At some point in the last five years the negroni became super fashionable in London. Proof that now and again society's collective taste hits the jackpot.
My interest in the drink begun after I begun necking Campari while at university. One bottle would usually see me through an evening and at £13 per serving it was an economical way of getting toasted. It actually replaced port - a drink I dropped when I started appreciating the etymology of the word "portly".
Anyway, I digress. The classic negroni, an equal parts mix of gin, Campari and red vermouth (typically Martini Rosso) was created in a cafe in Florence, Italy when Count Negroni (pictured above) wanted his Americano (Campari, red vermouth and soda water) to kick his throat a little harder. Sadly that cafe is now an execrable looking extension of the Robert Cavalli store next door but its predecessor left an indelible and wonderful mark on the world nonetheless.
However, as good as the negroni is, and it very much sits among the upper echelons of all cocktails, I cannot honestly say I prefer it to Campari and Campari doesn't require three different bottles, a glass, ice and an orange to create.
It's all the rage to create bombastic cocktails which throw together incongruous ingredients and are served in impractical vestibules that offer their consumer a false sense of achievement. Perhaps the Happening Bar Union collectively agreed to live resolutely by the mantra "Don't fuck with the classics" but having drunk the piss they serve up I think that, just maybe, we should be fucking the classics senseless.
Step 1: The Amaro
Campari, much like Jaegermeister, is the a-list celebrity of its family. Both are made in a similar way - ground lots of herbs, leave them to soak in alcohol and several days/weeks/months later you have a delicious beverage. The only other Italian amaro readily available outside of niche booze shops is Aperol (Manchester United's official alcoholic drink, for some reason) and at half the percentage and twice the sweetness of Campari it ain't much to write home about. You'll seldom meet a fan of straight Aperol - it spends most its life mixed up with prosecco or watering down a bog-standard negroni.
On my way back from Rome a few years back I hit up duty free and bought a bottle each of Amaro Ramazzotti, Cynar and Amaro Montenegro - each one boasts their own unique, top secret, to-the-grave, family recipe with varying alcohol content. The disparity in taste was incredible and indescribable. There could be no brief, pretentious description as is so frequently attached to wine.
Of these Montenegro was the outstanding candidate - sweet to begin with, followed by a bitter aftertaste, one of the most unusual flavours ever to hit my mediocre palate and purveyors of excellent advertisements. Cynar's claim to fame is that it is made with artichoke (indeed, the thistle is on the bottle) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is pretty sharp. Were I a pilot heading out on a daring raid in the midst of a vicious war and I was looking to perk up and get some Dutch courage simultaneously inside me then Cynar would be a prime candidate. Ramazzotti, on the other hand, is a little too forthright. Ramazzotti seems appropriate if your girl has just left you and you're looking to get blasted while also being vaguely punished.
If I could dispense one piece of knowledge on the world it would be the glory of the Amaro Montenegro. Sadly it is relegated to rarefied status in the UK and it is only to be found on specialist websites costing 4 times what it does in its native country. Still, imagine all the money you have wasted in your life and then paying a mere £35 for so much pleasure will be easily reconcilable.
Step 2: The Vermouth
Rome also started my love affair with Punt-e-mes. Now, Martini Rosso is fine but that is all it is, fine. Have you ever tried to drink it straight? It's drab, bland and... I'm probably being too harsh here but it is not great. Similar to Aperol it usually ends up drowning in a glass with some other liquid. Call me a purist but if you can't enjoy a beverage by itself then it has no business entering your body.
Punt-e-mes is both an honour and a pleasure to consume solo. Sweet, spicy and, please excuse the wine talk here, full bodied. In fact if Martini Rosso is an emaciated catwalk model then Punt-e-mes is a curvaceous, Piedmontese goddess. Thankfully its sheer brilliance is recognised by some of Britain's leading retailers and several larger stores are fortunate enough to have this glorious liquid grace their shelves.
Step 3: The Gin
Let us be frank, gin is pretty much gin. By that I mean were you to ask a whiskey fiend to deliver a variety of choice tipples even the uninitiated could tell the difference. Conversely you could track down gins brewed in wildly different ways from the four corners of the world and there would be nowhere near as much diversity. I've tried tens (tens!) of different gins in my time but I'll keep my advice brief:
- Avoid Gordon's, Beefeater or any supermarket own brand gin. All they do is add alcohol and precious else to the equation and if that's your game then just quaff rubbing alcohol.
- As good as Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick's are there is a whole world of delightful micro-brewed gins out there. After all gin is our national spirit and as it is relatively easy to brew a quick search will no doubt reveal numerous small time operations that all offer an intriguing product.
- Saying that I personally found my Queen Gin came from Wisconsin, America. During my spell in Bristol there was an excellent little establishment that prided itself on stocking the produce of little known distilleries around the globe and after I had emptied my bottle of Plymouth Navy Strength gin they sold me a bottle of Death's Door. Named after the waterway between Washington Island and the tip of the Door Peninsula where countless ships disappeared beneath the waves due to the treacherous geography, it is a truly excellent gin despite its macabre sobriquet. Distinctive, fragrant and powerful it manages to hold its own in the face of an amaro and a vermouth bursting with flavour.
Step 4: The ?
One of the most underrated moves in cocktail preparation is adding an ingredient that perfectly compliments the standard components. After the addition of Bailey's helped me create the perfect White Russian I went recklessly along this path, constantly looking for a spirit to add to everything to give it that little bit more. Awful concoctions were prevalent along the way but when I sporadically found the golden element it was its very own eureka moment, albeit a prosaic one.
For the negroni the plan was always orange. Slicing the skin off the fruit is a pain although it is certainly beneficial as, to put it plainly, the negroni needs orange to be truly wonderful. Cointreau was the obvious choice but frustratingly it dominates the drink like an obese man on a rush hour tube train. Curacao was next up but for some reason it did not sit well. The orange was too sharp, rather than complimenting the overall drink it felt as if it was being drunk while chewing on a peel. After this brief experimentation it wasn't until I read an enthusiastic review of Solerno blood orange liquor that I bothered try again. I was heavily sceptical at first as blood orange liquor is the quintessential food & drink item that "foodies" get excited about regardless of its actual merit. The high price dissuaded me further but there is little I am more apt at in life than blowing large sums of money on esoteric spirits so I took the plunge.
Eureka. Solerno is subtle, pleasant and a natural, fruity bedfellow among the spice, sweetness and cold, hard alcohol. What more it turns an already potent cocktail into a (figuratively) lethal force. It's like giving a bear a gun.
Step 5: The Negroni
1 part Amaro Montenegro
1 part Death’s Door gin
1 part Punt-e-mes
1 part Solerno
Slice o' orange peel
- Solerno or no Solerno the orange peel is a welcome addition and should be first into the glass, lining the inside.
- Next chuck in 3 ice cubes - just good, old fashioned ice cubes, none of that chipping off a piece of a massive block nonsense.
- Add the amaro, vermouth, gin and Solerno in whatever order is quickest, no one likes to wait.
- Stir thoroughly and consume with relish.
- Say your thanks to the Count.