The Negroni: A Family Affair

Happy Negroni Week! Image: bhofack2 / iStock / Getty Images Plus (Negroni cocktails on a table and cutting board)

If you know anything about Tony Abou-Ganim you know it’s an indisputable fact that he’s passionate about cocktails, the bar business, and hospitality. You also know his cocktail of choice: the delicious Negroni. But you may not know that his relationship with the Negroni – the cocktail so iconic an entire week is dedicated to it – was not love at first sip.

“They say that even the Italians need to taste a Negroni three times to before they like it,” said Abou-Ganim in Chicago at the 2017 BAR at NRA Show. “But it's a love affair that will stand the test of time.”

Abou-Ganim first tasted the Negroni in 1991…and he spat it out. He questioned the cocktail’s bitterness and if it had been made incorrectly. Fast forward to 1993, the (in)famous Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, the Rainbow Room, and enter Dale DeGroff. King Cocktail made The Modern Mixologist a Negroni and he fell in love with it.

Hard as it may be to believe, the Negroni’s popularity is a recent phenomenon. According to Abou-Ganim, the drink was a bartender’s handshake as far back as 1995. Over time, however, Negroni riffs showed up, boosting the original’s visibility. Bartenders swapped in Aperol or Cynar for Campari and made other changes as well. However, Abou-Ganim is a purist when it comes to his favorite cocktail: “It has to be Campari or it can't truly be a Negroni.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t like riffs, of course. During his presentation Abou-Ganim talked about the Negroni as a family of cocktails. In fact, he pointed to the Milano-Torino a.k.a. Mi-To and the Americano as the grandparents to the Negroni.

The Milano-Torino was first served in the 1860s at the Caffè Camparino in Milan. Simply fill an Old Fashioned glass with ice, pour in equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth, and stir. The addition of a splash of soda and a half-slice of orange created the Americano. Incidentally, the Americano is actually the first cocktail James Bond ever ordered.

In the early 1900s, Count Camilo Negroni was drinking an Americano in Florence, Italy. While sipping his the drink at Caffè Giacosa – which became Caffè Casoni and then Caffè Cavalli for those of you planning to take a global cocktail expedition – the count decided he wanted more of a kick. The bartender kicked out the soda water, added an equal part of gin to the Campari and sweet vermouth, kept the orange slice garnish, and the Negroni cocktail was born.

As Abou-Ganim tells it, Orson Welles is to be credited with bringing Campari and the Negroni to America. Over time, the Old Pal was created: Canadian rye replaces gin, dry vermouth takes the place of sweet vermouth, and a slice of lemon stands in for the orange. The recipe maintains what Abou-Ganim says is the key to the Negroni’s success: the 1:1:1 ratio of ingredients.

Another member of the Negroni is one of the first to deviate from the equal parts formula. Calling for 1.5 oz. of tequila, 1 oz. of Campari, and a half-ounce each of both dry and sweet vermouth, the Rosita is finished with a dash of Angostura bitters and both orange and lemon swaths.

Like many of us, Abou-Ganim discovered the Boulevardier about 5 years ago. Now, there is some debate whether or not this cocktail is a riff on the Negroni or a standalone cocktail. What isn’t disputed is that the Boulevardier was created in 1927 at Harry’s Bar in Paris. Add 1.25 oz. high-rye bourbon (Four Roses Single Barrel, Bulleit, Basil Hayden’s, Old Grand Dad), 1 oz. Campari, and 1 oz. Cinzano 1757 to a rocks glass filled with ice, stir, and garnish with an orange twist to make Abou-Ganim’s version.

The Negroni family is rounded out by the Sbagliato or Negroni Sbagliato. This cocktail is believed to have been created in 1968 at Bar Masso in Milan. It’s also thought that, as the name implies (spagliato is Italian for “bungled” or “mistake”), the bartender who invented this riff mistakenly substituted sparkling wine for gin. Campari, sweet vermouth and the orange peel remain, as does the equal parts formula.

So there you have it. Get involved this Negroni Week (June 5 through June 11) and feature the full family of this legendary cocktail. With your help, this year's Negroni Week can break the million-dollar mark for charitable donations. Cheers!