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The Negroni Variations

Nope, it's not a classical piece composed by the Italian equivalent of Johann Sebastian Bach featuring the Italian counterpart of Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. (Insert Woody Allen joke: "I-I don't know anything about classical music ... for years I thought The Goldberg Variations were something Mr. and Mrs. Goldberg tried on their wedding night."  ba-da-BUMP!)

It is, in fact, a few great ideas by bartenders both local and afar on how to take that classic combination featured in the Negroni -- equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari -- and tweak them to take the drink into other dimensions. The basic Negroni formula lends itself quite nicely to variation of spirits and even in the bitter element, despite Campari seeming quintessential to the drink. I’ve sampled many lovely versions that take the gin-Campari-vermouth formula to something more like spirit-bitter-aromatized wine. Enthusiasts, here are some things to ask your bartender to try next time you go out.

Lots of people find the standard Negroni too sweet, and will bump up the gin to 1.5 or even 2 ounces. I'm a fan of the slap across the palate that's called the Cinnabar Negroni, invented at the late, lamented Glendale restaurant for which it's named.  Keep the vermouth and gin at 1 part but bump up the Campari to 2 parts, and add a couple dashes of orange bitters.  We've been fans of this one for years, and it's perfect for Campari lovers.

Jason Schiffer at 320 Main in Seal Beach, CA uses the relatively new Gran Classico Bitter in one of my favorite recent twists on the Negroni, swapping the gin for its malty progenitor, Dutch genever, and bringing down the other two components. If you still haven't tried Gran Classico, do -- it's based on a recipe from Turin from the 1860s and contains bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb and wormwood among its botanicals. It’s got quite a bitter punch, not unlike Campari but with a less bright, rounder, deeper flavor. It’s being directly marketed as a Campari substitute, even recommending its use in cocktails like the Negroni, Americano or spritzer. In this drink the maltiness of genever with the citrus oils accenting the citrus notes in the bitter work beautifully here; this one didn’t last long the last time we visited 320. They’ve just changed their menu and this cocktail isn’t on it anymore, but they’d still be happy to make you one. If you’re in Southern California, and especially if you’re in Orange County, you need to drink here — it’s the best place to get a drink for many miles. The food’s terrific, too. Duck mac ‘n cheese? Oh my.

(320 Main, Seal Beach, CA)

1 ounce Bols Genever.
3/4 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth.
3/4 ounce Gran Classico bitter.
Lemon and orange peel & oils.

Combine with ice and stir for at least 30 seconds. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass. Express the oil from the lemon and orange peels onto the surface of the drink, and garnish with the peels.

None of this is particularly rocket science, as I’m sure you’ve caught on to. Substitutions of spirits, bitter and aromatized wine that basically hew to the basic Negroni formula are often quite tasty, and great springboards for experimentation.

Last time I was at the venerable Vessel* in Seattle, bartender Jim Romdall made me a lovely, spicy, bracing Negroni variation using a very different style of gin, the aforementioned Gran Classico Bitter, and a different vermouth to kick up the spice and bitterness profile a notch.

Ransom Old Tom Gin comes from Ransom Spirits in Oregon, and is their recreation of one possible expression of the 18th and 19th Century style of gin known as “Old Tom.” It’s lightly sweetened, sweeter than a London dry style, where the juniper is not so forward as in the latter. I’m not sure of the botanicals that go into Ransom, but they provide a nice, peppery spice profile, and the color comes from an amount of barrel-aging roughly equivalent to what the gin might have picked up while being shipped over from the Old Country in barrels. They developed the spirit in collaboration with writer, historian and monarch of the Hereditary Principate of Drunkistan, David Wondrich. If you’re looking to recreate a spirit from the mid-1800s, he’s probably your man. Or prince. Or … well, you get the idea.

Ransom works wonderfully in a Negroni, and Jim kicked it up with the new bitter on the block as well as my second-favorite vermouth after Carpano Antica, most coincidentally made by the same folks.

Feel free to vary the proportions to adjust to your preferred level of sweetness; this is just a guideline.

I don’t remember what Jim called it, but for the moment this will do:

(as served by Jim Romdall at Vessel, Seattle)

1-1/4 ounce Ransom Old Tom Gin.
1 ounce Gran Classico Bitter.
1 ounce Punt E Mes.
Orange peel.

Stir with ice for 30 seconds, strain into a chilled coupe, garnish with the orange peel. You know the drill.

[* – Vessel is currently closed, having lost their lease at the old location. They’re working hard to reopen in a new space (which I think will have parking, yay!) by late spring or early summer 2011. That’s a grand reopening party I don’t want to miss.]

This is a drink that I think should get a lot more attention than it does, 'cause it's damned good.  It isn't a Negroni variation per se, as it developed quite independently from that drink, but fits in with them quite nicely.


1-1/2 ounces Bourbon whiskey
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth.

Stir and strain. Garnish with orange slice, lemon twist or cherry at your discretion.

Ask for it by name!

This next one is the one that's been killing me lately, and I mean in the best possible way. As with so many of us, I just can't get enough Smith & Cross rum. This "traditional Jamaican" navy-strength rum (coming in at 100 English proof, i.e. 57% alcohol by volume) is so packed with flavor and funk and "hogo" that a bottle doesn't last long on our shelf. I like it so much I briefly considered pouring a bottle into my humidifier so that I could breathe it. Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz, whoi imports this stuff, should be canonized for bringing this to us alone, not to mention all the other wonderful things he provides -- Batavia arrack, Crème de Violette, allspice dram, Old Tom gin, Cocchi Americano ...

I had forgotten what this drink, first sight of which came from bartender Joaquin Simo at Death & Co. in New York was actually called and started calling it the "Funky Negroni" -- fortunately Sporting Life member Garret Richard (currently drinking his way through New York) reminded me it's really called ...

(adapted from Joaquin Simo, Death & Co., NYC)

1 ounce Smith & Cross Jamaican rum
1 ounce Campari
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth (Carpano)

Stir & strain, no garnish.

Don't ask for that one by name, because nobody will know what the hell you're talking about.

Finally, here's one that came about one night when Chris Day and I were talking about cocktails in Google Chat. Our Boulevardier and Funky Negroni got together and had a demon spawn, which is actually amazingly good.  I wondered if the strength of this whiskey would overwhelm the Campari, but when I tried it with equal proportions I didn't like it as much. The Campari is still there in the standard Boulevardier proportion, but it's less assertive.  That said, Wes and I both preferred the version below; the balance is really nice.  Your mileage may vary; try it 1:1:1 if you like, and see if you like it. Justin Burrow in Houston said, "That drink should be called the "Naptime.'" That gave me the idea to call it this:


1-1/2 ounces George T. Stagg Bourbon
1 ounce Carpano Antica
1 ounce Campari
1/4 ounce Smith & Cross rum

Combine the first 3 ingredients with ice, stir and strain into a chilled coupe. Float Smith and Cross onto the surface of the drink. Lemon twist.

Make sure someone else is driving you if you have this one.

Finally, if you're anywhere near Bar 1886 in Pasadena, especially on a Sunday, ask Brady to make you one of the beer-topped Negroni's he's been working on with Marcos.  A premixed Negroni is chilled, undiluted, then poured into a highball glass and topped with a Hefeweizen.  Crazy good.

So, things to try, folks!

The basic Negroni formula lends itself quite nicely to variation of spirits and even in the bitter element, despite Campari seeming quintessential to the drink. I’ve sampled many lovely versions that take the gin-Campari-vermouth formula to something more like spirit-bitter-aromatized wine.
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