There’s a bunch of different families of drinks out there that have a lot in common…often you just swap out your base spirit and you’ve got a different cocktail; collins, sours, rickeys, flips, swizzles and so on. But there’s also what I like to think of as the bigger drink genuses, where we’re just looking at a general style for variations. So a lot of your classic martini drinks (Martini, Kangaroo, Martinez, Manhattan and so on) all kind of fit together; loosen a spirit with vermouth and stir it well over ice to get it all a bit more opened up. Or the old fashioned style drinks; Old Fashioneds, Pink Gin, Sazerac, where cocktail bitters give a bit of depth and complexity to a stirred drink. And then there’s the Negronis.
Purists will wax lyrical about the negroni and it’s cousins, the Sbagliato and Spumante. But they’ll also spit out their drinks if you offer them a Pisco negroni, or suggest mixing things up a little on the Campari/Aperol front to work with a different gin or vermouth. Imagine their horror when you err towards a completely different amaro, throw in some marmalade, or even suggest that a quinquina might work nicely.
But you know what; there’s a brave new world ready to be explored where the Negroni is just a starting point. Take a complex spirit, loosen it with vermouth and then accentuate its character with a bitter liqueur/spirit and you’ve got the potential for so many amazing drinks. Let’s not get too carried away, though. perfect your basics before you start fucking with the Negroni.
- 1/3 Good Gin
- 1/3 Sweet Vermouth (seriously, just start with Martini Rosso)
- 1/3 Campari
Build it over ice, stir well and garnish with a chunky orange wedge. Sip. Listen to opera. Enjoy. Put it down, come back to it in a couple of minutes…this is a drink that loves to rest on ice (Campari and Gin both get a lot out of ice melting)
OK. It’s good? Bitter, but interesting. Herbal and complex and initially sweet before the campari catches the back of your tongue and brings the flavour party.
No. Not yet. GO AND MAKE ANOTHER TEN (HUNDRED) NEGRONIS. (seriously, get to know what’s going on with that, it’ll put you in good stead). Oh, and read this about Negroni Season. It’s not very related, but it is very good.
So, you’ve bookmarked this post, and come back to it a year later. Good. You might be ready to start messing with this. Or you might have sworn yourself to a life of Negronis.
Your choices are really in gin and vermouth here; that Campari isn’t going any where just yet. Try tweaking those 1/3 ratios a tiny bit. Personally, my ratio tends to 4/4/3 parts of gin, vermouth and campari respectively. Find what works for you. Now try some different gins; if you’re fancy you might have Tanqueray 10; all the citrus in that loves a negroni, so give that a go. The softer botanicals in Plymouth also stand up really well. But Hendricks doesn’t, so I would steer clear of that.
And vermouths. Oh, vermouths. The first thing I was drunk on was Cinzano stolen from my parents liquor cabinet, so I have a long history with these guys. Let’s start with a clarification and a diversion.
Vermouths are not always ‘sweet’ and ‘dry’; they are ‘Italian’ or ‘French’. There’s a huge range, and to be honest, sometimes the colour isn’t much of an indicator of flavour. Punt y Mes is drier in some ways than Lillet Blanc, and there’s a whole bunch of gentian and quinine (Quinquinas) based french vermouths that just confound everything. But here’s the Italian vermouth you might find in your local, and what it’ll do to a Negroni.
Martini Rosso – yawn. Workmanlike and familiar
Antica Formula – Spectacularly thick and rich almost to the point of cloying. Lots of vanilla.
Dolin – A bit cheaper than Martini, sometimes. Lighter and floral.
Dubonnet Red – Thick and sweet but without the redeeming vanilla of Antica. A bit much for me.
Punt e Mes – Bitter, complex and very dark. Yes, it’s my favourite.
Cocchi – Extremely slippy bottle. First and only attempt with it was excellent.
There’s one more thing you need to know about before we start messing with the basics. Amaro. It’s just Italian for ‘bitter’. Nice and simple. Except every region, village, monastery, library and farmhouse seems to have their own variation on it. You’ll probably know the most popular; Campari (and you can fuck right off if you’re going to try and tell me it’s not an Amaro because of marketing). Campari is awesome. Wonderful. Sublime. Truly a gift. It’s bitter, orangey, complicated and brilliant carmine. Yep. I like it.
And then there’s Campari’s petulant little brother, Aperol, always trying to tag along but not really able to hold its own; it’s sweeter, with a bitter kick that coats the throat and leaves sweet rhubarb on the tongue and a little tangerine peel on the nose. Go on, try pairing this with Punt e Mes in an Americano.
Completing most of the UK market are Fernet Branca, Averna, Cynar and a whole range of other amari that you might be lucky enough to find (do tell me if you do!). They range from the slightly sweet, nut bitter Averna, through Cynar’s pungent artichoke kick to Fernet’s nose clearing, eye watering menthol sucker punch. They all bring a lot to the liqueur cabinet, and don’t go off, so definitely investment grade mixers.
OK. It’s 3 weeks later. You’ve tried all the Negroni variations and are a veritable snob about this wonderful drink. You can bore people to tears with tales of the Count Camillo Negroni strolling into Caffè Casoni and dismissing the Gin’n’It/Americano with a flourish of his be-driving gloved hand (fucking aristos) and demanding his drink. But seriously, it gets better from here on in; because all of the best booze loves a little vermouth/bitter combo.
Let’s reach for my favourite classic variation first. And have a little chat about really going wild on this one.
- 1oz Bourbon (or rye, I recommend Makers here, unusually)
- 1/2oz Campari
- 1/2oz Martini Rossi
Stir over ice, strain into a coupe glass, garnish with a cherry.
All the grain flavours come to the fore of the drink, with a nice citrusy bitter kick from the campari and a solid vermouth base for the honey/vanilla from the whisky to get a bit lost in. OK. That was nice. Now, try it with the Antica and Aperol for a whisky drink that’s pretty different; the Aperol lets all the zesty notes from the rye grains shine, while the Antica vanilla goes hand in hand with the wood notes for something eminently smooth and tasty. Finally, give it a go with Punt e Mes and Aperol. Yeah, I know. It’s genuinely fine if you feel that you don’t need to read any more of this after that drink.
The Little Italy
- 1oz Rye or Bourbon
- 2/3oz Sweet vermouth
- 1/2oz Cynar
The cynar takes a lot more stirring down to develop its really bitter characteristics, so give this one a decent stir and serve it up, again with the cherry garnish. The cynar gives it a great bite and really plays well off the spiciness of a good solid rye especially; we’ve been drinking this with Rittenhouse 100 which can look after itself in almost any situation.
- 1oz Rye
- 1/2oz Punt e Mes
- 1/2oz Maraschino
Ah, carefully with the balance here. Have a good play and drink it as cold as you can; maraschino gets pretty cloying once this warms up, but cold it’s all cherry and almond and whiskey and astringence. Awesome.
Hopefully the Negroni purists should now be good and apoplectic. Go and enjoy your gin classics, guys, we’re having too much fun over here. I’m going to wrap this up with a few suggestions of spirit/amaro/vermouth mixes we’ve been enjoying a lot recently, and then ask you, dear reader, to tell me about what works for you.
Corn Whisky, Cocchi, Campari
Pisco, Antica, Campari/Aperol Blend
Rum, Vanilla infused Martini Rosso & Campari blend
Brandy, Cocchi, Aperol
Cachaca, Punt e mes, Fernet