The year was 1919. The Great War had just ended and most of Europe was still nursing its wounds, counting its dead. In stubborn defiance of this gloomy backdrop, an Italian bon vivant cheerfully sidled up to the bar at Caffè Casoni in Florence. Like most of his contemporaries, Count Camillo Negroni was quite fond of the Americano—a quaffable aperitif incorporating vermouth, Campari and soda water. But on this day he yearned for something stiffer. So he asked his waiter to strengthen the blend with gin. The resulting cocktail would soon become a regular order; not just for the man who lent the drink its name, but for countless bar goers everywhere from Tokyo to Tallahassee. On the eve of the Negroni’s hundredth anniversary, here’s a look at how the legend was born.
“The Negroni has stood the test of time as an extremely popular classic cocktail next to the likes of an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan,” said Wade McElroy, a beverage consultant for Leisure Activities. “It’s likely because of its simplicity and incredibly satisfying bittersweet flavor.” It’s true, despite lending complexity to the tongue, the drink is surprisingly easy to assemble: equal parts gin, vermouth, and Campari. That final ingredient, a bright red bitter liqueur, also imbues the drink with its trademark hue.
A colorful elixir that could be dependably replicated, the Negroni was poised for success from the start. And as Europe became the de facto cocktail capital during American Prohibition, this Italian stallion galloped from Florence to Rome, and on to Paris and London with unimpeded momentum.
But for all its continental veneer, the drink retained a bold American attitude beneath. It wasn’t by chance. “For me, the most significant part of the Negroni legend is that Count Negroni spent time here in America,” explained Natasha Bahrami, bartender at The Gin Room in St. Louis. “He was a cowboy and a gambler. And he invented his drink because he needed ‘more alcohol in my alcohol’. It’s undeniably bitter in all the right ways. But the distinguishing factor is it isn’t for everyone. It’s for the discerning drinking; for someone who is drinking to have an experience.”
It was only a matter of time before it would wash up on our shores. Yet few cocktail connoisseurs could have predicted just how much time that would require. After the repeal of Prohibition, American drinkers began a decades-long love affair with cloyingly sweet arrangements. With all those Harvey Wallbangers, Cosmopolitans, and Margaritas crowding the bar, there was little room for a bitter-forward arrangement featuring just liquor, sans juice.
The classic cocktail revival of the 21st Century, however, provided the perfect storm to propel the Negroni upon center stage. All of a sudden, pre-Prohibition preparations were in vogue. Bartenders were bringing bitter and elaborate flavors into the fold, introducing drinkers to forgotten categories such as amaro and vermouth. Gin was in. So was bespoke craftsmanship. And because of the Negroni’s simple building blocks, mixologists found a drink that, while still traditional, was customizable like none other.
“The idea of being able to sub different gins and fortified elements make the final profile possibilities endless,” said Dustin Drankiewicz, bartender/owner of the Swill Inn in Chicago. “I think that's what sets it apart from any other classic: the possibility to transform so easily.”
Peruse the menu at your local watering hole and you're likely to spot at least one Negroni variation on offer: swapping out the gin for vodka or dark spirits (rum, tequila, whiskey); exotic amari replacing the Campari; light vermouths in place of dark. “The Negroni is one of the most riffable cocktails out there,” echoed Bahrami. “My favorite is the Red Light Negroni. The recipe substitutes gin for Bols Genever, a malty Dutch spirit that’s basically where the English got the idea for gin.”
Encouraging this experimentation, and applying it to charitable ends, Campari launched Negroni Week in 2013. The event has since swelled to include over 10,000 venues worldwide. Over seven days in June, each participating bar serves up its own Negroni sendup—traditional or otherwise. A portion of all sales is donated to a nonprofit of their choosing. To date, participants have raised over $2 million.
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At Dante in New York’s West Village, every week is Negroni week. A daily happy hour dubbed ‘The Negroni Sessions’ pours out batched variations on-tap, which the bar plows through at $10 a pop. Last year they sold an estimated 42,000 of them. They even repurposed their own Negroni fountain to ceaselessly dispense the cocktail in style. “It might have been a chocolate fountain or it might have been at a function where some awful punch was put through it,” recalled Naren Young, Creative Director at Dante. “I don’t really remember, but it’s a great talking point and visually looks awesome. We are, without a doubt, ground zero for the Negroni in America.”
Back in its birthplace, the Negroni is as much a point of regional pride as it is a blended drink. “It is an icon and symbol of this amazing city, rich of histories and traditions,” Edoardo Sandri contended. The head mixologist at Atrium Bar pours dozens of them nightly inside the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze. “Many books have been written, and the city of Florence itself is strongly connected to it, because there is a romantic feeling to the story of its invention.”
Sandri serves up that story in every stir and pour, faithful to the original specs of Count Negroni as prescribed here a hundred years prior. He doesn’t expect that tale to change much over the next century, either.
Others are more skeptical: “Where do I see the drink 100 years from now?” Dustin Drankiewicz facetiously opined. “Probably in pill form or on a dating app.” Whatever shape it assumes, Negroni is a name that will not be soon forgotten.