Learn. Celebrate. Donate. It's Negroni Week!
Whether the Negroni is your cocktail of choice, or you're just learning about it now, this is the week to get out and order one — for charity.
If we were to erect a Mount Rushmore of cocktails, there are a few that would be unanimous picks for inclusion. Naturally, you’d expect to see the Manhattan, the martini, and the old fashioned, or perhaps the margarita, depending on who you ask. But there’s one, while beloved by bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts alike, that deserves its place as well, in the form of the Negroni. Call it the Teddy Roosevelt of cocktails, pugnacious, occasionally divisive, but no less lasting in its historical impact.
Until recently, much of that cultural footprint has been planted firmly outside of the United States, in countries like Italy, where the recipe is said to have originated. As the most common story goes, around 1919, a man named Camillo Negroni, who may or may not have been a count, asked his bartender in Florence to bolster his favored Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda) by replacing the soda with gin. Thank the spirt gods that he did, because the result became one of the most indelible, and perfectly designed cocktails in history.
One part recognition of its place in the pantheon, and one part to further proselytize it among the unconverted, this week sees the return of the third annual Negroni Week. The promotion, which began in 2013, when a group of bartenders in Portland were looking for a way to raise money for victims of a devastating tornado in Oklahoma, has now expanded to a shared charitable effort that reaches around the globe. Last year, some 3,500 bars in 41 countries took part in the effort, in which bars donate $1 from every Negroni sold to a charitable cause of their choosing. This year, according to Campari, who, along with Imbibe Magazine, now sponsor the event, over 5,000 bars from 46 countries are on board. For their part, Campari will reward the bar that raises the most money on its own with an additional $10,000 contribution.
"One of the key things about it was we decided the best approach would be to allow the bars to pick the charity they donated to," Dave Karraker of Campari says of the unique approach. "That made it personal and made it community-focused for all the bars involved, whether they’re raising money for animal shelters, the environment, clean water, anything you can imagine."
Last year, the promotion raised $321,000 for the various charities, he says. "At $1 a per Negroni, that’s a lot of Negronis!"
Karraker says it’s been a slow process getting the Negroni, and its distinctive ingredient, Campari, the bitter-sweet aperitif, to catch on in the States. Here, its last heyday was in the 70s.
"If your parents were hosting a key party, more than likely they were serving Campari," he jokes. "It was a very popular swingers drink, as they called it back then."
Throughout the 70s-2000s, the company sold about 50,000 cases per year here. Last year, that number doubled to 100,000. "For a 150 year old, super bitter, polarizing brand, that’s crazy."
He attributes the exponential growth to a number of factors: the past decades' resurgent interest in classic cocktails and mixology that has been well documented, but also the evolution of the American palate in general. While we’re typically accustomed to sweet and salty here, in Europe, palates tend to favor bitterness more readily. But over the past twenty years ours have been tweaked by an unlikely source: Starbucks.
"Coffee is inherently bitter, and we drink more coffee now per capita than ever in our history. It reeducated the palate toward bitter."
In that same time, we’ve seen the growth in popularity of other bitter food and drink, like kale, brussels sprouts, radicchio, dark chocolate, and IPAs.
"Boom. It was the perfect storm."
Still, we’re not quite on the same level as other countries around the world. The United States remains just outside of the top ten when it comes to Campari consumption, but we’re getting there.
"In markets like Italy, Germany, and France, they’ve been drinking Campari solidly and continuously for years. This a very new phenomenon here in the United States."
Despite it being the best known cocktail using Campari, the Negroni isn’t a particularly good introduction, he says. Instead, he suggests easing into it with grapefruit or orange juice. "You need something tart and sweet to offset the bitter, a nice Greyhound with a splash of Campari, or simply OJ and Campari. We call Campari a 'third times a charm brand.' You have to drink it at least three times before you even think you might like it."
Nonetheless, bartenders and acolytes swear by the Negroni, for a number of reasons. It’s 1:1:1 ratio makes it very simple to make, but also provides for a lot of dynamics going on in the glass, and an almost infinite potential for creativity, depending on what style of gin, fortified wine, or even bitter amaro you choose to make a variation with.
"I think Dave Wondrich said it best, 'The Negroni is one of the world's indispensable cocktails,' says Jared Sadoian, of The Hawthorne in Boston. "The Negroni is my personal favorite cocktail and if a Cocktail Hall of Fame were to be created, the drink would definitely be in the first class of inductees." His bar, along with roughly 60 others throughout Massachusetts, will be taking part in Negroni week. Their cause of choice is Dress for Success Boston, a local affiliate of an international nonprofit that provides women in need a network of support, professional attire, and the development tools to help thrive in work and in life.
Sadoian says that while it’s standard practice to order one in his world of cocktail bars, the public at large still hasn’t quite caught on.
"I exist in this weird bubble where I see them all the time, make them all the time, drink them all the time," he says, when asked if the cocktail is still somehow underrated. "Every time I go out to eat, I look forward to having a Negroni as an aperitif. But yeah, I guess you're right. It's usually not the first thing that comes out of someone's mouth when they hit up their local watering hole, cocktail bar or not."
Over the past year they’ve sold 473 of their house Negroni, which is about 1 percent of the cocktails they made during that time. Of course, that doesn’t account for all the many permutations of it, like the 1794, 1836, Boulevardier, Contessa, Old Pal, Left Hand, Right Hand, or Sbagliato, to name a few.
"I think part of the reason is that the drink just works, and you can't mess it up," he goes on. "Equal parts, delicious. 2:1:1, still good. Swap the gin out for something else, no problem. Forget an ingredient? Still works!"
They’ll be offering a whole menu of Negronis, including an original from owner Jackson Cannon, called the Funky Kingston, made with Smith & Cross Navy-strength rum, strawberry-infused Campari, and sweet vermouth.
"The Negroni is without a doubt a foundational classic," agrees Mathew Schrage of Highball Lounge. "It's a drink that is the basis for hundreds, if not thousands, of similar cocktails. When the recipe is right, it's damn near perfect. Strong, sweet, sour. And the origin story is one for the ages: A Count who was an Italian cowboy? Come on now."
For their charitable cause, they’ve chosen One Brick Boston, a charity they also support year round with another cocktail on the menu, and are offering up Negroni snow cones. Probably not how the old count would’ve envisioned it, but delicious all the same. Tastes do change over time, however.
"Nearly 20 years ago, when I worked at L’Espalier, my post shift drink would often have Campari, which was met with emphatic ‘how can you drink that?’" John Kessen of State Park says. "Now, it’s a lot more appreciated, but yes, still underrated."
"Though it's perhaps intrinsically an aperitif-style drink, I would drink it anytime. It has a quality that leaves me open to the next thing — drink, food, experience — as opposed to other drinks that have a more definitive feel."
His variation is called the Best Buddy, a riff on the Old Pal, which they also used in a promotion for the Best Buddies Challenge. It’s equal parts Rittenhouse rye, Cynar, and Campari. If you’re already a convert, you’ll probably love it. If not, you might just have to order three of them and wait until it all begins to make sense.