It’s Negroni Week, and while experiences are welcome, let’s not make the Italian cocktail unrecognizable
In 2014, about a year before the negroni became such a cult following in the American craft bar and cocktail circuit, I found myself alone in Florence, a city I had never visited before. It was an impulsive trip, as I took a train from Turin to this miniature Tuscan gem. A friend of a Florentine friend, an Italian policeman, took charge of showing me around. And the best way to see Florence, in fact the only one, is to just stroll.
This is how we crossed the Arno, towards the less touristy, less expensive districts, in the district of Basilica di Santo Spirito, an old church associated with humanism. The enclave that surrounded it was once populated by prominent Florentine families such as Frescobaldi, but also poor craftsmen and traders. Centuries later, Santo Spirito still retains its arty character.
In the square, stands a bar whose name I have never noted in all the time I have visited Santo Spirito since (annually and sometimes twice a year from 2014 to 2019) to repeat a ritual resumed during this first visit: buy a negroni, sit on the steps of the church, listen to live music that an amateur musician inevitably plays in the evening. And watch the world go by. The negroni, a so-called Florentine creation, has always been a symbol of The good life, the sweet Italian life, which is also bittersweet and certainly lived intensely.
Let’s skip the riffs
Bitter, sweet and strong mark the three characteristics of the classic drink, in equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth and gin. It is the more sophisticated brother of the spritz, the other Italian aperitif with a similar bittersweet profile but not as strong (sparkling water, prosecco, and aperol or Campari classically). But in the United States, the negroni is a shapeshifter. Countless marketing events since 2015 – when the world beyond the tight-knit bartending community seemed to awaken to the negroni – have produced so many iterations of the cocktail that it is no longer a cocktail, but a true category.
Some of those global versions that are currently flooding Indian bars in Delhi and Mumbai (since inevitably we’re a few years behind NYC) are pretty good, but frankly, many are terrible as well. They destroy the essence of the classic bittersweet and strong, both simple and sophisticated. In 2019, the drink celebrated its 100th anniversary, sparking even more frenetic marketing events, including an entire week devoted to the United States (September 13-19), which now appears to have spread to India as well.
The original negroni was born when gin replaced or supplemented sparkling water in another popular Italian cocktail among Americans in Europe called Americano (Campari, wine, sparkling water). Gin is still the most trafficked element of the cocktail today: while old iterations such as Boulevardier (Campari, vermouth, rye whiskey), born in Paris in the 1930s, replace gin with whiskey, in these heyday of gin trickery, infusions are all the rage.
One of the worst negronis I had the misfortune to meet was last week at a popular Delhi bar, where the ‘negroni truffle’ is supposed to be made with gin infused with, well, coconut oil. truffle. Negroni truffles per se seem to have gained some international currency after an Australian promotional event for truffles, where they used black truffle salt on the rim and black truffle infused gin in the drink. The drink I found myself squeezing in Delhi was a riff on even that shady riff – with bits of black olive dust, all brackish and white, sticking to the single square ice cube in the glass (standard serving practice is serve the negroni on a single square of cracked ice). However, this masquerade for legitimate black truffles was enough to make Delhi’s fashion-seeking company and social media ‘influencers’ go gaga over the version no matter how it destroyed the bittersweet essence. of a negroni.
In fact, even if the sea bass were to use a single slice of black truffle as a garnish to garnish the negroni, as a Gordon Ramsay restaurant recipe does (mix of truffle oil with bourbon, Campari and martini rosso), the fresh truffle umami does nothing to the Campari and is a waste of an expensive ingredient.
Mezcal gets a yes
Some negroni experiments, however, work quite well. The same week I had the above disaster, I also tried the new international darling, a mezcal negroni. Mezcal, of course, is a rising spirit. But it is still difficult to find a good bottle easily in India and it is much more expensive than your average bottle of gin. My drink was a private dinner hosted by entrepreneur Vir Kotak. Mezcal has worked very well as a replacement for gin, being a strong spirit itself, adding its quintessential smoky character to negroni.
But I would certainly frown at the idea of âânegroni becoming more fruity, as some experimentation in bars takes it to India (as also in the United States), where palates generally prefer sweet and not bitter. Campari with its complex herbaceous notes is at the heart of the negroni. A more fruity negroni alters this heart.
At the Narendra Bhawan boutique hotel in Bikaner, the bartender turned out to be a pretty perfect negroni, only to spray our hands with the scent of orange from a bottle before allowing us to take the drink. In my opinion, it didn’t do anything for the drink or the experience. A single touch of orange is the classic garnish; some bartenders pretend to burn the skin to give you more scent – but purists aren’t always more open to the added citrus notes.
Finally, grow old. The barrel fad hasn’t caught on in India, although barrel-aged negronis make sporadic appearances in ambitious hotel bars. Now the latest addition to the bartending community is aging in clay pots to impart minerality without oak or barrel aging tannins. Thanks to the vermouth, the negroni is able to age; if done right, it makes it softer and smoother. But without its intensity, is it really The good life, the Italian classic we want?