Spirits: Improving the Negroni

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

When I'm working (i.e., traveling and drinking), there are times when I feel a little like that woman in Ernest Hemingway's classic short story "Hills Like White Elephants." Sitting at a bar in a Spanish railway station on a hot afternoon, trying to avoid another quarrel with her boyfriend, she orders a glass of anisette. In what may be one of the most cynical lines in American literature, she tells him : "I wanted to try this new drink. That's all we do, isn't it -- look at things and try new drinks?"

It was with a similar sense of ennui and cynicism that I entered the summer drinking season. Through fall, winter and spring I'd tried so many new spirits, a never-ending line of product launches ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Likewise, I'd tried so many new cocktails, invented almost daily by the ever-growing horde of mixologists who work for liquor companies and high-end cocktail bars, all trying to out-innovate, out-clever or out-classic one another.

When it came time for me to choose a summer drink, I was so sated with The New that I decided to go back to an old standby: the Negroni. For a long time, I'd considered the Negroni to be just about the perfect cocktail. Equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, with a little orange peel garnish, the Negroni is so simple that even the worst bartender can't mess it up too badly. It's more forgiving than a martini, a better summer afternoon cocktail than a Manhattan and certainly sexier than, say, a gin and tonic. It was one of the first cocktails I'd taken to drinking as a young man, and I was very much looking forward to getting reacquainted with my old friend.

But here's the thing. When I mixed up a batch of Negronis a few weeks ago, my reaction, to my surprise and chagrin, was pretty much: meh. In theory, I wanted a Negroni, but in reality, the Negroni was lacking something. That distressed me: What if all the fancy-schmancy tasting I've been doing lately has irrevocably rewired my palate? What if I can never again go back to being the young, carefree person who loved nothing better than the simple pleasures of a Negroni in summertime?

My solution: I would use my hard-won cocktail wisdom and experience to re-engineer, and possibly improve, the Negroni. Starting with the classic Negroni formula and then deviating from it, I would illustrate how nearly all good new cocktails evolve. In doing so, I would also reclaim my old drink and perhaps a part of my youth. Or something like that.

At first I thought the Campari was the problem. I'd been tasting a lot of different bitter spirits lately, including several obscure local Campari competitors from Italy. Perhaps Campari now seemed a little too old hat? So, to start, I stirred up a Negroni alternative that I've written about before, the Cin-Cyn, which substitutes an artichoke-based bitter called Cynar for the Campari. That was a good start, but then I thought maybe the sweet vermouth was bugging me, too. So I made something called a Berlioni, which I'd seen on a cocktail blog called Oh Gosh! (http://ohgo.sh). The Berlioni had a slightly tweaked ratio: 1 ounce of gin to 1/2 ounce of vermouth to 2/3 ounce Cynar, and the vermouth was dry instead of sweet. That was pretty good, too.

But then I decided to switch gins. I'd been using Tanqueray, and I shifted to Hendrick's, softer with rose and cucumber notes. And because I did that, I figured I'd switch out the dry vermouth for Lillet Blanc. And also trade Cynar for Aperol, which is Campari's sweeter, sunnier, bright-orange cousin. After mixing those three, I now had an Unusual Negroni. Which I liked, but since I'd already written about it in a previous column, I decided I wanted something different.

I abandoned the Lillet Blanc and the Hendrick's and went back to Tanqueray, sweet vermouth and Aperol, which made a decent drink called a Contessa. At which point I realized the problem hadn't been the sweet vermouth or the Campari at all: It was the gin. And so I put away all the gins, pulled out my two favorite spirits -- bourbon and tequila -- and took a deep breath. Having made that definitive move, I finally was on the path to two summer cocktails.

For the first, the always-excellent cocktail blogger Paul Clarke at Serious Eats (http://www.seriouseats.com/cocktails) showed me the way. He'd recently suggested a drink called an Agavoni, which replaces the Negroni's gin with blanco or silver tequila. (Get it? Agave, Negroni.) With a twist of grapefruit peel, the Agavoni is a revelation, an amazing cocktail either on the rocks or straight up.

But even the Agavoni took second place (by a whisker) to another Negroni alternative. I don't know whether I was channeling Hemingway, but I found this cocktail in a forgotten bartending guide, published in Paris in the 1920s, called "Barflies and Cocktails." In it, a drink called the Boulevardier is described: equal parts bourbon, sweet vermouth and Campari. I added a bit more bourbon to the mix, but this drink is in every way the equal to the classic Negroni. In fact, better.

Meaning, I guess, that looking at things and trying new drinks does occasionally have its rewards.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company