Summer is well on the way, high season for cocktails – and the Negroni, that heady mix of Campari, gin and vermouth, is the cocktail di giorno. One measure: the Campari Group’s net sales reached €1.8 billion in 2017, up a quarter from 2012.
For those on a journey from the gateway drug of gin to the martini, a splash of Campari opens new complexities of bittersweet bliss. And for all of its Italian origins, a British undertone hums through the story of the Negroni, a drink the colour of a London Routemaster or a K6 telephone box.
Kinglsey Amis was among its fans, saying ‘It has the power, rare with drinks and indeed with anything else, of cheering you up.’ When James Bond meets the villain Kristatos in Ian Fleming’s 1960 short story Risico, each man’s drink tells you all you need to know about their character. The Greek smuggler’s Alexandra is a tall-stemmed glass of cream and vodka, while the waiter conveys Bond’s order as ‘Negroni. Uno. Gordon’s.’
The cocktail itself was apparently invented in 1919 by Cammillo Luigi Manfredo Maria Negroni, a curious Florentine fellow with British heritage. He was the son of an Italian count and a woman from Worcestershire. His poet grandfather Walter Savage Landor was a friend of Coleridge, Trollope and Browning, who landed in Italy after being thrown out of Rugby, Trinity College, Oxford, and, periodically, his family home.
Unfortunately, there are two Counts Negroni, one Italian and one French. Both of their descendants, shockingly, think their claim at least as good as the other’s. But we can trace Cammillo reasonably well—to the passenger roster of the steamship Fulda, bound in 1892 for New York.
Then, 10 years later, to an address at 624 Madison Avenue where he lists his occupation, in the city business directory, as a fencing master. It makes sense he would add an equal drop of gin — a taste for which he surely developed during a previous trip to London — to a vermouth-Campari concoction called the Americano, which was topped up with soda.
That an Americano is the first drink Bond orders when we first meet him in Casino Royale (1953), reasoning ‘in cafés you have to drink the least offensive of the musical comedy drinks that go with them.’
Just as 007 finds it a satisfying shift from the Americano, the Negroni’s rise in Britain forms part of the volte-face away from disco drinks, piña coladas, and a peculiar postwar fascination with vodka. A spirit with ‘no flavour, and tastes of whatever you put in it,’ says Paolo Tonellotto, an Italian who runs a basement cocktail bar, Demon, Wise & Partners, on Throgmorton Street in the City.
Instead, for the last 10 years, ‘we see bartending getting more involved with amari (bitter spirits) and vermouth,’ Tonellotto says.
For drinkers not willing to make the entire journey in one step, he recommends weaning them in on the Negroni sbagliato—prosecco, gin, and campari—reasoning ‘it has quite decent residual sugar—it will not only lift, but add sweetness to a drink—it could well be the easiest of the Negronis to start with in terms of flavour profile.’
Negroni’s popularity stems partly from the simplicity of its preparation—equal measures of the three ingredients over ice, stirring well, longer than you’d think, then garnishing with orange.
Its allure also resides in being something bartenders themselves will drink, adds Oscar Dodd, spirits buyer at Fortnum & Mason.
‘If you work in a bar you’re not allowed to drink that much, but you might have one drink,’ agrees Tonellotto. ‘If you can have one drink during a busy Friday night, you kind of want to make it count, something that’s going to deliver.’
It also helps, as a first cocktail to mix at home, that the Negroni is ‘a hard drink to make badly, and even if the ratios change, the drink tends to work quite well anyway,’ says Gary Regan, an Englishman who is Bartender Emeritus at New York’s The Dead Rabbit and author of The Negroni: Drinking to La Dolce Vita.
But what exactly should we put in our Negronis? Campari is Campari, and the second gin craze (there was one, too, in the 18th century) has left us with no shortage of alternatives there. But which vermouth should we plump for?
It ‘has to be medium-bodied, so as to stand up to the gin and Campari without dominating the drink’ says Regan, adding ‘Antica Formula, as far as I’m concerned, is far too vanilla-forward to work well here’, whereas Dolin and Noilly Prat, with their astringency and sweetness, are ‘just about perfect.’
And as English winemakers now try their hand at vermouth, we are nearer to a two-thirds homegrown Negroni. Alison Nightingale, owner of Albourne Estate in Sussex, thinks her Albourne 40 makes for ‘a lighter style Negroni with an English fingerprint on it.’
It does indeed yield an acidic, dry crisp crispiness, its oak botanicals neatly balancing the orange in the Campari. Though others swear by the bitter edge of Cinzano 1757.
In any case, the Negroni’s popularity is ‘living proof’ that taste in cocktails has become ‘far more sophisticated’ over the past decade, says Regan.
It is a cocktail of something as boldly British as gin maturely venturing into the world but making its own relationship with it. It’s not Berlusconi’s cocktail, but follows Byron on the Grand Tour, Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw to the Vatican in Middlemarch.
What we drink —as with Bond and Kristatos —tells us who we are. And the rise of the Negroni tells us we are at last growing up.