“Naturally, I’m misanthropic. But the Negronis are helping considerably.” -Anthony Bourdain in The Nasty Bits.
Now that my wife is a professor, and I’ve shifted my career to become a professor at a hilariously shitty community college, it turns out there are some pretty cool upsides. For the first time ever, we get to enjoy BOTH spring break AND not being poor at the same time. That means it’s time to drink some tasty booze instead of Popov vodka Jell-O shots or whatever nasty shit I can no longer remember drinking in college.
Hi. I’m Negroni Please and I’m here to help you get fucked up.
It seems wrong to talk about drinking and not start with my namesake. So, let’s get down to some Negroni business. For those of you not in the know (and are too goddamn lazy to google it) a Negroni is equal parts Gin, Campari, and Sweet Vermouth with an orange twist. Easy peasy.
Allegedly some dude named Count Negroni asked his bartender to fortify his favorite drink, an Americano, and the bartender whipped up the first Negroni by adding some gin to the cocktail. So basically an Americano (made with equal parts Campari and Sweet Vermouth, with a splash of soda) is the boring buttoned-down Ward Cleaver drink and a Negroni is the “FUCK YOU DAD” version.
Pointless Side Note: According to Wikipedia, James Bond drinks an Americano in “From a View to a Kill” because “in cafés you have to drink the least offensive of the musical comedy drinks that go with them.” I don’t know what that means. But James Bond said it, so I’m certain it’s sophisticated and dripping with panache.
Regardless of the supposed origin, sometime around 1919 this wonderful cocktail took off AND THE WORLD WAS NEVER THE SAME. Or something.
So what do you need to make an acceptable Negroni? The obvious, classic, no-brainer answer here is Campari. Campari is a type of Italian bitters with a beautiful ruby hue. Once upon a time, this color was achieved with carmine dye which is made from crushed bugs. Unfortunately, those days are over, and now we get artificial coloring instead of all-natural organic bug parts. Campari is essentially just an herbs/fruit infusion in alcohol, and my wife says it tastes like she imagines cough syrup from the Great Depression would taste. Whatever. She likes Michelob Ultra and mixes flavored LaCroix with her red wine so it’s not like her opinion matters here.
If this description of Campari doesn’t already have you running out to the liquor store to buy some, then you just need to watch this 1984 Campari commercial by none other than Federico Fellini.
What the fuck was that? I don’t know either, but I do know that now you want some Campari. That’s the power of marketing, baby.
Next up you need Gin and Sweet Vermouth. If I’m just mixing up some cocktails for a random after work drink, then I’m all about cheap and ubiquitous. New Amsterdam Gin is cheap enough for homeless people and actually works pretty well in most cocktails. And even Yanomami Indians in the heart of the Amazon have access to Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth. Mix equal measures of these ingredients and add an orange peel twist and you’re all set.
But what about those times where you need something a little more refined? Something smooth and sophisticated like…. SPRING BREEEEEEAAAAAAK!
Well, first off, you can keep the Campari, as it’s always a welcome addition to the drink, but you should consider giving Gran Classico a shot at the title. Next, you should up the ante with your other booze. The most perfect vermouth ever gifted to man by the liquor gods is Carpano Antica. This stuff is pricy (for a mixer) but the vanilla and cocoa notes are well worth it for a quality cocktail. Especially when paired with Gran Classico, it makes for an excellent Negroni. But you don’t have to stop there! Carpano Antica is also perfect friends with bourbon and makes killer Manhattans. For gin, you should pick your favorite top shelf gin. My favorite is St. George Dry Rye, but you can’t go wrong with any St. George gin. For you Hendrick’s lovers out there though, keep that nifty little apothecary bottle on the shelf. Hendrick’s is a bit too delicate to hold up well in a Negroni, and you end up wasting it while the drink’s balance is a little off.
OK. We’ve done the basic Negroni which is good. But it’s time to expand on the Negroni and get to the drinks in this family that really shine.
Despite my name being Negroni Please, the Boulevardier is actually my favorite cocktail, but Boulevardier Please just doesn’t have the same ring to it. The Boulevardier is pure awesomeness and you NEED to learn how to make it at home, because absolutely no one wants to be caught trying to pronounce Boulevardier in public after a drink or two.
The Boulevardier proves that the best way to improve on the bright complexity of a Negroni is to swap out the gin and bring Whisk(e)y to the party. According to some (other) douche on the internet:
“A simple substitution? Hardly. The bittersweet interplay between Campari and vermouth remains, but the whiskey changes the storyline. Where the Negroni is crisp and lean, the Boulevardier is rich and intriguing. There’s a small difference in the preparation, but the result is absolutely stunning.”
Also, you’re going to change your ratio a bit. The Boulevardier can certainly be made in the simple 1:1:1 ratio of the Negroni, but these days most people up the whiskey and go for a 1.5:1:1 ratio or even a 2:1:1 ratio. For me it depends on the proof of the whiskey. Anything 80 proof automatically gets a 2:1:1 pour from me, and the 100 proof stuff usually gets a 1.5:1:1. Play with your booze of choice and find the ratio you like. The more whiskey centric your ratio is, then the more this drink turns into a riff on a Manhattan. The less whiskey you use, then the more the Campari shines and the drink is closer to a classic Negroni.
I don’t really like Gran Classico in my Boulevardiers so I stick with Campari. As already mentioned, Bourbon and Carpano Antica are so good together they’ve got to be boning behind closed liquor cabinet doors. So stick with the Carpano Antica. (If you’re feeling cheap, then any sweet vermouth should work in a pinch. I’d stay away from Dolin though. It’s a little too light to hold up well in this booze fest).
What whisk(e)y to pick though?
My absolute favorite bourbon for pretty much anything is Eagle Rare. Unfortunately, neckbearded hipsters buy anything from Buffalo Trace as soon as it hits the shelves, so sometimes that’s not an option. If you’re a rye fan, then you likely already know that Rittenhouse Rye is a powerhouse that works in pretty much every whiskey cocktail. If you want to go the bourbon route, then you can’t go wrong with anything Bottled in Bond as the higher proof helps the bourbon stand up to Campari’s bullying. Old Granddad 100 (or 114 for that matter) are good choices, as is the Evan Williams 100 (but the lower proof expressions of both are too soft, weak, and girly). In general though, just pick any bottle you like and I’d bet you can find a ratio where your favorite whiskey works well with the Campari and Vermouth. Personally, I would avoid the wheaters though. That same wheaty softness that makes them so smooth also gives a slightly muted flavor profile that gets crushed by the Campari. While Weller 12 is a kickass bottle to drink neat, I find it washes out too much in most cocktails. But hey, whatever floats your boat.
Also if you wanna get fancy schmancy you should flame your orange twist for this one, as allegedly the flamed twist pairs well with the slight smokiness of the whiskey. I don’t know. I can’t really tell much difference, but over-earnest bartenders (ahem. That’s Mixologist mother fucker) with handlebar moustaches assure me this is the case.
Need something even MORE decadent? Ok. Let’s drink some Left Hands. The Left Hand is a Bourbon Boulevardier using Campari and Carpano Antica. But things get a little interesting by adding Chocolate Bitters and a brandied cherry garnish. Bitter Truth Xocolatl Mole bitters are generally preferred here, but Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters will work, too. Most recipes call for 2 dashes, but I find that to be a little too understated. I usually opt for 3 or 4 (depending on the ratios and volumes I’m mixing). As previously mentioned, the Carpano Antica has some vanilla and cocoa notes that play really well with bourbon. The chocolate bitters bring those flavors to the fore and the whole thing works beautifully. Play around with it and I’m sure you’ll find a ratio you like.
As for the brandied cherries. You can make your own like a good little hipster, but if you’re lazy like me then you simply want a jar of Luxardo Cherries. These little dark orbs of deliciousness elevate any cocktail that calls for a cherry and they don’t taste like those nasty neon-red maraschino cherries that you grew up with. Save those for your Shirley Temples. If you’ve never had Luxardo Cherries, then you are missing out. Even if you ignore all this nonsense, you should get a jar of these babies and stick ’em in pretty much any booze concoction you can come up with. Or just eat them. Mmmmmmmmm, booze cherries. Seriously. They are ridiculously good.
Now go forth, you lushes and imbibe the bitter-sweet ambrosia of the gods. I’ve got one more shitty lecture to prepare before SPRING BREEEEEAAAAK and then I’ll be drinking myself into sweet oblivion.