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Cocktail classics: the Negroni and its millions of variations

Negroni
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Of all the classic cocktails that are well-known in bars across the world, one stands out for being both complex fascinating to drink, but also incredibly easy to make: the negroni. This beloved cocktail from Italy consists of equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, and it doesn’t even need to be shaken. Traditionally made in a mixing glass, where it is stirred with ice to add water, in practice you can even add the ingredients to a tumbler glass with a large ice cube and stir it in the glass. That isn’t really the technically correct way to make the drink, but it works well enough and means that you can make this cocktail with practically no equipment whatsoever.

The negroni is popular for its intense, bitter flavors and its bright red color, both of which come from the Campari. But the addition of gin gives the drink that heavy, boozy note with plenty of spicy juniper, and the sweet vermouth adds a touch of sweetness and more herbal notes. The result is a drink which packs an incredible flavor punch, and which tends to be either loved or hated (mostly depending on how you feel about Campari).

Thanks to its simplicity, the negroni lends itself to endless variations. While in truth I think it’s hard to beat the classic version of this cocktail, if you’re a long-time negroni drinker and you’re looking to try something new – or maybe even if you’re not a fan of the classic negroni but are interested in finding a version which does work for you – then we’ve got suggestions on some of the many variations you can try.

Experimenting with gins

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The first an most obvious place to start when experimenting with your negroni is to keep the ratios and ingredients the same, but to try out different options within those ingredients. To my mind, the Campari is absolutely essential for a classic negroni – no other amaro is like it, and I’ve never found an alternative that I find as useful in a home bar – but the worlds of gin and vermouth offer many avenues for exploration.

Regarding gin, I find it a bit of a waste to use the most special, unique, or flavorful gins in your collection. The other ingredients in the negroni are so strong that you’ll lose the nuances of fine gins like your Monkey 47s or your Gin Mares. However, that doesn’t mean you should shrug and pour something cheap like Gordons into your negroni, as that will be too harsh. My personal favorite choice for this drink is Tanqueray, which is citrusy and fresh, albeit not wildly exciting, and fits nicely with the other ingredients.

However, if you want to up your negroni game a bit then my advice for gins would be to focus on their mouthfeel rather than their flavors. The flavors might get lost next to Campari, but something which is particularly smooth gives the negroni a lovely, rich quality in the mouth which makes it really special. My favorite choice for this purpose is Hendrick’s, which adds a lovely velvety texture to a negroni which is truly luxurious.

You can try almost any gin in a negroni, honestly, and it almost certainly won’t be bad. If you want to experiment without wasting large quantities of your finest gins then it can be fun to make a trio of mini negronis, using around 10 ml of each ingredient and a different gin for each, then see if you can detect the differences and find a favorite.

One variation on the negroni recipe that was popular for a while was changing up the ratios of the ingredients, so instead of 1:1:1 of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, people would use 2:1:1 or even 3:1:1. The larger amount of gin produces a far more boozy drink, but to my mind it throws off the balance completely and turns it into something more like a dodgy version of a martini. My advice would be to stick to equal parts, as there’s no need to mess with perfection.

Trying new vermouths

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The biggest bang for your buck change that you can make to a negroni though is changing out the sweet vermouth. The most common option for sweet vermouth is the cheap and cheerful Martini & Rossi, which some people complain tastes like oregano – though personally I find that savory grassy note to be a great addition to the drink. However, it’s well worth trying out other options for sweet vermouth like Dolin Rogue, which is rich and herbal, or Noilly Prat Rouge, which is sweeter with a cinnamon note, or the beloved Carpano Antica Formula, the cocktail enthusiasts’ favorite, which is hearty and chocolately with plenty of body.

Any of these can make for delicious negronis, as can offerings from a range of smaller brands who are popping up with their own vermouths. Just be sure to use something which is a sweet vermouth, not a dry one, for the classic negroni – the vermouth should be dark red in color and have enough sweetness to balance out the heft and bitterness of the gin and the Campari.

Swapping out Campari

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If you’re willing to wander a little further from the classic negroni recipe, then the other ingredient to experiment with is clearly the Campari. One of the best negronis I ever had included a simple change which made a huge difference: the Campari had been infused with grapefruit peel. That added a delicious zesty note to the drink that was most detectable as scent but which added a juiciness to the experience that was really quite special. Campari isn’t necessarily the easiest ingredient to work with as it already has so many flavors going on in it, but you could absolutely try infusing it with any kind of citrus or even some herbs or spices to add a special personal twist to your negronis. It would be fascinating to try infusing the Campari with something like star anise or even cinnamon to add a spicy note to the drink.

Then again, you could omit the Campari entirely and swap in something else. The easiest choice here would be another amaro of some kind, as these have a similar combination of sweet, bitter, and herbal which will work without unbalancing the drink. Popular choices to use in place of Campari are the artichoke-based Cynar or the ever-popular Aperol. However, both of these are considerably sweeter than Campari so you might want to dial them back a bit and use less, or use half and half of Campari with another amaro to experience a range of flavors without throwing off the balance too much.

Some classic negroni variations to try

While you can absolutely try out your own experiments with the negroni format, there are some popular variations which are tried and tested and which always make for a pleasing time.

The white negroni is a favorite for those who love the bitter, quinine-flavored Lillet. While similar to a vermouth, Lillet is technically slightly different as an aromatized wine. While vermouths are traditionally bittered using wormwood, Lillet uses quinine as the bittering agent — but as wormwood is largely prohibited in drinks now, other ingredients are used in vermouths instead, making the difference between the two rather marginal. All of this said, Lillet is delicious and is a great cocktail ingredient to use in a negroni. It comes in a blanc version which is the most popular, and is less syrupy and more fresh than vermouth. To match this lighter ingredient, the white negroni uses equal parts of gin, Lillet blanc, and Suze, which is a liqueur made from gentian roots. The result is a light, summery version of a negroni which keeps the bitter notes of interest but has a more delicate taste and appearance.

Another variation we couldn’t overlook is the negroni sbagliato, which had a real moment last summer. Though the “sbagliato” refers to the Italian word for “mistake”, apparently given the name when a bartender made the drink incorrectly, this less boozy and more fizzy version of the drink is a summer favorite for the garden. It uses equal parts of Campari and sweet vermouth, but instead of the addition of gin it uses a top up of prosecco. That makes this a simple drink to build in a champagne flute and a real party pleaser, keeping much of the appeal of the negroni but turning down the alcohol level.

A similar variation is the Americano, which keeps the Campari and sweet vermouth but uses soda water rather than prosecco. That loses some of the layers of flavor for me, but it still makes a pleasant sipper perhaps for earlier in the day.

When it comes to swapping out the gin, one of the best known negroni variations is the boulevardier. This keeps the Campari and sweet vermouth but subs in bourbon in place of the gin. There’s also its cousin, the old pal which uses rye whiskey instead of gin. That adds a lovely spicy note to the drink, and gives it a warming quality that’s perfect for a cold winter evening. While all negronis should have an orange twist garnish, these variations particularly benefits from expressing an orange peel over it to add some fruity notes. To do this, just take a small piece of orange peel, fold it in half, and give it a sharp squeeze over the surface of the drink. This sends some orange essence onto the drink’s surface, which really does make a difference to its taste and scent.

Finally, another variation for the smoke lovers is the Oaxacan negroni, which uses mezcal in addition to gin. That makes this a seriously boozy drink, but the combination of smoke from the mezcal and juniper from the gin makes something truly unique and special. Try this one out, but not if you have to work the next day.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina Torbet is a cocktail enthusiast based in Berlin, with an ever-growing gin collection and a love for trying out new…
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