The Negroni: The Drink that Launched a Thousand Riffs
Updated: Apr 22, 2019
The story behind one of the most famous cocktails in the world and its many faces
If ever there was a drink that veteran bartenders and amateur barflies alike could identify from across the counter, it’s the Negroni. The iconic red beauty has gained a cult following in recent years, and its equal parts formula is the epitome of balance and simplicity. Ordering a Negroni is a tacit appreciation for the craft and has spawned thousands of variations and even a week-long charity in its honor.
It’s no surprise that such a perfect cocktail is a perennial favorite, but how did a single drink become such an icon? This is the story of the Negroni from a café in Florence to almost every bar in the World, and how one drink became thousands.
A Count Walks into a Café
At the turn of the 20th century, Americans tourists flocked to the streets of Italy. It was a familiar sight for Italians to walk into a café during the late afternoon and order an aperitif to wind down and prepare for dinner. A popular combination was Campari and sweet vermouth. When Americans arrived, they ordered this concoction with soda water to cut some of the bitterness. This combination became so popular that it was referred to as an “Americano.” Enter Count Camillo de Negroni.
The count was an interesting man. He lived the life of a cowboy and rodeo clown – yes rodeo clown- in America for a while where he adopted a fake Tex-Mex accent. Eventually, he moved to London, discovered gin, and ultimately, invented one of the greatest cocktails of all time. The story goes that in 1919, the Count returned from the U.S. to his home in Florence, Italy. One day he walked into the Caffè Casoni (now Caffè Roberto Cavalli) and asked his bartender friend Forsco Scarselli for something stiffer than a typical Americano. Scarselli replaced the soda with gin and added an orange garnish and, as they say in Italy, Il resto è storia.
From Obscurity to Stardom
Despite the Count’s accidental genius, the Negroni didn’t find its way into the common cocktail lexicon until very recently. Even at the beginning of the 1990s cocktail renaissance, it remained relatively unknown in the States. Imports of quality gin and bitters increased into the early 2000s helping the drink become more popular. Campari, seeing a potential gold mine, seized the opportunity and declared 2011 the Year of the Negroni. At the Tales of the Cocktail event that year Campari secured the record for the world’s largest Negroni and brought the now famous drink into the public consciousness.
Social media, particularly Instagram, also cemented the Negroni in cocktail history. A combination of its simplicity and photogenic red color made it one of the most shared drinks on social media through 2013. The Negroni became so popular that Imbibe and Campari teamed up to start Negroni Week, a charity event that now involves over 10,000 venues and has raised millions of dollars. The popularity of the Negroni shows no signs of slowing down soon and its simple template has invited thousands of bartenders to experiment with new signature Negroni riffs.
Bars like Caffe Dante in NYC became famous for their Negroni, and a whole generation of bartenders have proven their salt with new fantastical interpretations. Finding my top picks for best Negroni variations was no easy task, but the four recipes below to me, epitomize the creativity and limitless potential for this iconic drink. But first, the classic that started it all.
This timeless classic is a study in simplicity. With equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, a good Negroni is a bitter botanical punch in the mouth bursting with flavor. The recipe below is adapted from Dante NYC, an award winning combination from a bar that knows its way around a good Negroni.
¾ oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin
¾ oz. Campari
¾ oz. sweet vermouth, preferably Martini & Rossi
Orange peel for garnish
Add all ingredients to mixing glass with ice and stir until chilled. Strain over large ice cube in rocks glass. Express oil of orange peel over drink and drop in for garnish.
Best Negroni Variations
There are way too many variations of the classic Negroni to count and finding the "best" was no easy task. That being said, these are the ones that I feel best capture the spirit of the Negroni while still bringing something new and fresh to the table.
Death & Co. White Negroni
The bitter flavor in this Negroni comes from Suze, a bitter French liqueur that's a bit more sweet and herbal than Campari. An amazing drink from an amazing bar.
1 ½ oz. gin ¾ oz. Suze ¾ oz. Dolin Blanc
Combine all ingredients in mixing glass with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish.
The happy result of a bungled Negroni, Sbagliato translates to “mistaken.” Fitting because this drink likely came about from a busy bartender accidently grabbing prosecco instead of gin. But hey, we're not complaining.
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. sweet vermouth
Prosecco to top
Combine Campari and sweet vermouth in mixing glass with ice and stir. Strain into champagne flute or rocks glass and top with Prosecco. Mix slowly and garnish with orange peel.
Smoke and herbs combine for an unexpectedly brilliant spin on the classic Negroni from Joaquín Simó of Pouring Ribbons NYC.
1 oz. mezcal
1 oz. Bonal
1 oz. Cynar
1 dash Bittermen's Mole Bitters
Combine all ingredients in mixing glass with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Recipe found on PUNCH
Remember the Alimony
From the mind of New York's Dan Greenbaum, this drink is an amazing shake-up of the classic Negroni and one of the best sherry cocktails out there.
1 ¼ oz. fino sherry
1 ¼ oz. Cynar
¾ oz. Beefeater gin
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass over cracked ice. Stir vigorously for 10 seconds and strain into a chilled
Recipe found on PUNCH