I think about negronis a lot. A lot. Most people would find it weird. And, by “think” I don’t mean “crave” (although that may be true, too). I mean that I actually think about and reflect upon the cocktail that has captured my attention for a decade.
The latest subject of rumination is how to reconcile my two seemingly discordant views on negronis. On the one hand, I enjoy many different versions of the classic drink. At home, I experiment often. On the other hand, I disfavor misguided riffs, which I sometimes find in my glass even at my favorite bars. Leave a good thing alone, I think to myself.
Why I do welcome some types of negroni tweaks while viewing others with suspicion? The answer, I’ve concluded after much consideration, lies in the theory behind the cocktail’s basic structure. But, first a little background.
What is a Negroni?
The negroni is a classic cocktail of three equal parts: gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. To me, what makes it such a success is the balance and interplay of the latter two: bitter (Campari) and sweet (vermouth).
The blend of Campari and sweet vermouth is so harmonious that I have come to believe that the cocktail’s third ingredient is largely interchangeable, depending on mood or preference. A cooking analogy helps. Think of the bitter-sweet combination of Campari and sweet vermouth as a classic sauce. Once you’ve perfected a sauce (say, hollandaise, vindaloo, or sweet-and-sour), you can serve it over almost anything.
The same is true of Campari and vermouth. They are the sauce. What to serve with the sauce is up to you. Want something light and refreshing? Replace the gin with sparkling water. Something smoky? Try mezcal. Or, if brown liquors are your thing, use your favorite whiskey. So long as the third ingredient is a balanced, finished product that you would enjoy on its own, you can use almost anything. I’ve had success with most liquors, as well as things as far-reaching as red wine, white wine, coconut water, gose, and, one of my favorites, India Pale Ale.
Given the negroni’s origins, its versatility should come as no surprise. The negroni was said to be invented in 1919 in Florence, Italy at Cafe Casoni, where a popular cocktail at the time was the Americano, combining Campari, sweet vermouth, and sparkling water. One day, a customer asked the bartender to replace the sparkling water with gin. His name? Camillo Negroni.
Thinking of the negroni in these terms helps one understand the cocktail’s basic structure and provides a framework for successful experimentation, while avoiding ill-considered deviations. Campari is an Italian bitter digestif, also known as an amaro. Though it is delicious, there are are many other excellent bitter digestifs and apertifs, such as Aperol, Cynar, and Gran Classico, among many more. Likewise with vermouth, while I have my personal favorites, almost any decent sweet vermouth can work. And so, the structure of the negroni family of cocktails is:
1 Part Bitter Digestif or Apertif
1 Part Sweet Vermouth
1 Part Gin or Balanced, Stand-alone Ingredient
Once you grasp this structure, it’s just a game of Mr. Potato Head. Choose a bitter digestif or apertif and a sweet vermouth, and then add either your favorite gin or an alternative third ingredient.
The negroni riffs I view with skepticism are those that deviate from this essential structure. For example, a restaurant recently served me a negroni that had a heavy dose of lemon juice. To the cocktail’s essential structure, lemon juice introduced a new element – sourness – and the result, predictably, was sour, imbalanced, and unpleasant.
Does that mean a negroni should never have a fourth ingredient? Of course not. After all, many of the best third ingredients (liquor, beer, wine, etc.) are really just combinations of many other ingredients. Some gins have more than twenty ingredients. And, even the ill-conceived lemon juice could have been saved by sugar to balance the sourness. Lemon, sugar, and water make lemonade – another stand-alone that can work as the third ingredient in a negroni family cocktail. (Try San Pellegrino Limonata.)
Other additions that work are those that enhance existing flavors, rather than change them. Salt, for example, the universal flavor enhancer, I almost always include in my negroni. Similarly, bitters, which some bartenders consider their “seasoning,” make a nice addition, in moderation.
The other variable that can be tweaked successfully is the amount of the third ingredient. Remember, Campari-vermouth is the sauce. So, it’s up to you to decide how much sauce you want on your main course, the third ingredient. The drink’s standard ratio yields two parts sauce to one part third ingredient. Want to taste more of the third ingredient? Just increase its amount. Many bartenders like to do this with gin. I find it also works especially well with beer and other less assertive ingredients.
In short, negroni tweaks that honor the drink’s flavor structure work well. Of others, beware.
All of these ruminations about negronis left me very skeptical the first time I encountered the Leather Negroni at Washington D.C.’s Casa Luca. To make the drink, the bartender explained, a classic negroni was aged in a goatskin leather bag.
The first thought that occurred to me was: “Why?” One of the great virtues of a negroni is its ease. Pour the ingredients over ice and you’re done. After that, there’s almost nothing you can do to the drink that will improve it significantly, if at all. It’s my Rule of the Oyster. After you shuck an oyster, there are lots of things you can do to it – roast, fry, stew, season, etc., many of which will yield a delicious result. But, none will improve upon the way it tasted when it was first shucked, at least not in a degree that warrants the effort. Working hard on a freshly shucked oyster must make some economists squirm. Likewise with the negroni. Making a leather negroni requires time and effort. If the result is no better than when I started, what’s the point?
On top of this, I wondered, won’t leather alter, rather than enhance, the cocktail’s classic flavors? Isn’t this just another ill-fated gimmick? How is this any different from the unpleasant lemon-juice negroni that lingered in my memory?
But, then I tasted it.
One sip erased my skepticism. Casa Luca’s leather negroni is outstanding. So good in fact, that, for the past several weeks, I have been flouting my Rule of the Oyster and jumping through the many steps necessary to create the drink at home — from procuring the right goatskin bag, to seasoning the bag, to aging the drink.
With serendipity, the end of the long process happened to fall on Father’s Day. How was it? Every bit as good as I remembered. Congratulations to Luca Giovannini on such a successful innovation.
And so now, I am left wondering why it worked. Why does adding the flavor of goatskin leather – a seeming deviation from the classic structure – yield such a delicious result?
Time for more thinking.