"A proper Negroni is as perfectly and tripodically balanced as, say, a water molecule. "
- Jonathan Miles
The Negroni is an incorruptible drink. While the martini can be perverted by nefarious substances like apple pucker and vodka and many places make Margaritas by simply drizzling a little tequila in a cup of sugary mix, a Negroni is a Negroni. It has three ingredients (gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari) and their proportions are set in stone. It's a straight 1 to 1 to 1. There is nothing to add or subtract, no technique to screw up. If your bar has the ingredients, the drink can be made. If one piece is missing, the whole thing is off.
Most bars have gin of some sort, and though it may be old and slightly off, they'll have some sweet vermouth, too. Campari is slightly more difficult to spot, though I must say I've been seeing it out and about quite often recently. Which doesn't mean that it's exactly used that often. From bartenders I've talked to, Campari is usually the pariah of the bar, the one bottle that most of them would never touch.
Why? Well, Campari by itself has a slightly sweet front that is immediately overtaken by a lasting bitter note that rings for what feels like minutes in the back of your mouth. What looks like Shirley Temple cocktail in the glass, is bitter enough to make your tongue quiver, and your whole body shake. If you are not used to the taste, it can seem like a horrible joke.
Campari is an Italian bitter (honestly called that) that's usually consumed as an apéritif. It's meant to awaken your taste buds, and get you ready for a meal. In Italy it is often mixed with club soda, for a refreshing and slightly fizzy drink. When sweet vermouth is added to the equation, you have an Americano. And when Count Negroni, an Italian nobleman wanted something a little stronger than an Americano, the club soda was discarded and gin took its place. Sounds like a ridiculous story, but cocktail historian Gary Regan actually backed this one up. It's one of his favorite drinks, and it's definitely one of mine.
It's a slow sipping drink and one of them is usually taxing enough on your taste buds to not need another. Like many acquired tastes, it breeds addiction. It started for me when I worked at LeNell's, a now defunct liquor store in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, which specialized in boutique liquors and an intense bitter collection. My boss used to sprinkle bitters into her water. When she was feeling sick she used to chug it like NyQuil. Whether you find that bitterness attractive or repulsive probably depends on how many times you've had the drink. After a few weeks of employment, I was hooked.
Much like excessive use of hot sauce or salt, I started sprinkling bitters in everything (gin, whiskey, water, it didn't matter). I craved that brazen, mouth puckering flavor. It awakes everything it touches. And that's really where the magic in the Negroni lies. Though too aggressive to sip comfortably by itself, something happens to Campari when mixed with the botanicals found in Gin and all the spices and herbs found in Sweet Vermouth. The drink becomes this stunningly complex puzzle, which seems to dart off in unexpected and exciting ways. Each sip revels something new. It's astonishing that so many different flavors can blend so seamlessly.
Blake and I didn't really have that much to experiment when we set out to make a perfect Negroni. Though a few lost souls on eGullet recommend adding a 1/2 ounce more of Gin than is traditional, we found that screwed everything else up. About all we could recommend was taking the extra step of stirring the drink over ice, and then straining it into a rocks glass filled with more ice. It leaves the liquid with a slightly heavy and more viscous texture. It's ready to sip, carefully, and slowly.
1 ounce Gin
1 ounce Sweet Vermouth
1 ounce Campari
Pour into a shaker filled with ice and stir for thirty seconds. Strain into rocks glass filled with ice. Serve.