Words by: Simon Difford
James Bond drank a negroni when he wasn’t in the mood for a martini, and when Orson Welles tried his first one in 1947 he commented, “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.”
The origins of many cocktails are often the subject of debate but in the case of the Negroni it's an interchange that has become quite heated. Negroni is a very old family name and it's a family that seems to have different branches, or not as the case may be, not to mention the fact that Italian and French pride is at stake.
By most popular accounts, the Negroni affords its origins in an aperitivo popular in Northern Italy at the beginning of the twentieth century. Gaz Regan in The Negroniwrites "thanks to Dom Costa, we know that the Negroni was from the loins of the Americano, the Americano was based on the Milano-Torino, and in turn, the Milano-Torino was a variation on the Torino-Milano". The Milano-Torino incidentally taking its name from the geographical origins of its two main ingredients: equal parts Campari (from Milan) and Amaro Cora (from Turin).
The Milano-Torino is said to have been invented in the 1860s at the Caffe Camparino in Milan which was owned by Gaspare Campari. The drink was popular with Americans who during this period of economic improvement and cheaper travel were out and about in the world exerting their influence, which in this instance included requesting the addition of a dash of soda water in their Milano-Torinos, thus giving birth to the Americano.
However, both Dale Degroff in The Essential Cocktail and Anistatia Miller & Jared Brown in A Spirituous Journey take the view that the Milano-Torino already contained soda and it was simply renamed as the Americano because Americans liked it. There are other reasons given as to why the drink took that name, but this is not a history of the Americano.
The story then runs that in 1919, one Italian born Count Camillo Negroni, a reputed wide boy and regular customer at the Casoni Bar (later named Caffé Giacosa) on Tornabuoni Street in Florence, Italy, one day asked for a bit more kick in his Americano. The bartender, Fosco Scarselli responded by switching the soda water for gin and the combination became the Count's usual order. Other patrons of the bar soon started to ask for "one of Count Negroni's drinks" and after a while the drink simply became known as a Negroni.
The flamboyant count is said to have returned to Florence when prohibition was initiated in America having spent time as a cowboy in the wild-west and gambler in New York. It seems a shame to squash a romantic story but Colonel Hector Andres Negroni, in what has turned into quite a vitriolic argument, is emphatic that there is "no Count Camillo Negroni in the Negroni Family Genealogy, which dates back to the 11th Century... the true inventor of the Negroni Cocktail was General Pascal Oliver Comte de Negroni". He makes this remark as a customer review on Amazon feedback for Luca Picchi's book Sulle tracce del conte. La vera storia del cocktail Negroni. Luca Picchi is head bartender at the caffé Rivoire in Piazza della Signora round the corner from Caffé Giacosa and "knows more about the Negroni's history than anyone else" according to Alice Lascelles in her 2015 Ten Cocktails.
The Colonel is not alone with his view. In an article entitled "New Evidence Negroni was Invented in Africa - Sorry Italy" published by Drinking Cup we are told that General Pascal Oliver Comte de Negroni was a Frenchman who fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and that during a soirée with his friends "introduced the Lunéville Officers Club to his signature "vermouth-based cocktail", a drink now believed to the true source of the Negroni cocktail" It would appear that this wing of the Negroni family are able to produce letters in support of their claims for a vermouth based cocktail.
As far as hard evidence for the early existence of the Negroni in its own right goes we turn to Gaz 'finger stirring' Regan, who in his The Joy of Mixology, says that the first printed recipes he was able to find for "one of the world's finest drinks" are in two 1955 publications: The U.K.B.G Guide to Drinks compiled by the United Kingdom Bartenders' Guild and Cocktail and Oscar Haimo's Wine Digest published in New York.
Andrew Willet, in his blog Elemental Mixology has sourced a reference to the Negroni in Horace Suttons 1950 book Footloose in Italy, "in the book he suggests a couple of drinks he found to be native to Italy - the Negroni and the Cardinale". Sutton's account of the Negroni however additionally includes seltzer. The earliest recipe we could source was in Jacinto Sanfeliu Brucart's 1949 book El Bar: Evolución y arte del cocktail which has a Negroni recipe that is ¼ gin, ¼ Italian vermouth and ½ Campari. And then of course there is the reputed Orson Welles quote (above) of 1947, which he is said to have made in correspondence with the Coshocton Tribune while filming Black Magic in Rome.
Much earlier than any printed references to the Negroni, there are printed recipes for cocktails that are almost the same as the Negroni, and in one instance exactly the same.
Doug Ford in his blog Cold Glass writes "there had been a gin-heavy Campari blend called the Camparinete since the 19th century; I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Campari re-jiggered that drink's proportions, attached a plausible story, and the rest was what passes for history." We'd love to hear from Doug on his source for this recipe.
Jim Meehan in his The PDT Cocktail Book writes that "The combination of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, showed up in French and Spanish cocktail books such as J S Brucart's 1943 Cien Cocktails and L'Heure du Cocktail before being recognized universally as the Negroni. The Camparinete in Cien Cocktails is ¼ Campari, ¼ Italian vermouth and ½ dry gin. No garnish." We found an earlier reference to the Camparinete (which is why we have gone with this spelling rather than Camparinette) in Boothby's 1934 World Drinks and How to Mix Them the recipe is in the same ratios as the Cien Cocktail recipe: ½ jigger gin, ¼ jigger It. Vermouth, ¼ jigger Campari, served with a twist of lemon peel.
But most fascinating of all, the recipe for the Campari Mixte in L'heure du Cocktail published in 1929 is equal parts gin, Campari, and Italian vermouth with a lemon zest which is quite clearly a Negroni. This recipe is the earliest reference to a drink with the same ingredients as a Negroni mixed in equal parts we could find.
It is worth interjecting at this point that two years earlier a cocktail called the Boulevardier, which was made for Erskine Gwynne by Harry McElhone at his Harry's New York Bar in Paris, appears in his 1927 book, Barflies and Cocktails. Like Harry, Erskine Gwynne was an American expatriate, but he was also a socialite, nephew of railroad tycoon Alfred Vanderbilt and most importantly for this story, edited a monthly magazine called The Boulevardier, hence the drink's name. With its one and a half shots of Bourbon whiskey, single shot of sweet Vermouth and single shot of Campari Bitter this is remarkably close to a Negroni with the bourbon replacing the gin.
Just to throw another cat in with the pigeons, Andrew Willet (Elemental Mixology) sees links to the Negroni in George Kappeler's 1895 recipe for the Dundorado Cocktail published in Modern American Drinks in Chicago:
Andrew Willet writes "Calisaya bitters were (and are again) also cinchona bitters - featuring Cinchona calisaya. Campari features Cinchona officinalis. Calisaya bitters are a bit less-sweet than Campari bitters. With this in mind, we find that the Dundorado Cocktail is very close to the Camparinete Cocktail, differing only in which type of London-style gin it is based upon, which variant of cinchona bitters it is bittered with, and in the proportion of those bitters to the other liquors." Perhaps.
Glowing red in hue, the Negroni manages to be both sophisticated and simple at the same time, and is definitely for a grown up palate - for many it's simply too bitter. It has a challengingly complex flavour, makes the perfect aperitif and, though popular the world over, is absolutely de rigeur during aperitivo hour in Milan.
In line with our our preference, most Negroni recipes call for the ingredients to be mixed in equal parts. In his 2003 The Joy of Mixology Gary Regan emphatically states, "don't experiment with the proportions here - the balance is of primary importance.... and using equal parts of each ingredient is absolutely necessary to achieve perfection." However, by 2012 Gary had become Gaz and in Negroni a gaz regan notion he says, "you can slap my wrist and call me Deborah if doesn't also work no matter what ratios you use." He adds, "I tend toward around 4 parts gin to one part each of sweet vermouth and Campari".
Not Deborah but Alice Lascelles adds in her Ten Cocktails, "if you're feeling really cocky, you can even alter the balance of the formula without putting yourself in mortal danger - just make sure you always observe that holy trinity of earthy/spicy (vermouth), bittersweet/syrupy (Campari or similar Italian bitter) and strong/clean gin, vodka or even blanco tequila can work - although gin is always best, I think."
Some misguided fools call for the Negroni to be shaken but it should of course be stirred, although there is something about this no nonsense drink that does not suit fussing about with mixing glasses and strainers, so we prefer that the ingredients are assembled and mixed directly over ice in the glass. Indeed, perhaps follow gaz Regan's example and simply stir in the glass with your finger (though perhaps not when serving others).
Some bartenders choose to serve Negroni's straight up in a chilled coupe in which case it's essential to give this noble drink a good stir with the ice to provide enough dilution to open up its many botanicals. Bitter and dry, but very tasty, it takes its depth from the vermouth, is centred by the bittersweet Campari and is made to sing through the life of the gin.
Always garnish a Negroni with an orange twist or slice, the use of a lemon is a heinous crime best punished by being made to suck gaz Regan's Negroni stirring finger.
Like all great cocktails the Negroni has inspired plenty of variations:
Amber Negroni with cognac in place of gin.
Bloody Negroni with blood orange juice.
Boulevardier Cocktail with bourbon in place of gin.
Cardinale with dry vermouth.
Charente White Negroni gin, cognac, suze and lillet blanc.
Cornwall Negroni heavy on gin with orange bitters.
Dutch Count Negroni with genever instead of gin.
Kingston Negroni with rum in place of gin.
Mezcal Negroni with mezcal instead of gin.
Negroni and the Goat with different aperitivo liqueurs.
The Munich Negroni Western Style with hazlenut liqueurs.
Negroni Sbagliato with two shots of sparkling wine.
Negroni Spumante top with sparkling wine.
Negroni Tredici heavy on the gin with Cynar.
Orange Negroni with orange flavoured vodka.
Parma Negroni with pink grapefruit juice, sugar syrup, bitters and tonic water.
Peroni Negroni with lager.
Rhubarb Lucca Negroni with rhubarb liqueur.
Scotch Negroni whisky instead of gin.
Sicilian Negroni Cocktail with blood orange juice instead of vermouth.
Unusual Negroni Cocktail with Aperol and a white aperitif wine
White Negroni gin, Suze and Lillet Blanc.