Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in our Cocktail Queries series in the last few years at Paste, answering commonly asked questions about making home cocktails, as well as diving deep into individual spirits to explore topics like the best bourbon under $30, or defining the house styles of iconic Kentucky whiskey distilleries. Now, we’re drilling down on the “cocktail” in the title with this subseries on individual, classic cocktails, in order to answer the question of what makes for a great example of one of these drinks. What’s the key to a great old fashioned, for instance? A great Manhattan? A great daiquiri? A great negroni? We’ll explore them all, and then some.
The Negroni is a cocktail with an incredibly simple recipe, but endless variation based on that simple origin. It’s remarkably adaptable, to the point that you can sub in practically any base spirit and the cocktail still makes some kind of sense. It may have been created with gin in mind, and a “classic Negroni” will always be a gin drink, but you can easily bring whiskey, rum or tequila to play as well. It’s an interesting case study of a cocktail with one “official” version but too many personal versions to count.
At its heart, though, the Negroni is a strong, bitter, bracing drink that primarily appeals to those who enjoy aperitivo-type, pre-dinner appetite stimulators, and those whose palates have been trained to appreciate the bitter complexities of Campari in particular. To which I must confess: I am personally not a huge fan of the classic Negroni recipe. It is a timeless classic, and beloved by millions the world over, but to my taste I typically find it substantially too bitter, and often too dry as well. My preferred Negroni is an approachable drink with more balanced flavors, but if you prefer your Negroni bracingly bitter that’s perfectly valid as well.
To this end, I’ll discuss the classic negroni first, before offering some kinder and gentler versions below.
Whereas with a Manhattan or daiquiri, where there are “fairly standard” recipes to cite, but no truly official version, the classic negroni recipe is absolutely set in stone. It is as follows:
— 1 oz gin
— 1 oz sweet (red) vermouth
— 1 oz Campari
Combine all three ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir well. Strain, either into a cocktail glass/coupe to make a stronger “up” drink, or pour over ice in a lowball glass to keep it colder and add more dilution over time. Garnish with an orange peel and serve.
That’s all there is to it. The classic Negroni’s “equal parts” recipe makes it one of the easiest to remember off the top of your head, much like the four-way equal parts recipe of the similarly gin-based (and adaptable) Last Word. Whether the equal parts method is really the “ideal” Negroni, though, is a subject of much debate.
Legend has it that the Negroni was created from the classic Americano, a long drink/lower ABV combination of Campari, vermouth and soda water, when the inventor asked for gin to be substituted for the soda water in order to make a stronger cocktail. It also served to keep the Negroni as a fairly dry drink, as the sweetness of the vermouth is more than offset by the bitter and herbaceous qualities brought by the Campari and also the gin.
As for what gin is appropriate for a Negroni, the choices are really endless. You can find purists arguing that old-school London dry gin is the way to go, and you’ll have no difficulty finding modern cocktail bars crafting their Negroni with sweeter, fruit-forward New Western gins. The best way to determine your taste is literally to build several small Negronis with a variety of gins, to see how the flavor of each is able to shine through.
As with many of these cocktails, however, one recommendation is to use stronger gin rather than standard, 80 proof strength spirits, so the flavor of the gin doesn’t get lost along the way. This is particularly important if you want to taste the gin in a Negroni, as the Campari is so strongly flavored that you’ll probably want all the assertiveness you can get from your gin. Whereas 80 proof rum works pretty decently in a daiquiri, we’d recommend stronger gin for the Negroni, largely because it’s primarily competing against the bite of Campari.
As with the gin, the vermouth you choose to use in a Negroni is entirely up to you, although I would recommend one that you find sweeter and richer in order to counteract the bitterness of the Campari. That might mean something like Carpano Antica Formula, if it was my own preference. The vermouth, in any case, is doing the heavy lifting of providing almost all of the sweetness in this particular cocktail.
With that said, there are of course those who choose to go the exact opposite direction. You can find Negronis and Negroni variants that use dry vermouth rather than sweet (this is sometimes called a Cardinale), and you can find other variations such as the Fergroni that use a particularly bitter sweet vermouth such as Punt e Mes to make a cocktail that is even more assertive than the basic Negroni. Once again, you may want to experiment with several vermouths in mini Negronis to determine which you think is best.
The Italian bitter liqueur/aperitivo known as Campari is typically considered the one element of the Negroni recipe that is sacrosanct—although there are plenty of other “bitter red liqueurs” as the category is known, they’re infrequently substituted in for the Campari.
Campari, however, is a fairly divisive liqueur thanks to how strongly flavored and bitter it is. It can be an absolutely invaluable cocktail ingredient in many scenarios for this reason—adding a small amount of Campari can balance out a cocktail that is too syrupy or tart, and it’s strong enough that its complexity can be felt in very small portions. The classic Negroni recipe, on the other hand, embraces the flavor of Campari very strongly. Personally, I think it often embraces the Campari too strongly, allowing the flavor and bitterness of the liqueur to overwhelm the more delicate gin and vermouth flavors.
Campari has a powerful flavor, but it’s sometimes used a little carelessly.
For this reason, you will see plenty of variations of the Negroni that simply cut back on the Campari a bit, which is the simplest way of making the drink more balanced and inviting to those who don’t want the full, bitter experience. You might consider making a Negroni with 2 parts gin and vermouth, and only 1 part Campari, or you might push the ratio even further. Conversely, you can also keep the ratio the same, but add additional ingredients that add more sweetness to the drink, which counteracts the bitterness.
And finally, just because Campari is the classic, it doesn’t mean you can’t use other Italian bitter red liqueurs as well. Popular options include Cappelletti, Galliano L’Aperitivo, Gran Classico and Luxardo Aperitivo. If you ever grow bored of the stock Negroni, they’re waiting for you.
Now we get into the many other options that exist to put a new spin on the Negroni. The “equal parts” formula seems to work very well with a wide variety of spirits, so you can start by simply substituting the base spirit and going from there. Whiskey, tequila and rum all seem particularly suited to these Negroni variations.
— In particular, bourbon is a popular substitution for gin, resulting in a drink now well-known and beloved in its own right, the boulevardier. This drink is inherently richer, sweeter and I believe more balanced than the classic negroni, able to stand up to the bitterness imparted by the Campari if used in equal parts. Rye whiskey can also be used to make a classic Negroni spin-off: The Old Pal is made with equal parts of rye whiskey, dry vermouth and Campari, although it is also popular to increase the proportion of whiskey in order to make the other ingredients more subtle.
— As we wrote about in our piece on cocktails you can make with leftover wine, the Negroni Sbagliato is a lighter and more refreshing Negroni spin that substitutes champagne or prosecco in for the gin in the recipe, which adds a pleasantly bubbly component while also reducing the overall ABV by a decent margin. You might think of this as a pleasant “outdoors” or summertime Negroni.
Truly, the Negroni is a beautiful drink in the glass.
— As you venture further off the beaten path, you end up with drinks such as the White Negroni which notably doesn’t use traditional vermouth or Campari. Instead, French Lillet blanc steps in for the sweet vermouth, and the herbal liqueur Suze stands in for the Campari. Ultimately, this illustrates the outline of what a cocktail needs to be a “Negroni riff,” which is gin, aromatised wine and some kind of bitter herbal liqueur, typically used in equal measures.
My personal favorite Negroni riff, however, diverges a bit further, and is itself a riff on the boulevardier. I call this one a Cafe Boulevardier, and it’s the one I’m most likely to make in my own home, so I’ll include the full recipe. This is a boulevardier spin that reduces the Campari and vermouth, while adding a small amount of coffee liqueur and orange bitters. The result is a drink that sits in a pleasant valley between bitter and rich, with roasty/woody/vanilla/caramel/nutty flavors from the combination of whiskey and coffee liqueur that are reined in by the firm background bitterness of the Campari, and given brightness with the orange bitters. I think it’s a lovely drink, so here it is.
— 3 parts bourbon
— 1 part sweet vermouth
— 1 part Campari
— 1 part coffee liqueur
— 1-2 dashes orange bitters
Combine all ingredients over ice in a mixing glass, and stir thoroughly to chill. Strain, and serve either “up” in a coupe glass, or over ice in a lowball glass. Personally, I like this one in an old fashioned glass with a single, large ice cube, which mellows the drink over time. Garnish with a strip of orange peel.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.