There is beauty in simplicity: dial anything back, and the quality of what is there is laid bare. The same is true of many classic cocktails. When there are precious few ingredients, mixing a great drink can actually be surprisingly hard. Debate abounds as to the perfect balance for a Martini: you can order it wet or dry; some opt for an olive, while others prefer a twist; and the gin vs vodka argument rumbles on (although, I’d say both have their place). But luckily, the world of the Martini is a creative space where differences are celebrated, if not positively encouraged. Conversely, the Negroni is a classic that is not to be messed with. First ordered by Count Negroni in Florence in 1919, the drink has stuck rigidly to a set recipe ever since: equal parts bitter aperitif, sweet vermouth and gin.
In recent years, the Negroni has found fame again, coincidentally due to a three-part mix of the rise in the popularity of gin, greater awareness of vermouth, and the ease with which the drink can be made. All of this, underpinned by a robust yet fruity taste, delivers a seriously top-drawer cocktail that is understandably riding high. By way of evidence, I found myself in a busy London bar a decade ago and ordered a Negroni. Quick as a flash, I heard a crack followed by a fizz, and in front of me the bartender presented an ice-cold bottle of Peroni. Yet last month, back in the very same bar, they had not one but four versions of the cocktail on the menu. Oh, how times have changed.
Because of the utter ease with which you can mix a Negroni, and the impact each of the individual parts can have on the result, there’s a joy in making the drink at home, experimenting with different gin, bitters and vermouth. It is a never-ending experiment that can bring both wonderful and somewhat unexpected results.
The bedrock of a great Negroni always starts with the bittersweet profile from Campari. I have been a staunch Campari drinker for decades and believe it to be the very best base for this drink. But recently, I have discovered Select, the Venetian answer to Milan’s bitter hero. I first came across the aperitivo on a trip to Venice, where it had been mixed with Prosecco in a local version of a Spritz. Now, it is gaining traction as the perfect foundation on which to lay gin and vermouth. With a mix of rhubarb and juniper and an alcohol content of 17.5% (compared to Campari’s 25%), it makes for an excellent alternative ingredient.
I always look for a gin that is juniper-forward, with some hints of spice and earthy notes
The next layer of flavour comes from sweet, dark, red vermouth. There are many brands with many flavour profiles to choose from (for further reading, see my ode to vermouth), and it is worth exploring which one brings the best level of richness to your drink. Antica Formula is too luscious for me (instead try it simply served over ice, or indeed over ice cream), and Dolin too light. The classic Martini Rosso is fine, but its posher cousin Martini Riserva Speciale Rubino is just excellent, with the right balance of velvety oak and bitter wormwood.
The final liquid element is gin. And here comes the fun, as there are so many types on offer. Most are good for one style of drink, but very few are flexible enough to suit a range of gin-based cocktails. For a great Negroni, I look for something that’s not too citrus-heavy. While excellent in a Martini, Tanqueray 10 is a ‘no’ from me in a Negroni; its more pared-back sibling, Tanqueray, is a much better bet. Also left for the cutting room floor are floral gins. The likes of Bombay Sapphire are just too delicate for such a robust drink. The lavender-led notes of Cotswolds gin, perfect with tonic, are also lost when up against these bombastic Italian friends. Instead, I always look for a gin that is juniper-forward, with some hints of spice and earthy notes. I’m currently backing Plymouth, a robust gin that integrates perfectly with vermouth and bitters.
Finally, the all-important garnish. Yes, orange is perfect, and should never be left out. But the addition of rosemary just elevates the drink to a new, earthy and herbaceous level.
So this is where a decade of making Negronis has landed me: Select, Martini Riserva Speciale Rubino and Plymouth gin, served over ice with a slice of orange and a sprig of rosemary. This most minimalist of cocktails has had me running around in circles for years. But I finally have my mix locked in. That is, until I try a new vermouth or a different, earthy gin or yet another excellent bitter aperitif, and the whole process will start all over again. Luckily, there’s a lot of fun to be had in Negroni trial and error.
What Joel has been drinking…
- The common perception of Cognac is of a rich, unctuous after-dinner drink that can be as dark as the leather armchairs to which its enjoyment is so closely linked. But the excellent Delamain house prides itself on lighter styles of the French brandy. Not overpowered by oak, its expressions – such as Delamain Pale and Dry XO Cognac – give room for the grapes to sing.
- Scotland’s oldest distillery, The Glenturret, has released its oldest ever expression of single malt. Its 50 Years Old Scotch comes housed in a bespoke Lalique crystal decanter and hides a brilliantly complex and utterly moreish whisky with retained finesse and fruity, almost-pineapple notes, despite half a century resting in oak. At £40,000 a bottle, it is a slice of liquid history.
- Tequila has taken over as the spirit I’ve been sipping as a long drink with tonic. For me, the earthy notes of a good blanco Tequila, mixed with the bitterness of a tonic or the sweetness that many mixers have leaned towards recently, makes the perfect autumnal sundowner.