How the 3-ingredient Negroni made being bitter more fun
Negroni, light of my appetite, fire of my palate. That crimson bittersweet sip. Neh-gro-nee: The surface of the tongue taking a trip through three ingredients — gin, Campari, vermouth — down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Neh. Gro. Nee.
It’s everywhere now, finally getting the love it deserves, but like the infamous Nabokov novel “Lolita” I’m paraphrasing, it’s still divisive. Anthony Bourdain, a champion of the cocktail — who red-bitter-pilled me in 2006, when I attended a dinner with him and asked about the intriguingly scarlet contents of his glass — once noted in an interview, “That first sip is confusing and not particularly pleasant. But man, it grows on you.”
Mind you, it grows more on some than others. I have dear friends who still think it tastes like mouthwash.
You may recall several years back, a report in the journal Appetite suggested a possible commonality among lovers of bitter, those who take their coffee black and love arugula and endives and the quinine bite of a gin and tonic. Per the abstract, the results of the online surveys “confirmed” the hypothesis that bitter taste preferences are positively associated with malevolent personality traits, with the most robust relation to everyday sadism and psychopathy.”
As a devout convert to Negroni, I found these “studies” — or at least the way the internet digested and passed them out as clickbait — downright offensive. “I’ve spent all this time trying to persuade Negroni-fearful friends and now some Urkel in a lab coat says I may be some sort of monster!”I complained out loud to the vodka-soda drinkers I keep in the well in my basement, as I lowered a bottle of Campari to them in a little basket.
Well, we’ve come a long way, fellow psychopaths. The drink was created more than 100 years ago when Count Camillo Negroni had his regular bartender at Café Casoni in Florence add gin to the classic Italian aperitivo of Campari, sweet vermouth and soda. But it’s been a long road from there to here. Even 10 years ago, outside of the craftiest of American cocktail bars, I would still sometimes get a blank stare when I’d try to order a Negroni. I was once informed that a bar didn’t have the ingredients to make it, when I could see all three of them within arm’s length. Several times I was told the bar didn’t carry Italian beers.
That was before Bourdain’s advocacy, and long before Stanley Tucci induced a collective sigh with his early pandemic video of himself making the drink at home — a sigh that was half thirsty appreciation for his sexy bald self, half from frustrated bartenders when he suggested using vodka instead of gin and then shook what should be a stirred cocktail. Then we had Emma D’Arcy’s TikTok Negroni Sbagliato with prosecco moment, which had cocktailers confused about why prosecco was being added to a drink that already included it. (By the way, the Negroni Sbagliato is a specific drink, but since “sbagliato” basically means “wrong,” let’s acknowledge that Tucci sbagliato-ed the Negroni well before the Sbagliato got that D’Arcy bump.)
But none of those celebrity moments would have happened without the most important players here: Bartenders in those crafty bars around the world, who for decades now have embraced the Negroni and talked bitter-phobes into trying it. Moreover, they have considered the cocktail’s core parts and tinkered with them, so the drink that evolved from an Americano now has countless descendants of its own.
In an email, Linden Pride, principal at Dante’s two New York City locations and the new rooftop bar in Beverly Hills, noted Negroni’s key simplicity. “In this sense, it’s almost impossible to make a bad one,” he said. “The bitter component of the cocktail is usually what pulls you in — especially as this is a taste that is generally acquired, over time, as our palate matures.”
A classic Negroni is simple, requiring just three ingredients. But each of them is complex: Between gin (which always contains juniper but also typically other botanicals), vermouth (aromatized wine flavored with herbs and spices) and Campari (IMF agents have bungeed into Gruppo Campari to find out what’s in it, but citrus, rhubarb and bitter gentian are among many suspects), you’re talking about dozens of ingredients contributing to the drink’s flavor. And if you step back and think of the classic as just one possible iteration of a template — spirit, bitter liqueur, wine — you can get interesting variations by changing them out, leaning in on bitterness, herbality, citrus or other components.
At Caffe Dante, there’s a whole Negroni menu, featuring classic Negroni-adjacent drinks such as the Boulevardier (bourbon subbed in for gin), the Old Pal (rye, dry vermouth and Campari), and the Cardinale (dry vermouth instead of sweet), and several riffs of Dante’s creation, including Pride’s Chocolate Negroni, which uses richly bitter Punt e Mes vermouth, adds crème de cacao and boosts the drink’s aromatics via orange and shavings of dark chocolate.
Joaquin Simo — now with Alchemy Consulting — created a modern classic in 2009, when importer Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz brought a bottle of newly available Smith & Cross, “this super funky overproof Jamaican rum,” into Death & Company, where bartenders Phil Ward and Simo were working. Ward tested it out in a daiquiri. Simo went for a Negroni riff, grabbing the vanilla-bomb vermouth Carpano Antica — which he usually avoids in Negronis because it tends to take over.
He and Seed thought the result was good, but the real test was Ward — “that’s when I start sweating from all the pores in my body, and Phil took a sip and looked at me kinda funny, and said, ‘Well, it doesn’t suck.’ When Phil said something ‘didn’t suck,’ you stopped working on it,” Simo says. The Kingston Negroni “is to this day the only drink I ever got right on the first go, the only 1A version that ever went on a menu.”
Dan Greenbaum came up with his well-known Remember the Alimony — the name was toying with Cockney rhyming slang — at East Village bar The Beagle around 2012. The bar, since closed, was highly focused on sherry. “I was looking to it as a replacement for vermouth, something a little drier, and then I think of Campari as being intensely bitter, but in a brighter, more citrusy way. Cynar is a little more earthy, and to me a little less sweet.” The dry minerality of the sherry worked well, but Greenbaum adjusted the equal parts proportions, lowering the amount of gin to make sure the drink was balanced and well-integrated
There are scores of Negroni riffs now, an ever-growing brood of beautiful bittersweet babies. The classic and its spinoffs are perfect to explore at this time of year, when the cold comes on and the Big Eating Holidays lie ahead. I appreciate a drink that not only whets the appetite for the feast, but delivers a boozy boot to the head before the dinner guests arrive.
With all the ways you can adjust the template, I’m convinced that even most Negroni haters just haven’t found their exact combination yet. I plan to keep sampling, and to share more variations as I find them. In fact, if you’ll just lean in here, some of them are right down there, at the bottom of this well.
Other ways to mess with your Negroni:
• Change the base: As in the Kingston Negroni, the Boulevardier or the Old Pal. I love a mezcal Negroni.
• Change the proportions: As some folks prefer a more gin-heavy Negroni, with the Campari and vermouth dialed back to 3/4 ounce each and the gin at 1 1/2.
• Change the wine: Try using a nutty sherry, and switching the bitter for a caramelly amaro like Nonino. Or eliminate the base spirit — the Tinto de Negroni at Employees Only in Los Angeles cuts the base spirit entirely, pairing cabernet sauvignon with multiple bitter liqueurs.
• Change the bitter: Try a different red bitter (soft, orangy Aperol, or spicy Bruto Americano), or steer wider and replace it with another kind of bitter — as in the Cyn-Cyn, which uses earthy Cynar. The White Negroni replaces Campari with Suze or another gentian liqueur for a less citrusy, more herbal result.
• Change the Campari: The Kula Negroni infuses strawberries into Campari and changes out the dry vermouth for blanc.
• Change it all: The Trident swaps out all the standard ingredients for Cynar, sherry and aquavit, adding a little peach bitters, but still lands in Negroni territory.
Total time: 5 minutes
This recipe enriches the classic Negroni cocktail with a more bitter, orange-accented vermouth and just a touch of Tempus Fugit crème de cacao chocolate liqueur — a standout variation from the Negroni Sessions menu at Caffe Dante in New York City. Look for a London dry gin; Dante uses Ford’s.
Large ice cube
1 ounce gin
3/4ounce Punt e Mes vermouth
1/4ounce crème de cacao
1 wedge orange, for garnish
1 square dark chocolate, for garnish
Add the ice cube to a rocks glass, then add the gin, Campari, vermouth and crème de cacao. Stir to combine and dilute, then garnish with the orange wedge. Use a rasp grater to shave some dark chocolate over the surface, then serve.
Nutritional Facts, per serving: Calories: 185, Carbohydrates: 11 g, Cholesterol: 0 mg, Fat: 0 g, Fiber: 0 g, Protein: 0 g, Saturated fat: 0 g, Sodium: 3 mg, Sugar: 9 g.
Remember the Alimony Cocktail
Total time: 5 minutes
A great example of Negroni experimentation, this complex, bittersweet drink alters the classic equal-parts proportions, reducing the gin and replacing the traditional red bitter and vermouth with Cynar, an artichoke-based amaro, and fino sherry.
1 large ice cube
1 1/4 ounces fino sherry
1 1/4 ounces Cynar
3/4 ounce dry gin
1 strip orange zest, for garnish
Add the ice cube to a rocks glass, followed by the sherry, Cynar and gin. Stir to combine, chill and dilute. Express the orange strip over the surface, then drop it into the glass and serve.
Nutritional Facts, per serving: Calories: 165, Carbohydrates: 10 g, Cholesterol: 0 mg, Fat: 0 g, Fiber: 0 g, Protein: 0 g, Saturated fat: 0 g, Sodium: 3 mg, Sugar: 10 g.
Adapted from a recipe by Dan Greenbaum, from the “Modern Classics of the Cocktail Renaissance” app by Robert Simonson.
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Total time: 5 minutes
This Negroni variation relies on the standard equal-parts approach. Its creator, Joaquin Simo, chose the powerful vanilla-forward Carpano Antica as the vermouth that could stand up to the rich rum. Simo created the drink in 2009 at New York City-based cocktail bar Death & Co, inspired by his first encounter with Smith & Cross rum.
Ice cube for stirring, plus 1 large cube for the glass)
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce Smith & Cross Jamaica rum
1 ounce Carpano Antica vermouth
1 orange twist, for garnish
Add the ice cube to a rocks glass, and set it aside. Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the Campari, rum and vermouth, and stir to combine, chill and dilute. Strain the drink into the glass, then express the orange twist over the surface and slide it into the drink. Serve.
Nutritional Facts, per serving: Calories: 210, Carbohydrates: 12 g, Cholesterol: 0 mg, Fat: 0 g, Fiber: 0 g, Protein: 0 g, Saturated fat: 0 g, Sodium: 0 mg, Sugar: 10 g.
Adapted from a recipe by Joaquin Simo from “Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails” by David Kaplan, Nick Fauchald and Alex Day (Ten Speed Press, 2014).
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Nutritional analyses are estimates based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
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