This post is in honour of World Gin Day – June 11th (this year coinciding with the Queen’s birthday). Started by Neil of Yet Another Gin, it’s a day to celebrate gin in all of its forms. So, along with tasting some Adnams gin when I popped into the Whisky Exchange shop today (We don’t sell it yet, but it is very tasty indeed) I’ve decided to write about my current favourite cocktail – The Negroni.
My love affair with the Negroni is quite a recent thing. I heard about it at the beginning of last year and was surprised to learn that I’d managed to miss out on one of *the* classic cocktails. I was still not entirely certain what one was until I went along to a ‘How To Make Classic Cocktails’ session with Jared Brown and Sam Galsworthy at the Sipsmith Distillery during London Cocktail Week 2010 – Sam is one of the owners (and general Man About Town) of the distillery and Jared is the master distiller. Jared’s main gigs are as a cocktail consultant, historian and writer and he brought a chunk of history to the table as he ran through a bunch of cocktails that night, but the Negroni is the one that still sticks in my mind, mainly as I though it sounded horrendous.
Simply put, a traditional Negroni is equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. At the time the latter two ingredients were things that I thought I disliked so I came down on the side of being pleased that I’d not encountered the drink before, but on tasting it I realised that maybe I’d have to rethink my opinion of wine based aperitifs. The gin is very much a base flavour, providing mainly an alcoholic punch with a hint of its botanicals (especially the juniper); the Campari brings a base level of bitterness, as well as a hint of sugary sweetness; and the vermouth is the top dressing, the supplier of the more complex flavours.
The history of the Negroni, like many classics, is full of conjecture and stories, but the drink that the Negroni sprang from is the Milano Torino (later made more famous as the Americano, despite the fact that Campari wasn’t particularly well known in the US until after the cocktail changed its name), a mix of Campari (from Milan) and sweet vermouth (traditionally Cinzano, from Turin, aka Torino, was used) topped up with soda. Switch the soda for gin and you move from a sparkling aperitif to a classic three ingredient gin cocktail. The generally accepted story is that the substitution was first requested by Count Camillo Negroni at the Caffè Casoni in Florence in 1919. The Count was a bank manager, stock broker and gambler, and his family’s wealth and his connections helped him when the “Americano, Negroni style” took off. They opened a distillery in Treviso and produced a ready mixed version, the Antico Negroni 1919, and have continued to do so until the present day. However, that’s not the only story, as the Negroni family deny the existence of Count Camillo and instead claim that the drink was invented in the south of France…
The traditional recipe for the Negroni is simple, leading to much argument as to what the ‘perfect’ recipe is. Often the drink is made punchier and sweeter, with a 4/2/1 ratio used for gin/vermouth/Campari and Jared admitted that he’s been using a 2/2/1 ratio for years, with many compliments as to his making a Negroni ‘properly’ despite cutting back on the bitter Campari. He also admitted that in one of his first bartending jobs he was asked for a Negroni and not knowing the drink used his regular excuse to be able to look it up. “That’s a great drink, let me just check the proportions” makes you look slightly foolish when the proportions in question are equal measures.
I rather like the traditional equal parts recipe, but find that the vermouth used makes a great difference. I haven’t experimented all that much (as I didn’t go through that much sweet vermouth until recently, when I discovered that it works well on its own on ice) but currently, as inspired by Polpo and its sister restaurants, I like to use a mix of Punt e Mes and a lighter vermouth (such as Gancia or Martini Rosso). The thick and syrupy Punt e Mes makes a rather heavy drink on its own, but when cut with a less sticky vermouth it adds a richness at the back of the cocktail that you don’t usually get. If you try an Americano you can immediately see the impact the gin gives – not only the booze but the addition of fruity juniper and even more herbs, fruit and spice. However, I’ve not found much difference in the gins I regularly use, as I generally stick with classic London Dry gins that have a nice chunk of juniper – Tanqueray, Sipsmith and Beefeater have all made it into my Negronis in recent times.
Traditionally the drink is constructed in a highball glass, but I generally use a glass mug or stemmed glass, as I don’t have any decent highballs (as the Negroni is the only drink that I regularly have that I should probably use one for). It’s easy to make – pour in your ingredients, pack the glass with as much ice as you can fit in, give it a quick stir and you’re done. As ever, the ice plays an important part. It should be added in after the alcoholic components, so as not to melt and dilute the ingredients before serving, and it’s best to use large blocks as they melt slower – you want the drink to be cool rather than dilute in the regular 1/1/1 recipe. Getting the cocktail cold is important, as it tempers both the bitterness and sweetness of the ingredients, as well as toning down the complexity that you get from three different fruit, herb and spice infused drinks. To do things properly you should really garnish the drink with a slice of orange, but as I never have oranges in the house I never do. However, a single drop of orange bitters on top of the stirred drink before serving is enough to add the orange aroma and flavour for those who otherwise shun fruit.
So, happy World Gin Day. During the writing of this post I’ve run out of Campari so there’s no more Negronis for me tonight. Whatever your favourite gin drink is, whether cocktail, & tonic or simply “in a glass”, and even if you missed the day itself, please join me in raising a toast to the glory of juniper based spirits.
Actually, I have a bag of limes so maybe I should experiment with Gimlets instead…