One of the great ironies of the bartending profession is that most professional cocktail bartenders don’t drink cocktails in their leisure time. You’ll usually find them sucking back on a Cooper’s Pale Ale (trust me, I’ve seen it!). There is one exception to this rule, however. A little aperitif cocktail called the Negroni (gin, Campari and sweet vermouth) is without a doubt the favoured cocktail choice of most discerning bartenders.
In fact, I recently conducted a little survey of some of my bartending friends around the country. Of the ten bartenders I asked, eight said that the Negroni was their favourite classic cocktail. Not the martini, manhattan or old fashioned, the humble little Negroni. That’s some kudos for an Italian beverage whose roots can be traced back to Italy in the 1860s.
According to the most popular origin tale, the Negroni wasn’t invented until around the 1920s. But there would be no Negroni without the invention of its key ingredient Campari and the subsequent Americano cocktail which all happened way back in the 1860s. Gaspare Campari (the man behind the Campari brand) opened a café in Milan to sell his drinks. One of the mixes they served was a fusion of Campari and Cinzano sweet vermouth that they called the ‘Milano-Torino’ (because Campari came from Milan and Cinzano from Turin). When Americans flocked to Europe during Prohibition, the locals noted their love of the drink and as a tribute they dubbed it the Americano.
A local Count, Camillo Negroni was known for frequenting Florentine bars and his favoured tipple was the aforementioned Americano. Apparently while in one such establishment he asked the bartender to add some more bite to his cocktail. The bartender added a nip of gin to the drink and the Count loved it. He ordered the drink all the time, others followed and in honour of his creation, the Negroni cocktail was born.
All that said, the word Negroni doesn’t appear in English cocktail guides until 1947, so the real origins are uncertain. What we do know is that the Negroni is an extremely well-crafted aperitif that both stimulates the appetite and prepares the palate for a meal. It combines the kick of gin, the bitterness fruit and herbaceous character of Campari with the round smoothness of vermouth.
Oliver Stuart, Australian Bartender magazine‘s Bartender of the Year 2006 is baffled to think that there could be any better drink. “When made correctly it is a perfect balance of alcoholic strength, bitterness, sweetness, and citrus flavours,” he enthuses. “All the while remaining floral and refreshing yet strong and smooth. You can’t stop after the first Negroni, as it leaves you craving the next.”
Mark Ward from Hugo’s Bar Pizza in Kings Cross is in complete agreement, saying: “I love the kick and complexity of Gin, and the sweet bitter finish that Campari and Cinzano Rosso add to it.” Mark also suggests adding a couple of drops of orange bitters to the original recipe to bring out the subtle citrus notes.
Before you all rush out and order a Negroni before dinner at your favourite cocktail bar, remember that Campari is a bitter aperitif and sadly, bitterness has become an unwelcome quality in much of today’s food and drink and some palates cannot tolerate the taste of bitterness at all. Appreciation for the quality of bitterness is an acquired taste and many say it’s the sign of a ‘mature palate’. Ah, so that’s why the bartenders love this cocktail so much.