In Italy, the Negroni is a grandpa drink.
Not over here. In the States, it’s a popular cocktail, seemingly beyond generational bias, that has fueled through-the-roof sales of Campari, the bitter Italian liqueur essential to its makeup. So as one who loves a Negroni (neh-GROH-nee), it was a shock to hear that bit of truth from Dave Karraker, vice president of engagement and advocacy for Campari America, based in San Francisco. When in Rome, drink Campari and soda or Campari and orange, apparently.
Yet here the Negroni is ascendant. In the past five years, the mix of Campari, sweet vermouth and gin has pushed Campari sales from 50,000 cases per year to an expected 100,000 this year.
Two things happened in the U.S. in the past 10 years to set the stage. The rise of bartenders as real craftsmen, which fueled the comeback of classic cocktails. And the palate in the U.S. became more bitter, said Karraker. The Negroni, certainly a classic (nearly 100 years old), and certainly sporting a bitter edge (from the Campari), became the bartenders’ darling. (Try to find a bar menu without a Negroni on it!) You could say, as Karraker did, that the Negroni is having a moment, except that the moment is yearslong and shows little sign of ending.
Gruppo Campari, Campari’s Milan-based parent company, would be stupid not to capitalize on that growth. Enter the bottled Negroni, a pre-mixed cocktail, made in Milan in the same facility as Campari, but sold only in the States, which serves as the test market. It retails for about $40 for a 1-liter bottle. Along with Campari, the bottled drink is made with London dry gin (contracted from a secret distillery in the U.K.) and a custom-mixed sweet vermouth from Cinzano (also a Campari-owned brand), and is 26 percent alcohol.
Karraker says the test is limited to the U.S. because of the popularity of the cocktail here. (It’s not being tested in Minnesota.) How’s it taste? As a Negroni devotee, I must say right off that in this case, freshly made is better. But also, bottled is pretty good.
Of course, you can also make yourself a Negroni at home.
Note: The classic drink is made from equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. Many bartenders today back off the vermouth and Campari to let the gin flavor come through. Some top off the Negroni with club soda. Some don’t use Campari at all, but use Luxardo Aperitivo or some other bitter liqueur. Chef and writer Gabrielle Hamilton serves up a version at her East Village restaurant Prune, and she talks about the drink in her memoir “Blood, Bones & Butter.” From “The New Cocktail Hour,” by André Darlington and Tenaya Darlington.
• 1 1/2 oz. (3 tbsp.) gin
• 1 oz. (2 tbsp.) sweet vermouth
• 3/4 oz. (1 1/2 tbsp.) Campari or Luxardo Aperitivo
• Half of an orange slice (blood orange is particularly good)
Stir ingredients with ice. Because the Campari will sink to the bottom, make sure to lift the spoon often to integrate the spirits. Strain into a chilled coupe or rocks glass over ice. Garnish with a half-wheel of orange on the side of the glass.
Note: In this variation, prosecco is substituted for gin. “Sbagliato” means “mistaken” or “incorrect” in Italian, and this drink was supposedly created by accident in the early 1970s. From “Spritz,” by Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau.
• 1 oz. (2 tbsp.) Campari
• 1 oz. (2 tbsp.) sweet vermouth
• 3 oz. (6 tbsp.) Prosecco
• Half of an orange slice
Pour the ingredients in a rocks glass over ice and add the garnish.