The story of how Negroni was invented and what makes it such a special cocktail
Negroni is one of the world’s great cocktails, up there in the company of cocktails like Margarita, Bloody Mary, Daiquiri and Mojito. You wouldn’t know that if you lived in India for the simple reason that Campari, its key ingredient, is difficult to come by in the country. I have yet to see a bottle in my local liquor store in Khan Market though it may be available in the more posh liquor shops in the malls. I always pick up a bottle at the duty-free shop at the international airport on my way home from a trip.
My first taste of Negroni was about 15 years ago when I was in the process of writing my book, Happy Hours: The Penguin Book of Cocktails. I decided I should taste some of the cocktails I had not tasted before I wrote about them. Negroni was one such cocktail. Until then I had avoided it because I was not a great fan of Campari. To my pleasant surprise, Negroni tasted great and I have been mixing it ever since for myself and occasionally for my guests.
Negroni is a devilishly simple cocktail to mix. You don’t need a blender or a cocktail shaker. You just use equal parts of Campari, gin and sweet vermouth. Pour them one by one in an old-fashioned glass, stir the mix gently and fill the glass with three or four ice cubes. Voila!
Now garnish it with either an orange slice or an orange peel. The use of orange slice is more traditional but either is acceptable. An old-fashioned glass is the one that is no more than four inches tall and holds 250 ml of liquid. It is used for serving drinks on the rocks, meaning with ice cubes only. The use of 30 ml each of the three alcoholic ingredients will make you one glass of the cocktail.
This wonderful bitter-sweet cocktail is reputed to have been invented at Caffe Casoni in Florence, Italy, in 1919 at the request of Count Negroni. He asked the bartender to strengthen his favourite drink Americano, which is a mix of Campari and sweet vermouth with a dash of soda. The barman simply replaced the soda with gin. To make it look like a different drink he used an orange slice as garnish instead of the lemon slice traditionally used in Americano.
Orson Welles while working in Rome in 1947 on a film had his first taste of Negroni and had this to say about it: “The bitter Campari is excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.” Europeans prefer to call Negroni an aperitif instead of a cocktail because it is meant to open up your appetite, prepare the palate for enjoyment of food yet to come. An aperitif is a prologue to a fine meal.
Aperitifs have one common characteristic; they have degrees of bitterness. Some of them started out centuries ago as medicinal beverages prepared with herbs, roots and spices with wine as the base. We all have four main taste sensations on our tongue: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. The last is perhaps the least pleasant of the four but it is believed that an appreciation of something bitter is a sure sign that a person’s palate has reached maturity.
The primary flavour of Negroni comes from the bitterness of Campari. This particular blend of aromatic herbs was originally developed in 1860 by Gaspare Campari in his café in Milan. Its distinctive red colour was derived from the dried bodies of a species of Mexican bugs that feed on cactus until 2006. Campari is 48 proof and can also be drunk with soda or with orange juice to mask its bitterness. No one drinks it neat. ‘Campari’ is a brand name owned by the company that produces it. There really is no substitute for it in making Negroni.
The use of gin in Negroni is to give the cocktail more of a kick. The other two ingredients are not high on alcohol content. Gin has a very distinctive flavour that comes from juniper berries. Its fine aroma comes from other botanicals added to it. Depending on the label, the gin may have traces of almonds, coriander, cardamom, saffron, nutmeg, ginger and even lemon peel. I am happy to report that some Indian distillers have finally started producing good gins.
There are two types of vermouth, sweet and dry. The sweet one that is red in colour is used for mixing Negroni. Vermouths belong to the wine family but they have a higher alcoholic content of 18% than regular wines with 12%. The best-selling brands of vermouth come from Italy, Martini & Rossi and Cinzano, though the French brands, Noilly Prat and Dubonnet, are considered classier.
Cocktails like Negroni are great for bringing people together. There is something in the heady mix of tastes and aromas, colours and garnishes that have stimulated social discourse for over two hundred years. Next time you are entertaining, give your guests something different from whisky and soda or gin and tonic. Anyone, even a novice, can make a good Negroni.
Bhaichand Patel is a retired UN diplomat and a self-confessed bon vivant. He was the first Fijian to be recruited by the UN after the country became independent in 1970 and is a Member of the Order of Fiji. He is also the author of Happy Hours: The Penguin Book of Cocktails