The Negroni is not a cocktail for beginners. It might be simple to make with just three stirred ingredients (Campari, gin and sweet vermouth), but its flavors are devilishly complex and layered with bitter, medicinal notes and zesty hits of grapefruit peel and juniper. Once you do develop a taste for the aperitif, though, you’re hooked.
Over the past few years, the Negroni craze has become so intense that there are now seven full days of celebration dedicated to the cocktail. Started by Imbibe Magazine in 2013, Negroni Week has grown into a nationwide event during which bars offer Negronis, Negroni variations and Negroni-inspired treats, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity. In honor of 2017’s Negroni Week, we asked bartenders from across the country to tell us about their first Negroni experiences. Here, they tell their stories.
Cure, New Orleans, LA
“My first Negroni came a bit late in life. Living right outside of Philly, I really only worked in sports bars and dealt with mostly craft beer. When I had free nights, I would try to venture out and find a nice cocktail bar, but usually stuck with whiskey or tequila cocktails. When I moved to New Orleans, I noticed a heavy amount of gin cocktails everywhere and decided to better educate myself and try a different one each night. Coincidently my first stop was Cure, the bar I would end up working at almost one year later. I explained to the bartender my interest in trying gin cocktails and without hesitation they asked, ‘Have you ever had a Negroni?’ I said, ‘No, but I've always wanted to try one!’ I glanced at its dark red color, smelled its aroma and took my first sip, and thought, ‘Wow, this is terrible.’ But as I sat there talking to the fellow bar guests, sipping my cocktail I suddenly realized that it was almost empty and I, for some reason, really wanted another. While sipping on my second, I realized I was hooked, the bitterness was shocking at first taste but pleasant after continuously sipping. My life forever changed that day.”
New York City, NY
“I honestly do not remember my first Negroni, but I do remember the first time I drank Campari. I had this Campari ad hung on my wall in high school and I vowed to drink this stuff that looked like classy Kool Aid once I was legal. I could not believe that something that looked so good could taste so bad. I had a really sensitive palate when I was a kid, and lived on milk and buttered noodles. I love a Negroni now.”
The Mina Group, San Francisco, CA
“The first time I had a Negroni was probably seven years ago when I first started working at Kimpton Hotels. I had just been hired at the Fifth Floor Restaurant by Jacques Bezuidenhout and was going through training making Martinis and some of the cocktails on the menu. There was a whole menu devoted to Negronis: classic, Sbagliato, white and a Winter Negroni. I made all of them and tasted all of them, and that's not only when I fell in love with the Negroni, but cocktails in general. It was amazing tasting all the differences in the drinks even though there were only small changes in each. As time went on, I, Jacques, Kevin Diedrich and Brendan Dorr went on to form "Negroni Band,” which Kimpton promoted, and we actually threw a "Negroni Band" party at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where we basically dressed up like an ‘80s hair band with legit promo photos and a video. It was pretty badass and probably one of the most memorable moments in my bartending career.”
Polite Provisions, San Diego, CA
"Early in my career, I remember reading about Negronis and seeing them all around, and I knew it was a cocktail that I was supposed to like. My first Negroni was from a bar near the capitol building in midtown Sacramento, where politicians would visit to enjoy a well-made classic cocktail. I wish I could say it was love at first sight—the color of the cocktail makes you think it will be playful, but I wasn’t prepared for the bitterness. Since then, I’ve grown to love the cocktail, and it’s become a part of my life. Negronis taught me that not every flavor is going to be easy, and sometimes it’s best to gradually learn to work with certain flavors and concepts. I always push our staff to let guests know what they are ordering. If we’re reaching for a bitter flavor, we want the guests to understand where that flavor balances in the cocktail."
Nitecap, New York City, NY
“I grew up spending a lot of time in Italy. My parents are both classical musicians, and after their concerts, we would always go out with the rest of the musicians and singers. I remember the grown-ups always sipping on a mysterious red cocktail. When I started drinking alcohol, I was known to drink extra-sweet Amaretto Sours—never in a million years would I think that I would be drinking what I drink today. After years of dive-bar bartending and cocktail waitressing in night clubs, I got my first gig at a cocktail bar, where I was introduced to classic cocktails. I remember sitting down for a training on the Negroni thinking, ‘I will never like this.’ I hesitantly took my first sip and quickly went for another. The orangey-bitterness of the Campari was perfectly balanced by the floral notes of gin and the savory sweetness of the vermouth. And now, 10 years later, it's still a go-to cocktail for me.”
SoHo House, Los Angeles, CA
“I wish I remembered my first Negroni. Had I known then that it would come to be one of my favorite cocktails, I certainly would have paid more attention. I vaguely recall the cocktail gaining popularity, and then, as if overnight, suddenly everyone around me was drinking them. I will say that it is definitely an acquired taste. At first sip, you're taken aback by the bitterness; it’s almost medicinal. I do know that after I finished my first one, I immediately wanted a second. And then I was hooked. I know for certain I was already obsessed with the classic by Negroni Week 2014, because that's the year I think I attended every event in Los Angeles that paid homage to my favorite drink, and that has subsequently become a tradition I look forward to every year. I take a certain level of pride in introducing friends and bar guests to their first Negronis.”
Leyenda, Brooklyn, NY
“My first Negroni experience happened when I was barely getting settled into being a 21-year-old troublemaker in Rochester, New York. At the time, the bartending scene was only beginning to develop there, and I was eager to get familiar with the classics that the bartenders were so passionate about. I was a patron at this magical bar called Cure, which was a unique space that I fell in love with. It operated as a cute and quaint cafe that I worked at during the daylight hours. And at night, the space became this amazing spot where you could get a killer French dinner and amazing drinks that were completely tailored to your tastes. And even later in the night, there was a DJ who would completely turn the place out. The bartender on one particular night was Caitlin Graham, who is an amazing human and opened me up to the Negroni. I, being this completely naive 21-year-old, sat right in front of her on a busy Saturday night patiently waiting my turn to place an order. ‘What are you having, hun?’ My eyes and brain scrambled, naturally, and in the heat of the moment, I gave the one response that every bartender either loves or hates: ‘Make me your favorite drink!’ I don't remember her response exactly, but I do remember the smirk. She fashionably jiggered out the red stuff, more red stuff, the clear stuff, and stirred and strained it all into a rocks glass with ice. She placed it on the coaster in front of me and then quickly attended to the crowd waiting behind me. I excitedly took the first sip and then very quickly realized that this was like nothing I had before. I almost hated it. I could barely stomach it. I did finish it though, only because I feared looking like a wuss in front of this bartender who I admired so much. I definitely acquired a taste for bitter that night!”
Ghost Donkey, New York City, NY
“I was working at Madam Geneva (the venue that was in the same space as Ghost Donkey, before Ghost Donkey), and it was one of my first shift drinks there. Negronis are an acquired taste, and I remember not liking it very much. It’s an iconic drink that has many stories about how it was created, but one thing they all seem to have in common is the relationship between bartender and guest. It is a continuous reminder about one of the pillars of my career: hospitality.”
Chad Michael George
The Way Back, Denver, CO
“My first Negroni was made for me by Ted Kilgore. We worked together in St. Louis at a fine- dining restaurant called Monarch (RIP 2012). At the time, I was the assistant GM and wine director. Ted was the first person to really introduce me to true cocktails, including all of the classics. We started working together in 2007, and the Pegu Club and Negroni were the first two drinks he ever made for me. It was love at first taste. I've been a Negroni drinker ever since. One of my favorite variations is the Red Light Negroni featuring Bols Aged Genever and Cocchi Torino vermouth, which is what we're highlighting this week at The Way Back. Classic recipe, equal parts, built over a large cube. Finish with an expressed orange peel.”