Often overlooked for the more classic martini, the negroni proves it’s a worthy gin cocktail in its own right that shines with just three key ingredients.
TEXT CHARMIAN LEONG & MERYL KOH PHOTOGRAPHY TAN WEI TE & VERNON WONG ART DIRECTION DENISE REI LOW
When it comes to gin cocktails, the martini reigns supreme in people’s minds, followed closely by the gin and tonic. Both are classics, clear enough to look like it contains gin, and actually tastes like the botanical spirit. But it’s time to celebrate the negroni, another legendary gin cocktail that’s often forgotten. After all, it looks like a whisky cocktail and the equal parts of gin, Campari and vermouth will leave first-timers struggling to discern what they’re tasting.
That is the beauty of the negroni. Like almost all classics, it climbed its way to the top of cocktail culture with just three ingredients. And the negroni’s holy trinity makes it sweet, bitter and herbaceous all at once, with no one flavour overpowering the other.
It’s thanks to this drink that Italy was put on the map of mixology at all. It’s a country where the primary reason for drinking is eating, which explains the abundance of wines for pairing and liqueurs for aperitivos and digestivos. (Cocktails on the other hand, were largely left to thirsty Americans and Cubans.) And it is one particular liqueur, Campari, that characterises the negroni.
Campari’s signature bitterness is the negroni’s biggest barrier to entry, inviting only sophisticated palates to come and sip. The negroni is also not a gentle cocktail by any means, as there’s nothing to cover up the bite of gin. It’s surprisingly complex despite its simple makeup and belongs at the grown-ups’ table. The negroni is rarely anyone’s first cocktail but it often becomes everyone’s favourite (go ahead and ask any bartender or chef ).
So, when you’re done with the fresh and bright cocktails of your youth, settle down for this discriminating, bittersweet sunset.
The finishing touch to a negroni, where the citrus notes add some zing to the cocktail. Not forgetting the theatrical flourish that accompanies the act of flaming the peel before dropping it into the drink and serving.
ICE CUBE (OR SPHERE)
A large ice cube that has a lower melting point and will thus minimise dilution is essential to preserve the strength of the drink.
Not all gin is made equal. Some distillers are partial to a more floral profile, while others push the light fruity notes of juniper to the fore. The best botanical spirit to use is arguably the latter, which combines well with the sweetness of vermouth and doesn’t overpower the Campari.
Sweet vermouth (rather than a dry one) is what you want for a good negroni. The aromatic fortified wine easily gets along with gin, and serves to balance out the bitter notes of Campari.
Made with an infusion of herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water, this liqueur is the backbone of the negroni, giving it its distinctive bitter taste and red hue.
AT THE BEGINNING…
The older the item, the murkier its origins tend to be. But the negroni is fortunate enough to have a story that is widely accepted as canon. The drink was invented in Florence around 1919 by a Count Camillo Negroni. Not only was he Florentine aristocracy, the reportedly cheerful count worked as a rodeo cowboy for a time when he was travelling around the US. So it’s understandable that such a tough chap would start asking the bartender at the Cafe Casoni to make his usual Americano stiffer by replacing the cocktail’s club soda with gin instead. And thus the negroni was born.
One of the reasons bartenders love the negroni is that it welcomes tinkering, as each ingredient can easily be substituted for another, with marvellously unexpected results. Here, we get three award-winning bartenders to show us different takes on it.
01. AN ALTERNATIVE BASE
Campari is rarely negotiable, but the base spirit is fair game. Christian Hartman from Vasco shows us how the Latin America-focused bar does a negroni without having whisky or gin on its shelves.
A) MEXICO ‘70 MADE WITH: Mezcal, Campari, sweet vermouth, chocolate bitters
Vasco doesn’t stock any whisky, gin or vodka so as to focus on its Latin American menu. This means its negroni features tequila’s smoky cousin, mezcal, which Hartman believes works well with the dark notes of the chocolate bitters and Campari.
B) TOFFEE BITTERS MADE WITH: Campari, pisco, toffee syrup, fresh lime and orange bitters.
The tartness of the pisco works very well with the richness of the toffee and the bitterness from the Campari. You get all of the palate “stirred up”.
02. AN ASIAN TWIST
Home-grown bar Bitters & Love is known for mixing in local ingredients like kaya in its drinks. We get head bartender Naz Arjuna to do two Singapore versions of a negroni.
A) NAZGRONI MADE WITH: Gin infused with pandan and lemongrass, Campari, 1757 Cinzano Rosso
Arjuna pre-smokes the drink’s glassware in hay to impart a very subtle smoky finish to his creation. The flavours from his pandan and lemongrass-infused gin offset the Campari’s bitterness.
B) ‘HAIR OF A WOLF’ MADE WITH: Gin infused with wolfberries, ginseng and chrysanthemum, Campari, Cinzano Rosso
Similar to the first cocktail, the infused gin again helps to counter the bitterness of the Campari. This time, the use of ginger adds a mild lingering heat for an interesting finish.
03. AN ORIGINAL TAKE
Why stop at three ingredients when a host of others could make fascinating hybrids? Zack Lee, senior bartender at Tess Bar & Kitchen, shows us how.
A) T’GRONI MADE WITH: Bankes Gin, Campari, Harmony blend of camomile, green tea and jasmine flowers tincture, hot water
Negronis are traditionally enjoyed on the rocks but Lee’s floral version is served warm. He compares it to a glass of cognac diluted with a little warm water – it helps soften the drink and makes it more palatable for negroni first-timers.
B) COCO KINGDOM MADE WITH: Botanist Gin, Campari, roasted coconut flakes vermouth, spiced rum liqueur, chocolate bitters. Garnished with coconut husk and orange zest.
Unlike a classic negroni, Coco Kingdom consists of ingredients such as roasted coconut, native spices & chocolate which are more familiar to local palates.