Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
For the past five years, Imbibe magazine and Campari have teamed up during the first week of June to celebrate Negroni Week, a time when restaurants and bars worldwide raise money for various charities by toasting the aperitif that was created in the early 1900s. The first Negroni Week, in 2012, raised barely $100,000 for charity. Last year’s event raised over $400,000, bringing the five-year total to just under $1 million. And although the negroni is my favorite cocktail, it’s doubly satisfying to know that my purchase is benefiting a charity.
What’s a Negroni?
There are many stories relating to the creation of the negroni — the most popular one is that it was created in 1919 at the Caffe Casoni in Florence, Italy. Count Camillo Negroni is said to have asked bartender Fosco Scarselli to strengthen his favorite cocktail at the time, an Americano consisting of equal parts of Campari and sweet red vermouth with a splash of sparkling water and garnished with a lemon peel. Scarselli substituted the sparkling water with gin, but instead of simply adding a splash of gin, he added it in equal parts with the Campari and sweet red vermouth and then garnished it with an orange peel.
The cocktail became so popular that the Negroni family created the Negroni Distillerie in Treviso, Italy, and began bottling a premade version called Antico Negroni. Orson Welles enjoyed it so much that he was quoted as saying, “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.”
It would be another 70 or so years before I sampled my first negroni. I distinctly remember that experience. It was at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley, Calif., where it was listed as “The Perfect Negroni,” using both dry white and sweet red vermouth. I had always been intrigued with that bitter red liqueur, Campari. It had an intense bitterness along with orange notes and herbal qualities. The thought of combining it with gin (my favorite libation) and the herbal-sweet qualities of two different vermouths piqued my interest enough that I had to order it. With that first sip, a new liquid romance was born.
More than 25 years later, I have developed my own “perfect negroni” recipe. I prefer Bafferts gin because it isn’t as heavy on the botanicals as traditional gin, which seems to clash with the herbal qualities of the Campari. The Dolin Blanc and Carpano Antica both provide the aperitif a nice body and the orange bitters give it that final je ne sais quoi . . . the indescribable flavor.
1 oz. Bafferts gin
1 oz. Campari
2/3 oz. Dolin Blanc (dry white vermouth)
1/3 oz. Carpano Antica (sweet red vermouth)
3 drops of Fee Brothers orange bitters
Pour into a cocktail shaker filled with frosty ice and shake vigorously (there is no such thing as bruising a liquid), then strain into a chilled martini glass and serve with a twist of orange peel.
Before you go out and buy bottles of gin, Campari and vermouth, keep in mind that the negroni isn’t for everyone. Remember, it’s 100 percent alcohol — there are no mixers in the recipe (a 3-ounce serving contains the same amount of alcohol as a 5-ounce serving of Zinfandel wine). Second, it’s bitter, and third, did I mention that it’s bitter? That’s why it makes for the perfect aperitif or premeal cocktail. The bitterness and herbal qualities stimulate the appetite.
But, different strokes for different folks. A co-worker from my previous job tasted my negroni. He’s a local Okinawan, so he thought he’d be fine with the bitterness, as bitter melon is used in many Okinawan dishes. At least he was polite with his assessment: “I don’t think I like this,” he said. Another current co-worker who likes gin purchased a bottle of Campari and vermouth and served the negroni to his wife. She wasn’t very polite. “You get that bottle of Campari out of the house because I might accidentally use it,” she ordered.
As with all classic cocktails, adventurous mixologists have started creating their own versions:
Negroni Sbagliato: Substitute Prosecco for the gin
Boulevardier: Substitute bourbon for the gin
Old Pal: Substitute rye whiskey for the gin
Negroni Week in the 50th
The Nook Neighborhood Bistro hosted a negroni tasting, including five varieties of the negroni along with paired antipasti.
• Classic Negroni
Sipsmith gin, Carpano Antica formula, Campari
• Negroni Sbgaliato Rose
Campari, Zucca Rabarbaro, sparkling Rose, rhubarb
• Shiitake Negroni
Sage Garden gin, Del Professor y Rosso, Campari, shiitake stock
• Aged Hawaiian Negroni
Fid St gin, Carpano Antica formula, Campari, kiawe
• Nos Encarta Negronis
Espolon reposado, Xicaru silver, Carpano Antica formula, Ancho chili, Campari, Xocolatl Mole bitters
It was a bit amusing to see the Mrs.’s negroni epiphany. She concluded that my perfect negroni wasn’t the classic recipe I thought it was (the dry white vermouth brings out the bitterness of Campari) and that the classic recipe, which uses only sweet red vermouth, tempers the bitter bite of Campari. So she is now a fan of the classic! She also enjoyed the Aged Hawaiian, which had a touch of smoky sweetness. We both agreed that the Nos Encarta, which used two types of tequila instead of gin, was another highlight of the tasting. For the record, I thought the Shiitake Negroni had a rich umami quality that complemented the herbal notes of the vermouth and Campari.
If I have piqued your interest, but you are still a bit leery about the potential bitterness or alcoholic content of the cocktail, consider Gruppo Campari, which produces a Campari with “training wheels,” so to speak. It’s called Aperol. With less than half the alcohol of Campari (11 percent vs. 24 percent), a little less bitterness and a little more sweetness, it’s the perfect happy medium. It’s great on those hot summer days just served over ice or as an Aperol Spritz — three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol, one splash of club soda — which is the Mrs.’ favorite Aperol application. Sampling Aperol may give you enough liquid courage to take off those training wheels and sample the real bitter red, Campari . . . in a negroni, of course!
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”