war on the rocks

The Negroni: Debated Origins, Enduring Taste

May 8, 2015

One of the questions I used to get all the time when I tended bar was, “what’s your favorite drink?” For a while, I gave a protracted, nuanced answer, but I quickly realized that by the end of the conversation both my guests and I were distracted, as the former had gotten bored and the latter had gotten busy. I eventually defaulted towards simply saying, “I think the aviation is a good cocktail for testing a bartender’s mettle, and the old fashioned is an evergreen choice.”

In reality, asking a bartender for his or her favorite drink is like asking a carpenter to name a favorite tool; sometimes you need a hammer, others a saw. That’s the perspective I’ve always taken on my “favorite” drinks. I have a lexicon of 10-15 that I draw from. If it’s fall, and there’s a chill to the air, an old fashioned is an evergreen choice. In the dead of winter, I don’t think you can go wrong with hot buttered rum or Widow’s Kiss (with green chartreuse instead of yellow, of course). In short, what you drink should be a combination of what you love, and what the situation calls for.

Disclaimer: I’m not a snob — if you want to drink hot toddies in South Carolina in the dead of July, go for it. What follows is opinion only, and maybe a nudge in the right direction, if you’re interested. The truly “right” drink is the one that makes you happy, so take my words with a grain of salt.

As it gets warmer, it can became more challenging to make the “right choice.” The adage I’ve always heard for liquor choice was “clear in the summer, dark in the winter.” While this phrase works as a basic rule of thumb, it also facilitates people defaulting to gin and tonics and vodka sodas, which, while perfectly serviceable, are not exactly interesting to drink. There is one cocktail that, in my opinion is a perfect cocktail to transcend the seasons. I humbly submit that the Negroni is the perfect all-season cocktail.

As the title of this piece might imply, the Negroni’s origin is hotly debated. Seriously, the Wikipedia talk page on the Negroni is vicious. There are two supposed origin stories for the cocktail, and both revolve around an eponym — either Count Camillo Negroni, or General Pascal Olivier de Negroni de Cardi, Comte de Negroni. The former account is supported by anecdotal evidence. The latter is … also supported by anecdotal evidence, but also by a particularly vociferous descendant of Pascal de Negroni (who may or may not be the cause of all the Wikipedia drama).

(Editor’s note: It’s extremely confusing to delineate Count Camillo Negroni from General Pascal Olivier de Negroni de Cardi, Comte de Negroni, and from Noel Negroni. For the purposes of this article, Count Negroni refers to Count Camillo Negroni, Pascal Negroni refers to Pascal Olivier de Negroni, and Noel Negroni refers to the present day descendent of Pascal Negroni.)

In 1892, aboard the steamship Fulda, a Florentine named Conte Camillo Negroni arrived in the United States at the port of Ellis Island. His provenance as a count is up for debate, as was his job: accounts of Count Negroni as a banker, cowboy, and prominent riverboat gambler are well known in the bartending world (despite their dubious veracity). Supposedly, Count Negroni entreated local bartender Fosco Scarselli (of the now defunct Caffé Casoni) to strengthen his beloved Americano by replacing the soda with gin and serving it short, instead of as a highball. Very little evidence exists to support Count Negroni’s claim to his (supposedly) eponymous cocktail, but another Florentine, Lucca Picchi, in his book “On the trail of the Count: The True Story of the Negroni Cocktail” references a letter from 1920 wherein one Frances Harper of Chelsea writes:

My Dear Negroni: You say you can drink, smoke, and I am sure laugh, just as much as ever. I feel you are not much to be pitied! You must not take more than 20 Negronis in one day!

Not exactly a convincing story. There’s one more bit of evidence in Count Negroni’s favor, but we’ll get to that later.

In recent years, a verified descendant of the Negroni family, Noel Negroni, has built a case for his ancestor’s founding of the cocktail, citing the lack of a Count Camillo Negroni on the Negroni family tree, Noel states that the cocktail’s founder is in fact General Pascal Olivier de Negroni de Cardi, a Corsican by birth, who was born in the island’s Castle of San Colombano in 1829. Pascal Negroni’s life is significantly more interesting than Count Negroni, as Pascal was a bona-fide cavalry officer and decorated veteran of the Franco-Prussian War.

Pascal Negroni joined the French army in 1847 at the age of 18. In 1870, at the age of 41, Pascal led the charge of the cuirassiers in the Second Battle of Reichshoffen, also known as the Battle of Wörth. For his gallantry at the Battle of Wörth, Pascal Negroni would be decorated on 20 August 1870 as an Officer of the Legion of Honor. Pascal Negroni was a prisoner of war for several months later in the Franco-Prussian war, and would eventually be promoted to brigadier general in 1884. Pascal enjoyed a 44-year career with the cavalry, was appointed a Commander of the Legion of Honor in 1889, and retired in 1891 at the age of 62. General Pascal Olivier de Negroni de Cardi, Comte de Negroni died in 1913.

Prior to his service in the Franco-Prussian War, Pascal Negroni was posted as base commander to Saint Louis, Senegal between 1855 and 1865. Thanks to the preservation efforts of Noel Negroni, a letter from Pascal to his older brother Roche reads: “…Incidentally, did you know that the vermouth-based cocktail that I invented in Saint Louis is a great hit at the Lunéville officers club?” While this quote in and of itself is by no means conclusive, other accounts from pharmacists and barmaids in Senegal mention a French Army captain who spread the gospel of the Negroni throughout Dhakar. Some accounts even suggest the cocktail was a labor of love between Pascal and his wife, to celebrate their marriage. Unlike Count Negroni’s claims, these appear to be mostly grounded in reality.

The one consistency in the Negroni debate is that there are gaping holes in the arguments of both sides. Count Negroni’s case is supported by his Italian heritage, and the fact that Campari, precisely one third of the Negroni cocktail was not invented until 1860 (e.g. midway through Pascal’s deployment in Senegal). However, no record of the Negroni in its current form existed until the 1950s, so who can really say?

What’s not up for debate are the cocktail’s proportions. The Negroni is simple, easy to mix, and served up or on the rocks. It’s one ounce of London dry gin, one ounce of sweet vermouth, and one ounce of Campari. Always stir it, and garnish it with an orange peel. It’s a bitter cocktail, but Orson Welles famously said of the Negroni “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.” So drink up.

I mentioned earlier that I feel it’s the perfect all-season cocktail, and I stand by that. A true Negroni is a perfect pre-prandial cocktail. It whets the appetite and excites the palette. Its cousins, the Negroni Sbagliato (literally Wrong Negroni) and the Americano, the former with champagne instead of gin and the latter with soda instead of gin, are perfect brunch cocktails. The Negroni is light enough to drink in the summer, but has enough of a backbone to sip in the winter. Keep it over ice to refresh you when it’s warm; serve it up to warm your body when it’s cold.

Beyond that, the Negroni is perfect because it’s not just a cocktail, but also a rubric for experimentation. Swap out gin for bourbon and you have a boulevardier. Swap out normal sweet vermouth for Carpano Antica, and the Campari for Cynar and you have a darker, more robust version of the cocktail. Something about the equal proportions of spirit, amaro, and vermouth generates some of the best cocktails I’ve ever had. A favorite recipe of mine is one I affectionately called “Midnight at La Esquina,” a reference to nights spent at the taqueria cum cocktail bar in Lower Manhattan. The recipe is as follows:

Stir, serve up, garnish with flamed orange.

In closing, don’t view this as me telling you what to drink. I’m writing this hoping to offer inspiration, and hoping that after reading this you’ll head out to your local liquor store and purchase several different base spirits, several vermouths, and several amari. Once home, you’ll clamor through the door, put your spoils down on the counter, and mix yourself a cocktail to cool off from having walked all the way home with all those bottles. Maybe you’ll hate your first drink, but after some experimentation, you’ll find your perfect summer drink. Then, as the weather cools, I can only hope you’ll do the same routine again (FYI, if you’ve kept your vermouth unrefrigerated until fall, throw it out, it’s gone bad). Only this time, you’ll be experimenting for fall and winter. Whatever season it is, look towards the Negroni as your cocktail archetype. As General Pascal Olivier de Negroni used to toast: “your health before the grapeshot!” Cheers.

 

Alex Hecht is editor of Molotov Cocktail. He works as a Security Analyst in Washington, DC. Before working for the man, he managed the Gibson, a cocktail bar in DC’s U Street corridor. Alex’s life is admittedly mellower now, but his liver probably thanks him for that.

 

Photo credit: Chris Pople