Troy Patterson’s Epic Negroni Bar Crawl

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Nov. 12 2012 3:23 PM

The Negroni

Readers told me which cocktail to order on my birthday. I ordered one too many.

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Williamsburg has been an aggressively fashionable place—a “hip neighborhood,” as it were—for no fewer than 20 years, and Kyle lifted a fragment of fret that in his work clothes he was not dressed cool enough to go there. Should he change? His wife observed that the jeans he was wearing were not the coolest jeans he owned. He said, “What? Are you saying there something wrong with my jeans?” She smirked at his jeans and said, “No.”

The Best Negroni in the Borough of Brooklyn

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Kyle and I caught a cab to Peter Luger, and we Tom-Friedmaned the driver about gasoline scarcity during a quiet 10-minute ride to the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, which, with electricity out across southern Manhattan, was half-lighted and half-blighted.

The cab had not yet come to rest when Luger’s doorman was rapping at the side window. He gruffed that the kitchen was closed and proved remarkably resistant to my eyelash-batting—I was blinking but-it’s-my-birthday in Morse code—so we bounced to Dram, which was packed but relaxed, bustling with well-scrubbed youngsters wearing the school uniforms of top-ranked liberal-arts colleges (stripes and knit caps: Where’s Waldo in earth tones). Opposite the bar, a projection TV scrolled the cursive closing credits of a muted movie, and Kyle said, “I guess Moonrise Kingdom is out on DVD.”

The menu listed the Negroni as a “classic cocktail suggestion.” Ours arrived in double old-fashioned glasses, each clinking one single extra-large ice cube. The bartender had used fancy Carpano Antica for the vermouth, and he’d cut a broad unblemished strip of orange peel to twist above the glass and rub against its lip. Our Negronis were damn fine. Orange is the essence of the water of life we mortals call the Negroni; a balanced ratio of gin:vermouth:Campari is a potion that always rhymes with orange so that a properly finished Negroni blossoms on the tongue alchemically—a sublime triangle.

We’re calling my friend Kyle because in the 20th century, when we were pups, we bandied about the idea of co-writing a pseudonymous bar guide detailing the adventures of our alter egos, Kyle and Dean. We’ve been at this for a while, but I did not believe that we had discussed how he and the Negroni discovered each other. At Dram, he told me of a Roman holiday in 2005 and a morning walk with his wife and brother-in-law. On a narrow street, they ran into an Italian man Kyle knew from work, who in one effusive hug, one extended gesture of salutation, gave them a native’s tour of the city, showing them everything and doing nothing for seven hours, and then at 3:30 said, “And now we drink Negronis,” and led them to an enchanted piazza where they did so, and it was good.

Kyle asked me about the origins of the beverage. I explained that in the 19th century, the Milanese would mix Campari with Cinzano and soda water to make a light café drink that became famous across the peninsula as the Americano. Then along came Count Camillo Luigi Manfredo Maria Negroni (1868-1934), whose interests included swordsmanship, rodeo-riding, and hanging out drinking Americanos all day long. One afternoon in Florence, in 1919 or 1920, Negroni told his barman to take it up a notch—to fortify [irrobustire] his usual with gin—and here we were now, enjoying Italy’s great contribution to cocktail culture.

Know Your Ingredients

We have described to you what we hold to be the best of all possible drinks, beautiful even in the clarity of its historical origins. However, we live in the best of all possible worlds, where according to the dictates of whimsy or the contents of your larder, you may whip up rewarding adaptations of the original. Instead of gin, try another base liquor; the “Kingston Negroni,” for instance, uses rum. Instead of sweet vermouth, try another fortified wine—dry vermouth or Lillet Blanc, for example. Instead of Campari, you may dabble with another amaro (both Aperol and Gran Classico have their partisans) or use a second sweet vermouth. (Note to self: Begin tinkering with a drink to be called the Séverine Serizy, based on the Buñueloni. In his memoirs, Luis Buñuel wrote that his “takeoff on the Negroni”—gin, Cinzano, Carpano—“has excellent effects on the imagination.”)

But you can bend the Negroni only so far before you break a categorical boundary. I bounced into our next stop, Diner, expecting its “Charles Ryder”—named for the narrator of Brideshead Revisited—to be a Negroni variation. Gin? Check. White vermouth? Very fine. Bonal? Well, I had supposed this to be an amaro I’d never heard of, but it turned out to be more like an aperitif wine I’d never heard of, so what we had here were perfect martinis—not stiffer than the Negroni but sterner and lacking the fun-and-games sunniness we sought. I once again told Kyle that he needed to own Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking, which affords the Negroni a rare compliment: “It has the power, rare with drink and indeed with anything else, of cheering you up.”

Next door at Marlow & Sons, we ordered two variations on the Negroni and one meat plate. We drank only a tenth of our “Negra Oscura,” just enough to determine that its compound of tequila, Carpano, and Aperol tasted like top-shelf cough syrup. We sucked restorative fizziness from our “Arkadin.” Gin, red vermouth, and Cocchi Americano topped with soda water, the drink easily surpasses the quality of the Orson Welles joint from which it takes its name. Surveying the meat plate, Kyle said humbly, “By the way, that’s a fuckload of meat. That’s exactly what I need right now.”