Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Negroni

Discover the history - and the best way to make - the classic Italian cocktail.

Next in line comes Campari, which as everyone knows has made an immense impression on the British market in the last twenty years or so. Not my cup of tea, alas. But, hurray, an acceptable drink can be cobbled together from this and another innocuous potation. Take two parts Italian vermouth and one part Campari (or in another recipe, one of each), mix them with ice and add Pellegrino or soda water and a slice of orange, and you have an Americano. Good at lunchtime, and before Italian food.

If you feel that, pleasant as it is, it still lack something, throw in a shot of gin and the result is a Negroni. This is a really fine invention. It has the power, rare with drinks and indeed with anything else, of cheering you up. This may be down to the Campari, said by its fans to have great restorative powers.
- Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking

It has been said, indeed it used to be printed on the back of the bottle, that one must taste Campari three times before one comes to appreciate it. But when one does, one is lost forever down the rabbit hole of bitters and Amaros and other classic aperitif and digestif potions favored by suave Europeans and mustachioed cocktail nerds.

And, there is no better way to come to Campari then in a well-made Negroni, a cocktail that is exceedingly pleasant before dinner, on a hot afternoon in the shade of an umbrella at a sidewalk café, or, really, anytime at all. The Negroni has an established creation story, full of romance and gross alcoholism, but that story has been disputed by a barely literate, alleged descendant of Italian royalty who appears to live in New England.

From wherever it came, it is a great tipple, worth acquiring a taste for.

The Physiology of Bitter

Bitter is nature’s warning flavor, signaling to the body that what you have placed in your mouth is potentially poison. Or potentially mind altering. Various plants have evolved over time to prevent animals, and we humans are animals after all, from eating their leaves or stems by producing chemicals, many of them still unknown, that taste bitter. Many of these bitter leaves and stems have the potential to kill a human in an instant. Even cabbage, which contains a bitter compound, can be fatal in very high doses, and cause goiters in slightly lower doses, because that bitter compound blocks the body’s ability to process iodine.

Early humans who were out hunting and gathering quickly learned that bitter things were potentially deadly, and thus best avoided, unless you were with a shaman, who could identify the bitter tasting plants that would send you off on a vision quest, or with a healer, who could find the bitter plants that soothed an uneasy stomach or dulled pain from wounds (eat the head of a poppy sometime). Because of the potential danger in bitter, most humans have evolved to have at least 25 different bitter taste receptors, tuned to different versions of the 550 bitter compounds that have been identified. There are some remarkably unlucky people, estimated at about 25% of the population, who have no bitter receptors at all. The trait for this is recessive, and one can see why, as the inability to distinguish potentially deadly food from good food would have been a distinct disadvantage to our early ancestors.

Largely because of this biological danger, bitter is also the last of the recognized flavors to be appreciated as we age. Biologically speaking, we are programmed from birth to appreciate sweet first, as naturally sweet foods are almost always safe to consume, and human breast milk (assuming the mother has a reasonably healthy diet) is usually a shade more base than neutral in pH (cow’s milk, on the other hand, is marginally acidic), and slightly sweet in flavor. Newborns come to associate the slightly sweet with survival.

As we age, we come to appreciate salt quickly, as we need it to live. Because we also need protein, and most proteins contain umami flavors, we come to like those flavors fairly young as well. Because sour is also a potential warning from nature, as it can signal that a formerly sweet food has spoiled, appreciation for it comes later, as we gain the ability to distinguish good sour (lemonade) from bad sour (rancid milk).

But bitter, bitter we have to learn to like, and some people never do. For those people, a Negroni will never be appreciated. But for those who like a little risk, who like their palate stimulated, learning to love the bitter will offer many rewards.

A Note on Ingredients: Campari

We’ve discussed vermouth in the past, and covered gin styles pretty thoroughly as well, so the first two components of the Negroni are covered, but what of the third? Campari was first produced by Gaspare Campari in Sesto San Giovani (near Milan) in 1860. The recipe is secret, but is known to be an infusion of herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water, and probably contains chinotto and cascarilla. Originally, it got its red color from dye made from cochineal beetles (today it is standard red coloring, as the FDA frowns on beetle based dyes), and it has been wildly popular in Italy since almost the time of its invention. Unlike non-potable bitters like Angostura, Campari is considered to be a potable bitter, one that can be drunk on its own.

Italians drink Campari tall with soda, or shorter with fresh orange juice, and Camparisoda, a pre-mixed Campari and soda in a beautifully designed bottle, may be the first premixed, bottled cocktail in the world, first appearing in 1932.

But another popular Italian beverage, the Americano, allegedly created by Gaspare himself at his own Café Campari in the 1860s, is the root beverage of the Negroni. The Americano is a nice, enjoyable low alcohol sipper, consisting of about an ounce each of Campari and Italian Sweet Vermouth, topped off with soda water or sparkling mineral water in a tall glass and garnished with a piece of lemon peel. It is the first drink that James Bond ever orders in print, and was originally called a Milano-Torino, in honor of the birthplace of Campari and Vermouth. Popular legend says that American tourists frequently ordered the drink in Milan, sparking the name change, but it is more likely related to ‘amaro,’ the Italian word for bitter.

The Drunk Count

The Negroni is alleged to have been created by Count Camillo Negroni, a regular patron of Caffè Cavalli in Florence, when he asked bartender Fosco Scarselli to switch in gin for the soda water in his Americano. Scarselli added a slice of orange as a garnish to distinguish the drink from the standard Americano, and the modern Negroni was born.

This is disputed vociferously by one Noel Negroni, a man whose email address seems to connect to a New Hampshire insurance agency, and who claims to be a descendant of one Pascal Olivier Count de Negroni, another rumored creator of the Negroni. Noel’s claims lack credible sourcing other than alleged family history, and are disputed by Luca Picchi's 2006 book, Sulle Tracce del Conte La Vera Storia del Cocktail Negroni (not available in English), which pretty well documents the drink as Count Camillo’s creation.

So who was Camillo?

He was born Camillo Luigi Manfredo Maria Negroni, in Florence on May 25, 1868 to Count Enrico Negroni and Ada Savage Landor. Later, he briefly served in the Italian military and lit out for America in the late 1880s, where he presumably became acquainted with combinations of gin and vermouth, as he worked as both a cowboy and a gambler, both professions having a noted affinity for saloons. In 1905, he returned to Florence and started drinking regularly at Caffè Cavalli, and in 1919 or so, came to ask Scarselli to irrobustire, or fortify, his customary Americano with a stick of gin.

Allegedly, the Count was good for forty Negronis a day, a habit that had to be expensive, but less expensive than the number of Americanos it would have taken to get to the same place, and given his tolerance, it is easy to understand his desire to irrobustire his drinks. 

The Count passed away in 1934, at the age of 66, belying Orson Welles’ claim about the Negroni, “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other."

A Further Brief Note on Ingredients

Choose a robust London Dry gin for your Negroni. Tanqueray and Beefeater are both great, and have the backbone and punch to stand up to the flavorful vermouth and Campari.

For the vermouth, seen out something Italian, and don’t be afraid to splurge. Cochi Vermouth Di Torino is outstanding in the drink, as is Carpano Antica. Both are richer than the more common Martini & Rossi or Cinzano, which will do in a pinch.

Up Or On The Rocks?

Historically speaking, a Negroni was served over ice, as it was built off the Americano, another iced drink. Modern bars tend to offer the drink up more often than not. Both versions are good, but if you have good, large ice cubes, a Negroni on the rocks will be better than one served up, unless you drink very quickly.

A Recipe

The Negroni

1 oz. Robust London Dry Gin like Tanqueray or Beefeater
1 oz. Cochi Vermouth di Torino
1 oz. Campari

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice and stir until very cold. Strain over fresh ice in an old fashioned glass or into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a thin orange slice.