That cocktail, the color of faded Venetian draperies, displayed a pitch-perfect balance of sweetness and bitterness; it sported a sensational middle palate with a lush, syrupy texture, and had a long, lingering, bitter cherry, finish. I can still taste it a month later.
The Negroni is said to have originated in Florence, Italy, in 1919, at Caffe Casoni when Count Camillo Negroni reputedly asked the bartender to strengthen his favorite drink, the Americano, by replacing the soda water with gin.
The drink became so popular so quickly that it was soon called the “King of Aperitives.” Eventually, the originator’s name was affixed to the cocktail.
I’m sure the Count never imagined that one day he’d become the spirit(ual) leader of drinkers around the world.
One taste of the Negroni at Il Buco Alimentari and I knew that I had to learn how to ace this cocktail at home. So I asked Melissa, the bartender, for her secrets to make the perfect Negroni, which is basically a concoction of three spirits:
Equal parts of:
Sweet Italian vermouth
Mixology 101: Stir, do not shake, the mixture of three spirits over ice, pour into old-fashioned glasses filled with ice (different ice, not the same ice used to mix the concoction) and, if desired, squeeze the oil from a strip of orange rind over the drink, and then add the rind.
Sounds simple. But the mixing’s a mathematical nightmare: which gin, which vermouth, and does one really add equal parts?
This was an assignment for napaman akin to decoding the human genome. And equally as important to humanity if you agree that what happens daily at 5 o’clock somewhere in the world is critically important to the survival of mankind everywhere in the world.
Melissa told me that she uses Breuckelen Distilling’s Glorious Gin, a NY-made gin (Breuckelen is the old Dutch spelling for the borough in which it’s made).
This one night, she also replaced Carpano Antica, the sweet vermouth typically used here, for Cocchi di Torino, a more focused, slightly edgier, sweet Italian vermouth. It’s a complex, very intense vermouth; if Cocchi were a psychiatric patient, you wouldn’t learn in five years of psychoanalytic couch therapy what makes it so moody and intense.
Back home, in California, I contacted my favorite wine and spirit retailer, K&L Wine, in San Francisco, and asked the dynamic Duo of Daves (Dave Driscoll and Dave Othenin-Girard) if they could order Cocchi and Breuckelen Distilling’s Glorious Gin for me. And also sell me some other branded gins for the exercise I was about to undertake.
“No problem” they chirped in unison in their standard echo-like fashion to please this customer.
While waiting for the gins and vermouth to arrive, I thought I’d be smart to conduct some basic bar research, to better understand how different brands of gin and vermouth altered Melissa’s recipe.
So I visited two of my favorite bars/hotels in San Francisco, both which happen to be Kimpton properties, the classy, high-end, boutique lodger, in whose hotels I often stay.
I visited Jasper’s Corner Tap, where I have enjoyed one of my favorite burgers ever in San Francisco. (This hunk o’ beautiful bovine is served on an original, crusty bun that is as memorable as the meat.)
I figured that if they know as much about mixing as they know about meat, this would be a solid place to start my Negroni research. I was right.
Barman Dan Wootton agreed that not all gins, and not all vermouths, are created equal. So he set up a trial of drinks to make his case.
Each was made with equal parts of three spirits, each contained Campari and Cocchi, which I’d already determined in tests is a superior vermouth for Negronis, better than Carpano Antica or even VYA Sweet Vermouth.
Do not lose sight of the fact that VYA Dry Vermouth is the secret to making the world’s best martini. But that’s another story and to fully understand how to make the World’s Best Martini, go here:
And do not lose sight of the fact that Carpano Antica made some stellar Negronis in the course of my research, not the least of which was the Negroni made at Bistro Don Giovanni, in Napa town. Here they mix No. 209 gin, Campari and Carpano Antica. Fabuloso.
But back to Dan; he made three Negronis to prove his point.
The one made with Old Tom Ransom Gin from Oregon was muddied and unfocused.
The one made with Aviation Gin from Portland, which was Dan’s preferred Negroni of the trial, was a bit too clean; for me, it exhibited too much vanilla on the finish.
I selected the Negroni made with Martin Miller’s Reformed London Dry Gin, Westbourne Strength, as “Negroni of the Night.” It was sensational. Properly named, it Reformed my opinion about which gin makes the best Negroni.
Dan and assistant general manager Jose Carlos Delgado pointed out that to meet the demand for Negronis, Jasper’s Corner Tap actually has devoted one wine/beer tap to… Negronis!
That’s right, they pull a pressurized Negroni off one of their bar taps and the beverage is… FANTASTIC!
To make their wildly popular “draft Negroni,” they mix one part each of Campari and Plymouth Gin and for the third part, they mix Cinzanno and Punt e Mes, an Italian vermouth. This is a sensational, house-ready, Negroni. And it’s On Tap!
Over time, I’ve also come to respect and enjoy the spirits, wine and food at the Fifth Floor restaurant and bar, in another Kimpton San Francisco property, the Palomar Hotel.
As the Fifth Floor is a Mecca for Martini- and Negroni-drinkers, I knew it was time to visit an old friend here, Amy Goldberger, head sommelier at Fifth Floor.
In turn, she introduced me to Brian Means, the affable and skilled barman who mixed many variations of the Negroni on my visit so that I could test the impact of different gins and different vermouths.
Plymouth gin produced a rusty, rustic, serviceable Negroni; Martin Miller’s Reformed London Dry Gin, Westbourne Strength, produced a superior cocktail with a sensational middle palate, and a sunburned finish.
St. George Dry Rye Gin, made in Alameda, CA, produced a Negroni that was flavored with bandages and Mercurochrome, and which had long lasting bitter notes.
Fords Gin, from England, produced a watery, non-descript beverage with not much of a middle palate and no memorable finish. Call it the Mitch McConnell Negroni – absolutely no personality.
We tried a Negroni made with Greenhook Ginsmiths Gin from Brooklyn, NY, which Brian wangles from a special source as it is not commercially available in this market. It produced a drink with slow attack and slow release; there were a few floral notes and a hint of cucumber. This might be the Negroni to have if you’re planning to have more than two Negronis, as the flavor build-up is slow.
But I’m in search of the one-off, single best Negroni you can make at home, not one of which you need to drink a bathtubful to obtain a flavor hit.
(By the way, let’s not forget to mention that the bar area of the Fifth Floor is THE place in San Francisco to have a sensational, rich, burger – order it with “the works” -- with a side of fries. Major delicious.
If your server is Dillon, he will guide you through all the other spirit and food options on the bar menu. This is one of my favorite after-hours destinations in San Francisco; it is quiet, comforting, secluded. The drinks and service are first-class.)
When my bottles of Breuckelen Distilling’s Glorious Gin and Cocchi finally arrived at K&L Wine, I started to conduct mixology trials at home.
After determining that Cocchi sweet vermouth makes the best Negroni, I mixed the cocktail using many different gins.
Here’s what I discovered, on my way to selecting my all-time favorite, Best Ever Negroni. In order of preference, from least liked to best liked:
Not much of anything. The spirits and flavors do not integrate with one another. There is a succession of tastes, including cinnamon and ripe fruit, but overall, the Negroni lacks luster, focus and zip. 89 points out of 100.
Here’s a gin I often like for martinis, but in auditioning for The Negroni Idol, this straight-forward gin produces a rather straight-forward, rather pedestrian, cocktail. There’s not much “there” there.
A rather simple drink, missing the complexity and alluring character found in other Negronis in this taste test.
91 points out of 100.
Somewhat soapy, pallid, pastel-flavored in the Negroni. Even with the addition of bitters and an orange peel, this gin underwhelms in the cocktail.
This gin is far more successful as an ingredient in a martini.
91 points on its own, 94 points when made with bitters.
The best US gin you can use for martinis. Bar none. In any bar.
But for Negronis made with Cocchi, this very floral, very botanical, gin produces a beverage that is a bit sloppy, and unfocused. Almost socially backward and embarrassing. Still, it produces a refreshing cocktail. Much better when combined with Carpano Antica vermouth. 95 points.
Breuckelen Distilling’s Glorious Gin
A winner by any standard of comparative measurement.
The presence of Cocchi lengthens the finish considerably.
Love this gin for the Negroni, though when tasted straight, on its own, it’s a rather mundane, lackluster spirit. How curious. 96 points.
Martin Miller’s Reformed London Dry Gin, Westbourne Strength
This gin makes a sensational Negroni; the cocktail is bright in the mouth, bouncy and alive on the palate.
The cocktail is vibrant, and does what a proper cocktail before dinner is meant to do: arouse one’s appetite. 98 points.
Miller’s Reformed London Dry Gin, Westbourne Strength, makes a superior Negroni when mixed in equal parts with Cocchi di Torino sweet vermouth and Campari.
This combination of spirits produces an Academy Award-worthy Negroni.
(For the record: Miller’s Reformed London Dry Gin is distilled in the UK, then shipped to Iceland where it is blended with Icelandic waters and bottled. How curious! How delicious!)
Here’s what happened next:
Thinking that I’d found the Holy Grail Recipe for The Perfect Negroni, I called my friend Eileen, who is the bartender at Tra Vigne, in St. Helena, and who is, in my humble opinion, the best bartender in Napa Valley.
“I want to make you a Negroni and get your feedback,” I offered.
I made my Negroni with equal parts of Miller’s Reformed London Dry Gin, Cocchi and Campari, and as good as it was, Eileen improved it!
She suggested upping the gin to 1.5 oz. while keeping the Cocchi and Campari at 1 oz. each.
“The extra gin softens the drink, reduces the perceived sweetness, and generally makes for a better cocktail,” Eileen concluded.
And she was right.
So now you have all the trade secrets – the ingredients, the ratios, and bartender tips -- to make The Perfect Negroni at home. So what are you waiting for...?
Want to taste the best commercial Negronis?
In NY, go to:
Il Buco Alimentari, 53 Great Jones Street,
In San Francisco, go to:
Jasper’s Corner Tap, 401 Taylor, off the lobby of the Serrano Hotel.
The Fifth Floor, on the 5th floor of the Palomar Hotel, 12 Fourth St.
In Napa Valley, go to:
Bistro Don Giovanni, 4110 Howard Lane, Napa.
Tra Vigne, 1050 Charter Oak Avenue, St. Helena.