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A decade ago, ordering a negroni was “a secret handshake, a sign to bartenders that you knew what you liked, and how to order it”, according to Bon Appétit magazine. In 2013, GQ magazine wrote that “a negroni, like black coffee or Texas, is an acquired taste”. A negroni is made up of equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari, the herbaceous scarlet liqueur that, according to Italian bar wisdom, begins to taste good the third time you drink it. Its botanical bitterness seemed destined to keep the negroni forever pigeonholed as an insider’s drink.
Fast-forward to summer 2021, and it has gone from arthouse to blockbuster. At the smart new rooftop gin terrace of the St Pancras hotel in London, the negroni gets headline billing on the drinks menu, ahead of the gin and tonic. You can buy negroni ready-mixed in a can for a train journey, or send a letterbox cocktail as a gift. You can mix a snowgroni (a frozen, slushy-style negroni) or order a pineapple negroni at happy hour. Head to the menswear department of Marks & Spencer and you can even pick up a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Negroni” above a cheery illustration of a tumbler full to the brim with cherry-red liquid.
The negroni is as Italian as Guinness is Irish. It begins with an Italian nobleman, Count Camillo Negroni, stopping by Cafe Casoni in Florence. It is 1919, and Negroni is recently returned to his native Italy from America, where he has been making a living as a rodeo cowboy and riverboat gambler. He asks bartender Fosco Scarselli for an americano (vermouth, Campari and soda water) but requests that the soda water be swapped for gin. The bartender obliges, switches the lemon that is traditional in an americano for orange to signify this being a different drink, and the negroni is born. As origin stories go, such far-fetched glamour seems too good to be true – but historians of the negroni have mostly concluded that it is accurate, although some quibble over whether Negroni was a count, or just the grandson of one.
But then, every fashionable cocktail has a story. Prohibition was a time of strong, sweet cocktails like the bee’s knees, which used honey and lemon to mask the unpalatable tang of bathtub gin. The Sex And The City era gave us the cosmopolitan, the It bag of cocktails, with its lurid colouring as instantly recognisable as a flash of red-soled Louboutin. The negroni is a more serious drink, as befits serious times. This is not a cocktail that sugarcoats its alcohol content, like the escapist, beach-bar-vibes mojito, or feign innocence with a topnote of Coca-Cola, like the Long Island iced tea or the Cuba libre. The effervescent sweetness of the Aperol spritz (the defining drink of the last summer of what we now know as the Before Times) is replaced by herbs and a tart sting of sharpness. Where the slender stems of martini glasses and champagne flutes evoke stiletto heels, the squat tumbler of a negroni suggests a drink you might nurse, broodingly, in a club chair.
“When I think of the negroni, the image that comes to mind is a dapper Italian gent wandering around Florence in loafers and no socks and a very good jacket,” says Richard Godwin, author, cocktail expert, and writer of The Spirits newsletter. The negroni, he says, embodies sprezzatura – an Italian mood of nonchalant, urbane elegance. “It is sophisticated. It’s very grownup, because it’s got that bitterness, which is a taste you have to acquire. But the colour, that strong Campari red, gives it just a drop of tackiness that lifts it to the heights.”
“Having a strong visual identity is a gamechanger, for a cocktail,” says Joel Fraser, co-founder of cocktail company Stir-Up, which delivers the ingredients for a different cocktail each month in a subscription box. “The Aperol spritz had it with the big tulip glass, the red, the orange slice. The espresso martini had it, too – the martini glass, the brown, the coffee beans.” All famous cocktails are a feast for the eyes. The boxes that Stir-Up sent to subscribers to make a tequila-and-agave-syrup picante de la casa cocktail each contained a dried chilli pepper as well as the bottled ingredients. As the negroni has become mainstream, the pop of colour of the traditional twist of orange peel has gradually been replaced, outside Italy, by a slice of orange, making it look more like the easy-drinking Aperol spritz, and has probably boosted its popularity.
People are hungry for a little glamour – but it’s not a champagne cork-popping moment. A cocktail hits the spot
The negroni is the poster child (just scroll for negroni wall art on Instagram) for a pandemic-fuelled cocktail renaissance. “Hard times and hard liquor go together,” says Godwin. “They have an affinity with decadence and extremes.” He traces the modern cocktail renaissance to a passionate following in bars in New York after 9/11, and again after the financial crash. Right now, the lifting of restrictions finds many people hungry for a little glamour, a little levity – and yet it doesn’t quite feel like a champagne cork-popping moment, somehow. A cocktail hits the spot.
Last year, the power of a cocktail to change the energy in a room, to deliver a shot of excitement and entertainment into featureless days of video calls and box sets, found its very own movie star in actor Stanley Tucci. A three-minute Instagram video of Tucci in a black polo shirt, making a negroni for his wife in his kitchen, has been viewed more than a million times since he posted it in April 2020. “In lockdown, we saw cook-at-home recipe boxes taking off and I had the idea to do something similar with cocktails,” says Fraser, who has spent his career working in and owning bars. “A cocktail is symbolic. There’s a thrill to it as a shared experience – kind of like going skydiving with a friend – but if you don’t want to go to a bar, you can do it in your kitchen.”
The negroni is also the perfect drink for a cocktail rookie, says Godwin, “because you can’t mess it up. It is just three ingredients in equal measures – gin, vermouth and Campari – stirred over ice in the same glass. The trick is to make sure you have enough ice. The more you use, the less it will dilute the drink, because the liquid cools quicker.” For a twist on tradition, Godwin suggests swapping the orange twist or slice for grapefruit; recently, he published a recipe for a watermelon and mint negroni. He even gives his blessing to the tin-for-the-train version. “A negroni is one of the few cocktails that works well in a can. A margarita or a daiquiri needs fresh citrus and always have a chemical taste, in a can. But you’ll be fine with a negroni.”
Of course, by the time a cocktail is a go-to brand for vintage posters on Etsy and high-street menswear, the speakeasy in-crowd have long since moved on. “You do realise you are five years too late, with negronis?” teases Godwin. The real insiders have moved on to the jungle bird, apparently: dark rum, pineapple juice, lime juice and Campari. “Every hip bar has the jungle bird on its menu now, which is the first step to ubiquity,” he says. “It’s not being served at vicarage socials yet, but it might get there.”
Classic negroni recipe
25ml Beefeater gin
25ml Martini Rosso vermouth
Pour the ingredients into a rocks glass or tumbler filled with ice cubes, stir for 10 seconds, then garnish with an orange twist. (25ml is the measure most often used in bars; if I’m feeling abstemious, I use the cap of the bottles as a measure, which is about 12ml, and a smaller glass.)
• Recipe from Aperitif: A Spirited Guide To the Drinks, History And Culture Of The Aperitif by Kate Hawkings