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When Is A Negroni Not A Negroni

on 02/03/16 at 4:04 pm

a woman walks into a bar..., Booze News

negroniOne might say Gary Regan’s book, The Negroni: Drinking to La Dolce Vita, with Recipes & Lore, is the Negroni Bible. If that’s so then questioning the God of the Negroni could be considered heresy but this has been on my mind for so long that I have to write about it or implode.

Let’s start off with a quote from the introduction to the book so we have a baseline about what a Negroni is: “The crowning glory of Campari-based mixed drinks must be the Negroni. Made with equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari, the Negroni is traditionally served on the rocks with a slice of orange.” Simple. Beautiful.

Because the Negroni is so exalted, have you noticed there is suddenly a plethora of cocktails now called “somethingsomething Negroni”? Here are a couple of cocktails from the book: “White Negroni: gin, Kina L’Avion D’or, Suze, grapefruit twist” or this “White Balsamic Negroni: Cap Rock Gin, Dolin Blanc, Cap Rock Bitter, White Peach Balsamic”

The “White Negroni” doesn’t even have Campari, for god’s sake, which is essential. Call it what it is…a bloody gin drink. The Negroni’s pedigree demands fealty so why do these other cocktails think they merit the Negroni imprimatur?

A cocktail without one of the key Holy Trinity ingredients – gin, Campari, sweet vermouth – is not a Negroni. I repeat, is not a Negroni. Call it something else. Overusing Negroni for a drink that isn’t, reminds me of the ’tini’ craze as in Appletini. You know how that went. It would break my heart to see an “Appleroni” on a menu. But wait! My nightmare just came true! I saw this knock-off on a brand new cocktail menu: a “Vegroni”. Not kidding. No Campari, just red vermouth, gin, bitter orange and a lemon twist. If the cocktail is meant to be vegan by eliminating Campari because it used to be colored with carmine dye derived from crushed cochineal insects, then the Vegroni is sadly giving up its place in cocktail heaven because in 2006, Campari stopped using carmine in its production and uses red dye(!) instead. This is what’s wrong with this country.

Here is where Gary and I come to a ‘Y’ in the road and take distinctly different paths.

Gary, in his book, throws down the gauntlet: “There are people who will argue that unless the drink is made with equal parts of the trinity (gin, Campari, sweet vermouth) that tumbles into the glass and unifies as a Negroni, it cannot be called a Negroni. I’ll fight to the death for their right to say that, but they’re wrong.” Dueling pistols or swords, Gary?

Let me appeal to another cocktail authority. The estimable Ms. Rosie Schaap (bartender and booze writer was at one time a fortuneteller and a librarian at a paranormal society which gives her excellent street cred) wrote the following in Gary’s book, The Negroni: “… I don’t mess with the Negroni. The straightforwardness of its customary 1:1:1 proportions is not only elegant, it’s also a gift to anyone behind a busy bar…the drink demands equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari.” Thank you, Rosie Schaap.

And none other than Tony Abou-Ganim, one of the world’s leading pioneers and bar professionals, loves the Negroni. It’s his favorite cocktail. And that’s saying something when you think of all the cocktails Tony has tasted in his lifetime! He’s got credentials up the wazoo and here’s what he said about the Negroni when we spoke recently: “It’s a very specific drink. There are no Negroni variations. There’s only one Negroni.” I wanted to cry with relief when I heard that. There’s nothing like feeling validated by a cocktail guru. And not only that, he is strict about the 1:1:1 proportions of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. Here’s how he makes it at home: Bombay Sapphire gin, Campari and Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth. Now, to be fair, Tony admits to being a bit hypocritical because once, just once, when he was a bartender in San Francisco some years ago, he famously made a Negroni variation with Stoli orange in place of gin and called it The Tony Negroni. He’s excused.

Tony believes, when you go into a bar and order a classic cocktail, such as the Negroni, the classic cocktail is what you should expect. Bartenders love to make variations of classic cocktails, and perhaps ego dictates that the bartender thinks she knows best. And serves her cocktail to an unsuspecting guest. That, dear bartender, is a no-no. The bartender is obliged to serve the customer the true classic cocktail. However, if a customer asks to change up proportions or spirits, then cool, it’s the customer’s prerogative and a good opportunity for the bartender to introduce his or her own variation.

Gary also suggests you can fudge on the 1:1:1 proportions of the ingredients as he prefers to “Go up on the gin, the Campari or the vermouth. These three ingredients are soul mates (his words, my emphasis) and they support each other no matter how you try to fool them.” If they are ‘soul mates, Gary, then why are you defending “to the death” that using other spirits is okay, yet, still call a drink a Negroni?

Listen up to this story from Judge John Hodgman who has a little advice column in the New York Times magazine. A woman wrote that she had a decades(!) long dispute with her husband about putting cauliflower in her Caesar salad. (I plotzed) She consulted a foodie to settle the argument who sided with the woman! John Hodgman answered that the Caesar salad “is a documented, modern salad, invented in the 1920’s” defined by its ingredients – romaine, garlic, egg yolk, Worcestershire, Parmesan and croutons. No substitutions. He goes on to say, quite emphatically, “And while I can’t prohibit you from insulting that tradition with cauliflower, take credit for your innovation and call it what it is: Jillian’s Quebecois Non-Caesar.” Yes, just call it something else because it isn’t a Caesar salad.

Gary correctly points out that “there is no regulatory board governing the names of drinks” and postulates that the food world tweaks recipes while still, for example, calling béarnaise, béarnaise. I understand. He’s comparing the original Negroni with the one that has evolved into today’s beautiful cocktail, but béarnaise variations are indeed respectfully called different names, to wit:

Derivatives of Béarnaise sauce

  • Sauce Choron is a variation of béarnaise without tarragon or chervil, plus added tomato purée.
  • Sauce Foyot (a.k.a. Valois) is béarnaise with meat glaze
  • Sauce Paloise is a version of béarnaise with mint substituted for tarragon

Thusly, “The Boulevardier”, Negroni’s closest cousin, could easily have been called, according to today’s Negroni obsession, Bourbon Negroni, but whoever invented it had the decency to call this delicious cocktail an original name. The Negroni, once again, is made only with gin, Campari, sweet vermouth and an orange twist. So, bartenders, go ahead, innovate your little hearts out with ingredients, imagine that your new cocktail is a Negroni variation, but please don’t call it a Negroni. Because it isn’t.