Words by: Nikki Bayley
Photography by: Nikki Bayley
The cocktail within a cocktail: Vancouver’s “Inception Negroni”
What's better than one cocktail? That's right, two -in the same glass. Head bartender Robyn Gray of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia's Prohibition Lounge in Vancouver has created the "Inception Negroni" made up of a classic red Negroni captured in an ice sphere served up with a white Negroni on top. It starts off pleasingly light and aromatic with a lemon-y hit, but as the ice sphere cracks, the drink bleeds red and the lightness shifts into something altogether more booze-forward and exciting. A time-release cocktail of different sides of the same coin, which transforms into a whole new drink.
Here's the whole process from conception to Inception.
Where did the inspiration come from?
I'd heard about cocktails being held in an egg, draining the egg then injecting the cocktail into the shell and cracking it into a glass: 'Look! Magic!' I think someone did it at World Class four or five years ago, he cracked an egg as though he was just going to use the white and purposely cracked it too hard and broke the yolk and was all 'Oh no! My sour is ruined!'. Then he grabbed another egg, cracked it straight into the glass and it was already a finished cocktail - everyone lost their mind! I've heard about the Aviary's Old Fashioned in the Rocks which is captured within an ice globe, so the ice ball trick is not new, people have been doing it for a while, I guess we just wanted to find a new twist.
Why a Negroni?
Originally it was going to be an Old Fashioned, but that had been done, so I decided to go with a Negroni. I love the Negroni and I love twists on it. It's the perfect threesome as far as cocktails go. It's a lovely balance and one of the world's most popular cocktails. Everyone knows what a Negroni is, lots of people drink them so it seemed approachable.
What was the most difficult part of the process?
The biggest trial and error part was getting the ice sphere at the correct thickness and consistency to be able to drill out. I tried it in the pastry freezer which was at minus 16 but I now use our stand-up freezer which is at minus six. You need to be able to find the right amount of freeze to be able to drill out the ice ball so you can drain the water and it doesn't crack. It took so long to figure out the ideal width of the ice on the outside so it wouldn't break; they don't freeze evenly so the underneath or top might be a lot thicker. We got through dozens just smashing them before we figured out what was the ideal freeze. Once we found that it was all done.
What was the sphere-draining process like in development?
I tried different methods before settling on a drill, I heated up a metal straw with a blowtorch and pressed it down into the ice ball but they get too hot and the opening gets too big. We tried a spike and punctured it, but they often crack that way and using a pointed knife wasn't efficient either, that only works about eight out of ten times. A heated drill bit works every time, I usually warm up the drill bit with hot water.
What kind of moulds do you use for the spheres?
I use standard ice ball moulds, the individual ones seem to be the best, those ones with three in a tray don't work as well.
How do you put the Negroni back in the ice sphere?
We just put the drink in a bottle and pour from a spout. A pour spout's pretty small, we could have used a syringe, but a pour spout's good. Oh - one thing we learned pretty fast is that the liquid that you put into the ice ball can't be at room temperature. If it is, it goes right through. And, yes, we discovered that - we're not that smart! I put it in, the whole lot melted and I was 'duuuh'! So we put the bottle in the freezer so everything is super-cold and then that goes inside the sphere. We cap it off with a piece of crushed ice then drip cold water on top with a bitters dasher to fully seal it.
So what was the process with the Negronis?
I spent quite a bit of time trying to capture different things at different ABVs; you want to have the Negroni within the sphere still in liquid form, so when you move the ball around, you can see the liquid move inside. We had to change the ratios to get it to stay liquid. My first take on this was just putting a regular Negroni on top of the Negroni in the ice but then I thought we needed to make this a bit more interesting visually by making a white Negroni instead. So the white goes on top and you can see the red Negroni moving around in the ice sphere.
What's the best way to drink it?
Well, for the white I use a classic standard twist, a French bittersweet liqueur called Suze with a Martini Bianco and Brokers gin, which I love because it's so lemon-y. You can drink one Negroni, wait for the ice ball to crack and drink the other, or you can drink a little of the first and then crack the sphere, mix them and have a whole other drink. It's two Negronis coming together and it's just a bittersweet lovely strong aromatic drink.
What do you use for a garnish?
My understanding is that the original Negroni was garnished with a lemon slice, which didn't make a lot of sense, and as the drink became more popular it was replaced with an orange garnish which makes a lot more sense with the sweet vermouth. Thinking back, I wanted to do a lemon twist for that brightness- especially on a white Negroni - it looks beautiful. Also, I love using a lemon twist when it's what you're supposed to put on it.
And the name?
The name came about when an old manager and I were talking about it, we couldn't think what to call it and then he suggested the 'inception' a dream within a dream, for a cocktail within a cocktail it just made so much sense.
From making the Inception Negroni to serving it in six easy steps.
1. Put the ice spheres in the freezer. Mine go in for three and a half hours at minus 6.
2. Drill them them out with a drill dipped in hot water and empty the water inside the sphere.
3. Add the pre-chilled Negroni back in. I make it to a 2:1:1 Brokers gin, Campari and Sweet Vermouth recipe to keep it liquid when it freezes.
4. Cap the spheres and return to the freezer. They should be ready in about 30 minutes to an hour. You should be able to see if they're frozen, pick them up to check.
5. I tend to make a batch daily. They're getting popular and they move like crazy. The white Negroni to go on top is a 1:1:1 of Suze, Martini Bianco and Brokers.
6. Garnish with a lemon twist.