Why we love the Negroni: iconic drink sells itself (and Campari)

by | Sep 21, 2023 | Drinks, Opinion

Why should you love the Negroni? Well, picture this: It’s the cocktail world’s equivalent of a witty, mustachioed Italian philosopher with a monocle and a penchant for spontaneous haiku. It’s that one eccentric aunt you describe as an acquired taste, but you can’t imagine life without her – a delightful oddball in a sea of ordinary. The Negroni doesn’t just join the party; it starts and ends the party, where it’s more of a masquerade ball. It’s the cocktail that scoffs at the mundane and embraces the delightfully bizarre. So, why should you love the Negroni? Because it’s the rebel and the refinement of the bar industry at its best, a drink that separates the pretenders from the professionals. It’s a drink that defies popularism and epitomised how a simple drink becomes an icon and its own marketing campaign.

I’m a shameless lover of the Negroni in its purest and most wild expressions. The only one I ever grimaced at featured onionweed. But I still drank it. Maybe it’s the Campari, and my long love affair with all things bitters, amari and vermouth. The Negroni celebrates bitterness because while we often praise texture, acidity and umami – managing bitterness is actually the magic skill required for kitchen (and bar) mastery.

If your tone turns to cynicism, Danil Nevsky (@cocktailman) points out – Negroni Week may be one of the most successful guerrilla marketing campaigns to thrive in the spirits world – Negroni Week enlists thousands of bars and bartenders around the world to recognise (and sell) bucketloads of of the ruby sunset coloured Negroni (and vatloads of Campari) each year. The thrill of the Negroni, where the bitter-sweet balance of Campari, vermouth and gin particularly sings and polarises all at once, deserves this celebration in my opinion.

Before I tell you why, it’s important to get a few facts straight and give oxygen to some of the origin stories that surround the sparkling gem. For starters, it’s an accidental marketing campaign. Imbibe Magazine originally created the celebration of the iconic drink, but Campari knows a good thing when they see it – so they partnered quickly. The beauty of Negroni Week is not just the chance to help people aboard the bitters and vermouth bandwagon, but it’s also become a central feature of the industry calendar, giving back to a chosen charity each year, And who doesn’t love to drink for a good cause? This year, proceeds from each Negroni sold are going to support Slow Food, an organisation that promotes food education, cultural and biological diversity and advocacy for traditional food skills and communities. (For more on Slow Food, click here and to find a participating venue, click here.)

But now – onto the Negroni itself. There’s a joke that travels wordlessly amongst the bartender profession. The slow glance when someone orders a Negroni with uncertain hesitation or over-confident bravado – sure to be shaken if asked for a preference on gin or vermouth. Campari, naturally, is rarely replaced. The anticipatory watch as they raise glass to lips for the first time. The beauty of the Negroni lies in its simplicity. It consists of equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. The gin provides a strong backbone, the Campari imparts bitterness and complexity, and the sweet vermouth adds a touch of sweetness and depth. But given the Negroni was birthed from replacing the soda water in an Americano with gin, it pulls no punches.

The Negroni is a cocktail that elicits strong reactions from enthusiasts and skeptics alike, especially on first sip. It’s bold, distinctive and often best described as a rollercoaster of lfavour. But it’s got an undeniable and mysterious cool factor that means even those who don’t know what they’re getting into, can’t resist the urge to pull up a seat at the bar and order the classic.

What makes the Negroni so polarizing? It all comes down to its bold and distinctive flavor profile. The bitterness of Campari can be an acquired taste, and for those unaccustomed to it, the Negroni can be overwhelming on the first sip. However, this very bitterness is what endears it to its devoted fans. The Negroni’s complex interplay of flavors challenges the palate and invites contemplation. Well-made (perhaps even stirred with a finger as iconic Gary Regan suggested as mandatory technique), it is sunset captured in a glass, with its warm, amber hue and a tantalizing aroma that beckons you closer. Earthy, bittersweet citrus and mysterious spice appear on the nose and when you take that first sip, your taste buds are set alight. There’s the bold, herbaceous kick of gin that greets your palate, followed by the symphony of Campari that leaves a tingle in its wake. Then comes the embrace of sweet vermouth, wrapping the whole experience in a comforting, velvety sweetness. The Negroni is the epitome of balance, where the strength of the spirits is tempered by careful dilution, chill factor and an experienced hand.

It’s a cocktail that celebrates the art of mixing, creating a profile as complex as it is enchanting, making each sip an exquisite journey worth savouring. It’s a drink that demands attention, and for those who embrace its unique character, it becomes an enduring favorite. So, whether you love to hate the Negroni for its bitterness and punch or hate to love it for its almost cliche appearance in one form or another on every bar menu – the Negroni never fails to leave an impression.

Photo of the Negroni, captured by Shaanah Evans.

The Negroni’s history dates back to the early 20th century in Italy, when legendary Italian aristocrat Count Camillo Negroni apparently wanted something with a bit more kick when perched at his local, the Caffè Casoni in Florence. The story goes that in 1919, he asked the bartender, Fosco Scarselli, to strengthen his Americano by replacing the soda water with gin. Scarselli added an orange garnish rather than the typical lemon twist to distinguish it from the Americano. Icon born. But the Negroni is also defining the future – a bartender’s staple, the backbone of a dozen riffs and variations and the measure of your palate. The Negroni is where we play, we push boundaries and we return, seeking out the answer to an eternal question for flavour seekers. How far can I go in my pursuit of flavour, without sacrificing balance. It’s in the art of using bitters that we hone the skill. Mastery at work.

When you head out (or stay home) for Negroni Week this week, you’ll encounter nurmerous riffs and variations, from enhanced strawberry or orange flavours balancing vermouth or even the now TikTok infamous Negroni Sbagliato, which substitutes prosecco for gin, and the Boulevardier, which replaces gin with bourbon or rye whiskey. These variations showcase the Negroni’s versatility and adaptability to different palates, but first – you need to get on the train to Negroni town. Eventually all palates lead to bitters and vermouth. It’s a mark of maturity and the sophistication that aspiring drinkers are searching for when they first ask, timidly – “Negroni, please?’

 

About the Author

Tash McGill

Tash McGill works as a strategy consultant in tourism, hospitality and digital transformation. She is co-founder of The Feed, President of Food Writers NZ, Chair of the New Zealand Whisky Association.

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