and was made with prosecco instead of gin. People began eschewing Campari for knock-offs like Gran Classico or Luxardo Bitter, or other amaros (or amari, if you were insufferable). The so-called Negroni Bianco, with white vermouth and Suze/Lillet/Cocchi Americano/whatever reared its ugly head. There was the Agavoni (with tequila), the East Indian Negroni (with rum), and the Unusual Negroni (with gin, Lillet Blanc, and Aperol).
I admit that, in the late aughts, I did all of the above. In Boozehound (2011), I even devoted an entire chapter to, ahem, “Improving the Negroni”:
In theory, I wanted a Negroni, but in reality, the Negroni was lacking something. That distressed me: What if all the fancy-schmancy tasting I’ve been doing lately has irrevocably rewired my palate? What if I can never again go back to being the young, carefree person who loved nothing better than the simple pleasures of a Negroni in summertime?
My solution: I would use my hard-won cocktail wisdom and experience to re-engineer, and possibly improve, the Negroni. Starting with the classic formula, I would illustrate how nearly all good new cocktails evolve. In doing so, I would also reclaim my old drink and perhaps a part of my youth. Or something like that.
Ummm, yeah. The late aughts “cocktail renaissance” was a wild time.
So much time and effort and bloviating and rancor has happened over Negroni variations that it’s become a running joke, with @shitfoodblogger the king of Negroni-hubris takedowns.
In fact, we are now at least a decade or more into a “Negroni backlash.” In the 2010s, The Awl’s regular bashing of the Negroni always made me chuckle. First was, of course, Evelyn Everlady’s darkly funny, bad-boyfriend classic, “Negroni Season,” in 2010 (“Actually, he is asleep on my couch. It’s Negroni season, and you know he makes the absolute best Negronis ever, so we may have had a few too many and he slept here. Sorry you were worried,” is the message she gets from the woman her bf is sleeping with).
Then there were Matt Buchanan’s gleeful hit pieces, “Negroni Weak” and “Death to Negronis”:
When made properly — not too heavy on the gin, not with shitty vermouth and without telling anyone next to you how great it is — the negroni is perfectly fine. It has, itself, committed no sins. However, if you were to put everybody who is dying to tell you how much they like negronis into a bar, it would be the single largest and worst bar in the world, a sticky cesspool of people, standing should to shoulder, talking animatedly about nothing except how wonderfully the negroni balances its floral, herbal notes with bitterness and sweetness; how they can’t believe that other people don’t love them as much as they do, what is wrong with their palate; how they had the best negroni of their life at some bar you’ve never been to, or in Italy (which is a steadfast lie, because no one in Italy knows how to make cocktails); how their own slightly tweaked proportion of clear liquor to sweet wine-liquor to bitter pink liquor is in fact the best of all possible negroni variations, and while the negroni spinoffs like the far sturdier boulevardier, with a backbone of whiskey, are fine, the true negroni is better and able to be enjoyed at all times of day, but most especially during negroni season
That type of person still holds forth on Negronis and their variations. Helen Rosner wrote a lovely piece in The New Yorker about her own favorite variation, entitled “The Perfect Thanksgiving Cocktail Is the Boulevardier,” (“My preferred rendition, made with rye, is something that sticklers will note is more properly called an Old Pal”) only to be mansplained by the sticklers of Cocktail Twitter who didn’t read her article and scolded her version as “actually an Old Pal not a Boulevardier.”
As I said at the beginning of last “Negroni Season”:
Years later, as all the Negroni Discourse fades into memory, the one thing that remains is the Negroni itself. Despite all the nonsense, despite the backlash, it is still the finest drink, its simple ratio of equal parts gin-vermouth-Campari nearly impossible to mess up. It is the perfect cocktail. Or at least it is for me.
Of course, I have my own preferences. I prefer Dolin or Cocchi Storico sweet vermouth to the Carpano Antica Formula that so many people use. After dalliances with other liqueurs, I rarely stray from Campari. (Yes, I keep both vermouth and Campari in my fridge.) I generally go for a big-brand gin like Tanqueray, but I have been enjoying three new-wave gins: Isolation Proof, Bimini, and 6 O’Clock gins. (You can read my thoughts on those gins).
A Negroni is always stirred and always garnished with an orange peel. Probably my main difference with other people’s Negronis is simply that I enjoy mine straight up and not on the rocks.
When I opt for a variation, because I’m out of gin or Campari, I generally do one of two recipes. I enjoy the Boulevardier (bourbon-sweet vermouth-Campari), but like Helen Rosner, I love the Old Pal: rye, Campari and dry vermouth. In fact, I sometimes will substitute dry vermouth in a normal Negroni as well. (I find that the Old Pal and Boulevardier are sometimes nice with 1.5 ounces of the whiskey to one ounce of the vermouth and Campari, along with a lemon-peel twist).
Or, since I also love the artichoke-based amaro Cynar (100% on Team Cynar), I will substitute that in place of Campari in a Cyn-Cin. There are numerous versions of the Cyn-Cin, but like the Old Pal I find that dry vermouth works really nicely. I made a Cyn-Cin recently with equal parts Cynar, dry vermouth, and 6 O’Clock’s higher-proof Brunel Edition gin (stirred, straight up, orange peel twist) and it was the best cocktail I’d had all summer.
In any case, there is no such thing as Negroni Season. Every season is Negroni Season.
I gave you a big shout out in my latest, on this very topic. Cheers! https://nicethings.substack.com/p/a-drink-a-book-and-a-song-v
St. George Dry Rye Gin, Lustau Blanco and Cynar. More depth than the Mariana Trench. Happy Holidays!