The Negroni cocktail is a delight to the eye, handsome in a rocks glass, clear and red.

It is “not for fence-sitters,” as Mark Kingwell observes in his amusing Classic Cocktails, A Modern Shake.

A proper Negroni is fully one-third Campari, and that’s a lot of Campari by anyone’s reckoning. That bitter astringence is an acquired taste, and after the first sip you already know that you want to learn more about it, or you swear off forever.

Kingwell, clearly an enthusiast, goes on to describe the drink thus:

“The negroni is a deceptively elegant ruby-colored slammer, aromatic, bright, and clean-tasting. It is resonant of outdoor cafés and reclining dolce-vita evenings; it will, like a gorgeous but wicked lover, drain your resistance…”

I’m reluctant to accept the standard lore that the drink was invented in post-WWI Italy, since it doesn’t appear in cocktail manuals until mid-century. According to Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology, it shows up in a couple of 1955 manuals; there is no mention of it in the 1932 Savoy, nor in the 1958 revision of Embury’s Art of Mixed Drinks. The story of the famous Count Negroni may be as much a product of brilliant Campari corporate PR as of historical fact.

The Negroni Cocktail in Waterford Lismore, photo © 2010 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Negroni Cocktail

There is a predecessor to the Negroni called the Camparinete. Its first publication was in Boothby’s 1934 World Drinks and How to Mix Them. Boothby’s formula called for an ounce of gin to half-ounce each of Italian vermouth and Campari. The modern formula for the Camparinete is usually the same as the Negroni, equal parts of each ingredient. CocktailDB lists a slightly amped 4:3:3 formulation.

If you google “Negroni,” you’ll find any number of blog comment chains that complain about bartenders that ramp up the gin portion from the standard equal-parts formulation, on the apparent reasoning that the customer couldn’t possibly have meant to order something with that much Campari. I have sampled up-ginned versions, particularly the 3:2:2 that David Wondrich recommends in Killer Cocktails; to my taste, the extra gin muddles the flavors and unbalances the drink. Perhaps it would be okay if I found the right gin, but for now I’ll stick with equal parts.

The Negroni can be served up, in a chilled cocktail glass; or in a rocks glass, with or without ice. There are some who say you should garnish with a lemon twist, but orange is the more traditional Campari accompaniment. Dale DeGroff recommends flaming the peel in The Craft of the Cocktail.

Here’s my take on it:

The Negroni Cocktail

  • 1 part Campari
  • 1 part Gin
  • 1 part Sweet Vermouth

Stir with ice; rim a chilled rocks glass with orange, add ice, and pour the chilled mix. Flame the orange garnish and add to the glass.

I have a long-standing preference for very traditional, middle-of-the-road London dry gins like Bombay Dry and Beefeaters, but the Negroni seems to welcome some of the newer infused gins. I’m thinking particularly of a Negroni made with Hendrick’s gin, served at Harvest in Madison WI. The cucumber nose of the Hendrick’s added to the complexity of the drink, and seemed to open up the tightly-wound Campari, lightening the flavor pleasantly.