When is a Negroni not a Negroni? The easy three part cocktail which is a gateway to (and the pinnacle of) cocktail culture

The White Negroni

Story by Cara Devine. Cara is our Melbourne-based drinks writer. She is the manager of Bomba in Melbourne and the face and talent behind the cocktailing youtube channel Behind the Bar. You can email her at behindthebarchannel@gmail.com

Photography by Christopher Pearce

Is the Negroni the perfect cocktail? Anthony Bourdain certainly thought so, saying, ‘it is three liquors that I don’t particularly like… But you put them together with a bit of orange rind in the perfect setting… It’s just: It sets you up for dinner in a way it makes you hungry, sands the edges off the afternoon. After dinner, it’s settling. It is both aperitif and digestive. It’s a rare drink that can do that.’ If anyone’s word should be trusted in matters of taste and good living it’s his, but I don’t think he’d be the only one to make that argument. The balancing act underpinning all cocktails is that of strong, sweet and sour or bitter, and the Negroni has to be one of the clearest examples of it. The fact that it works so well in an equal parts formula, a relative rarity in the realm of mixed drinks, lends a pleasing symmetry and accessibility to this noble concoction; no need to memorise convoluted formulas here.

The Negroni’s tale is well-worn; unverifiable but not yet debunked, which is good enough in the hazy world of cocktail history. The Milano-Torino aperitivo was invented in Gaspare Campari’s café as a vehicle for his eponymous red bitters, mixed with sweet vermouth from Turin. While the Italians were happy sipping such a punchy combination, visitors from the States often found it too much and so a splash of soda was added to lengthen it out – the Americano was born. Neither proved quite stimulating enough for one Count Camillo Negroni, an infamous Florentine rapscallion. He asked for an Americano with more kick, and his obliging bartender substituted gin for the soda. The resultant elixir was a hit and came to bear the Count’s name as it spread in popularity. Rescued from relative obscurity by the craft cocktail revolution, the Negroni is now a fixture on ‘most popular’ and ‘need to know’ lists worldwide and even my local pub, not renowned for its mixology, is happy to whip one up. It is simultaneously a gateway to, and the pinnacle of, cocktail culture.

Such a simple, three part recipe is crying out for experimentation, which leads us to the question: when is a Negroni not a Negroni? Are any of the original ingredients non-negotiable, or is it simply the interplay of strong, sweet and bitter which makes a drink a Negroni in its bones? Does it have to be equal parts and could you, even, have more than one ingredient making up each side of the triangle? Such lofty philosophical questions are not for me to answer; each bartender and their conscience must make their own peace.

What I would argue is that any deviation from the tried and true should be explicit. I love an all-Australian Negroni, for instance, but I want to prepare my mind and palate to expect something other than Campari.

What I would argue is that any deviation from the tried and true should be explicit. I love an all-Australian Negroni, for instance, but I want to prepare my mind and palate to expect something other than Campari. Once past that hurdle though, the proliferation of gin, vermouth and bitters (local and otherwise) gives a veritable palette of flavours to play with – I’m sure every bartender reading this will have their own trio of Aussie favourites to combine to bracingly bold effect! Different base spirits, fortified wines and amari can be used to change the weight and levels of bitterness in the finished drink. Other flavours can even be layered in – seasonal fruits and spices often make excellent and intriguing additions. For example, Pearl Diver Cocktails & Oysters featured a Beetroot Negroni on their market menu when beetroot was at its prime. Angus Payne, who developed the drink said: Angus says: ‘I chose beetroot because I love the flavour. Its earthy and fruity, kind of like Campari. Putting it in a Negroni just made sense. To get that ‘real’ beetroot flavour I simply extracted the juice and compounded it into a homemade grenadine and then rebalanced the other ingredients, subbing sweet vermouth for Cocchi Americano and a splash of white chocolate that really ties the drink together.”

Here are some of our favourite riffs on this timeless template. After all, as Bourdain also said, ‘without new ideas, success can become stale.’ Something tells me he and Count Camillo would have gotten along just fine – and enjoyed a Negroni variation or two together. All stirred, served on large block in rocks glass.

East India Negroni
Jim Meehan of PDT fame switches gin for rum and vermouth for cream sherry 
(a decidedly unfashionable ingredient - this *is* your grandmother’s sherry, 
but it’s a blend and so much easier to handle in cocktails than 100% sticky 
Pedro Ximinez) to create a rich and raisin-y dessert style Negroni.

45ml (1 1/2oz) dark rum
20ml (3/4oz) East India cream sherry
20ml (3/4oz) Campari
Orange twist to garnish
White Negroni
This could be seen as the forebear to all of the ‘native’ Negroni variations. 
British bartender Wayne Collins had travelled to France for a Plymouth gin 
competition and decided to assuage his hankering for a Negroni using local 
French products, namely Suze instead of Campari and Lillet Blanc in the 
place of Italian sweet vermouth. It’s an excellent summer Negroni.

40ml (1 1/3oz) gin
30ml (1oz) white vermouth
*note this should be a blanc/blanco/bianco vermouth rather than a dry 
vermouth as it does need a little extra sweetness
20ml (2/3oz) Suze
Grapefruit twist to garnish
Orchard Negroni
As the weather is still cold here in Australia during Negroni Week, 
I like to use a homemade spiced white Port to layer in suitably wintery 
flavours on top of the juicy apple and orange notes of Calvados and Campari. 
Okar makes a great substitution here for the patriotic.

30ml (1oz) calvados
30ml (1oz) Campari
30ml (1oz) spiced pear white port*
Dehydrated pear to garnish

*Toast star anise and cinnamon and thinly slice pear. 
Add spices and pear to white port, sous vide for 3 hours or infuse for 2 days. 
Strain, keep sliced pear and dehydrate for garnish.
Beetroot Negroni
30ml Caraway London Dry Gin
30ml Marionette Bitter Orange 
20ml Cocchi Americano
10ml Beetroot Grenadine 
2.5ml White Cacao

Batch and bottle in the fridge, pour over ice in a chilled old fashioned 
and garnish with an orange disk. 

Pearl Diver Cocktails & Oysters, Melbourne