When Is a Negroni Not a Negroni?
I certainly wouldn’t call myself a cocktail purist—I do work for a site that hosts a recipe for Sex on the Beach Jello Shots, after all—but I would consider myself to be a cautious cocktailian, especially when it comes to some more libertine variations, like Martinis made without a drop of vermouth, Old Fashioneds topped with cotton candy or, most recently, Frozen Negronis.
I was first introduced to the Frozen Negroni at a party at an al fresco NYC restaurant. Slurped through a straw (the first time I’d enjoyed a Negroni in such a manner), the pink and orange slushie lacked the usual boozy punch of a Negroni. It was perfectly enjoyable on a sweltering, humid day. But was it really a Negroni?
Ask any bartender who works in a semi-decent joint what a Negroni is and they’ll tell you what Stacey Swenson of Dante at Genuine told me: “Gin, Campari and sweet vermouth.” Typically, the drink is made with equal parts of each of the three ingredients. It is always stirred. But yet, even at Dante, a place famed for its Negroni, the recipe veers. Their Negroni ups the amount of gin in the recipe. “It’s OK to stretch the boundaries of the cocktail. Otherwise we would have the same drink,” Swenson says. Josh Macgregor, head sommelier and beverage director at db Bistro Moderne agrees. “The versatility and utility of the Negroni inspires evolution,” he says. “And to stifle that progression would go against the nature of the drink—itself being an evolution of the Americano.” So, what defines a Negroni if not a recipe?
"Originally I was thinking that as soon as you change the gin out, it is no longer a Negroni,” says Jamie Pulford of Hot Tin and Bayou Bar in New Orleans. “Then another bartender reminded me that a Negroni is based off an Americano (sweet vermouth, Campari and club soda). His argument was if you change the Campari out, it is no longer a Negroni. Either way, I believe the Negroni to be a classic three ingredient cocktail (not unlike a Manhattan, Daiquiri or Sidecar) that can have dozens of variations.” But there are plenty of Negronis that buck that definition as well. At Dante at Genuine, Swenson features the Unlikely Negroni on the menu, which is made with seven ingredients: Cabeza tequila, Campari, Cocchi Torino, banana, pineapple shrub, chile and sesame. That recipe falls in line with the opinion of Kayla Hasbrook, head bartender at Scampi in New York City: “I think in order to be called a Negroni the drink has to include two things: a fortified wine—specifically vermouth—and an aperitivo style bitter.” That’s fine, but it still doesn’t seem to get at the nuances of the drink.
“It’s more the feeling of it,” Swenson says. “Is [the cocktail] touching on all those things you want from a Negroni? When it doesn’t feel like a balanced, stirred cocktail anymore, then it’s not a Negroni.”
Which brings us back to the original example: the Frozen Negroni. Is it really a Negroni? “I don’t know. Technically it’s not,” Swenson says. “But who cares?”
I care. My concern is that it could go the way of the Daiquiri. I have had a real Daiquiri made with just lime, sugar and rum. It is simple and pure and good. I have also had a “Daiquiri” made with Everclear and artificially flavored frozen mixes and chocolate sauce. To be fair, I enjoy that too. But it doesn’t mean you can call the slushified monstrosity a true Daiquiri.
With the Negroni becoming more popular and ubiquitous, more people are taking liberties with the drink. I’ve seen Negroni gummies and Negroni cakes and Negroni clouds, and I worry that amidst all this kitsch, all-in-good-fun exploration, the original drink could be lost forever and all we’ll be left with is a saccharine, premade slurry. But maybe I’m overreacting. “I think that we’re passed that point in cocktail culture,” Swenson says. “I don’t think the Negroni could go the way of the Daiquiri. I’m sure there are dive bars or steakhouse bars that are shaking their Negronis. There’s always going to be that. But there’s no reason to go on a crusade.” In fact, Swenson is somewhat in support of bars adopting the word Negroni as a broader descriptor rather than a definitive cocktail. “The word ‘Negroni’ is a good way to guide a guest into understanding a cocktail before they order it,” she says.
It’s a good point. Think of a cocktail menu filled with punny cocktail names inspired by inside jokes or song lyrics. Think of the jumble of ingredients beneath those names. What will the drink actually taste like? You might have an idea, but not a solid one. Now, consider reading a menu and coming across a cocktail called the Unlikely Negroni. You would know to expect something bittersweet, something strong, something (probably) stirred. As long as bartenders continue to abide by those rules, the Negroni will be fine. As long as they don’t print cocktail clickbait on their menus and label something fizzy and fruity as a Negroni, it definitely won’t go the way of the Daiquiri. Let’s make that an unspoken rule. And then let’s seal it with a Negroni—however you choose to make it. Yes, even frozen.