Negroni Week 2014

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I distinctly recall my introduction to the Negroni. It didn’t go well. All I could think was, what kind of madman would mix two bitter aperitifs with an intensely botanical spirit like gin? Was this a prank? A dare? And why the hell is this drink so popular?

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Negroni, it’s a fairly straightforward cocktail. The traditional ingredients are gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari – a bitter, herbal liqueur known for its reddish hue.

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The drink dates back to 1919, when it was invented in a Florence, Italy café by Count Negroni, an Italian nobleman (and presumably, madman). In recent years it has enjoyed exalted status among mixologists and the craft cocktail crowd. But for the uninitiated, it’s a bitter concoction that takes a little getting used to.

“It’s an acquired taste,” acknowledges Luke, a bartender at Union Square’s Backbar. “It’s the kind of drink you need to have about three times before you ‘get it’.”

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If drinking three Negronis sounds like a good idea to you, now would be the time to do it. The second annual Negroni Week is in full swing, and whether you’re a novice trying to acquire a taste for this enduring cocktail or a devotee looking for new ways to enjoy it, bars in Boston and around the globe are featuring it on their menus from June 2 through 8.

But Negroni Week is more than just a celebration of the drink’s longevity and resurgent popularity. Presented by Campari America, which sells the Negroni’s signature ingredient, and industry magazine Imbibe, Negroni Week encourages bars and restaurants to donate a portion of every Negroni sale to charity. Each participating bar chooses a cause to support, and Campari will make a $10,000 donation to the charity of the bar that raises the most money.

If you’re a Negroni lover, you’ve probably had this week circled on your calendar since the day it was announced. But if you’re new to the drink or, like me, have struggled to enjoy it, you’re in luck. Bars all over the city are not only featuring the Negroni but also introducing clever, creative twists that make this challenging cocktail more approachable.

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The Merchant

The Merchant isn’t a bad place to start. Of course, I might be a little biased when it comes to this Downtown Crossing bar – after all, it was here that my own anti-Negroni resolve gradually began to weaken. I certainly had no intention of ordering one when I was visiting a few months back, but when bar manager Ian Strickland handed me an unsolicited Negroni and asked me to try it, what could I do?

I politely accepted, of course, and instructed my palate to brace for impact. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. The Merchant’s “Pegroni” is made with orange-infused Cold RIver gin, Campari, Punt E Mes, and orange bitters. The orange flavors make for a mellower Negroni, and while the drink still has its legendary bite, the bitter components are well balanced. Interestingly, this was my third ever Negroni – and sure enough, it was growing on me.

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The Pegroni remains on The Merchant’s menu, but Ian also designed a more traditional version for the big week. Made with GrandTen Wire Works gin, Campari, and Dolin Rouge vermouth, it’s sure to satisfy Negroni purists. Order either variety and you’ll be supporting the Animal Rescue League.

Cinquecento

The world may be devoting these seven days to celebrating the Negroni, but at Cinquecento, every week is Negroni Week.

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From the bottles of Campari that line the pillars of this South End Italian eatery to the promotional artwork hanging on the wall, Cinquecento proudly flaunts its affection for Campari. The centerpiece of Cinquecento’s drink list – a Negroni flight – offers the original recipe plus two variations.

So I first visited Cinquecento a few weeks ago and asked the bartender, Phil, to recommend a drink. You’ll never guess what he made me.

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Sure, I should have seen the Negroni coming. But even if I had, I wouldn’t have anticipated a bourbon Negroni. Trading gin for whiskey made for a smooth, accessible drink that had as much in common with a Manhattan as it did a Negroni.

Given their unbridled enthusiasm for this classic Italian cocktail, I can scarcely imagine what Cinquecento’s doing this week. A Negroni dunk tank, perhaps? Proceeds for Negroni sales at this excellent bar go to Autism Speaks.

Alden & Harlow

Swapping out gin for another spirit is not uncommon, but Alden & Harlow’s substitution of strawberry-infused tequila is entirely unexpected. The Lady in Red may be softer and fruitier than the typical Negroni, but Campari and two types of vermouth – sweet and dry – keep it strong and bitter, with a subtle dryness at the end.

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Throw back a few of these and you’ll be helping East End House, a Cambridge-based community center that offers education and training programs to families and learners of all ages.

Ward 8

Ward 8 offers a few variations of the Negroni, but when I asked the bartender which one he’d suggest, he directed me to the most complex of the bunch. The Count of Cadiz combines Plymouth gin, Campari, Amontillado sherry, and Carpano Antica. While the presence of sherry makes this Negroni unique, it’s the Carpano Antica that steals the show.

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This rich vermouth has notes of vanilla, toffee, and caramel, adding a warm, spicy depth to the cocktail. Buy any of Ward 8’s Negronis and you’ll support the Animal Rescue League of Boston.

JM Curley

Meanwhile, it’s bottle service at JM Curley, which offers one of the wildest versions of the Negroni I’ve encountered this week. They use Plymouth gin infused with spruce tips and combine it with Campari and a house-made amber vermouth. Incredibly, the Negroni then gets carbonated and bottled.

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This blew my mind. The natural pine flavor from the spruce-tip-infused gin is rich but not overpowering. The custom vermouth, made with caramelized honey and spices, contributes a little sweetness, while the Campari keeps things appropriately bitter. But the real surprise is the effervescence from the carbonation. One of JM Curley’s bartenders, Watson, attributed this easy-drinking, soda-like concoction to Daren Swisher, whom he calls “our in-house mad scientist.” When I was leaving, I saw the staff sampling a house-made Negroni carrot cake, and I had to get out of there immediately or I would have been there all night. JM Curley’s Negronis also support the Animal Rescue League of Boston.

Backbar

If, as Luke theorized, it takes three attempts to acquire a taste for the Negroni, then you can complete your entire orientation at Backbar. There are three dynamic Negroni options to choose from – a drink of the day, a drink of the week, and as anyone familiar with Backbar might guess, a milk punch.

The Negroni Milk Punch is easily the most daring of the three. As with so many of Backbar’s milk punches (and milk punches in general), it’s a weird drink and weirdly enjoyable. Mixing gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, Stappi bitters, and orange juice, this Negroni interpretation is smooth and balanced, with a subtle citrus component.

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Monday’s drink of the day was the Count ABC. The acronym derives from the geographies of each ingredient – an Austrian pine liqueur, a Brazilian cachaça, and California’s St. George Terroir gin. Punt E Mes provides the requisite bitter. Luke admitted there was some debate among the staff as to whether this truly qualified as a Negroni, but all the right flavors were there. The Zirbenz pine liqueur gave the drink an especially fragrant character.

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But for me, the real standout was the Oaxacan Condesa. Backbar’s drink of the week combines Plymouth gin, Campari, mezcal (!), and a grapefruit liqueur. Mezcal’s signature smoky essence is instantly distinctive, and while it may be a surprising addition to a Negroni, the spirit is well balanced. The grapefruit liqueur, enhanced by rimming the glass with a grapefruit peel, contributes a natural, citrusy sourness that pairs well with the mezcal and the bitter Campari. This is an exceptional drink.

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Whether you order one or all three of Backbar’s Negronis, a portion of the proceeds will benefit Wine to Water, an organization that provides people all over the world with access to clean water and improved sanitation.

Russell House Tavern

Given the outstanding cocktail programs at each of these bars, it’s no surprise to find so many variations of this simple drink, ranging from subtle to bold. But what about the original Negroni? Amid the clever innovations, does the traditional recipe get left out of the very week that celebrates its acclaim?

Hardly. You can dress up this classic cocktail with all manner of alternate or additional ingredients, but the original version commands as much respect as ever. And with that we turn to Russell House Tavern. The esteemed Harvard Square bar does offer a variation called the Palazzo on its regular menu, but bar manager Sam Gabrielli goes old school for Negroni Week – gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, and an orange peel. You’ll be supporting the Leary Firefighters Foundation when you enjoy this simple, bitter, well-balanced cocktail.

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And “enjoy” is the operative word here. I’m pleased to say that I’ve finally come around to the Negroni. Maybe I don’t celebrate it with the same fervor as longtime fans, but who knows? Next year at this time, I may be sporting a Campari tattoo (or maybe just a t-shirt).

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Regardless of what side of the bar you’re on, Negroni Week is an opportunity for education and experimentation. Talented mixologists get to showcase their interpretations of this surprisingly customizable drink, Negroni novices have a chance to ease into a sometimes inaccessible cocktail, and aperitif aficionados have a ready-made excuse to enjoy seven nights’ worth of Negronis. (I imagine Campari America does alright in this deal, too.)

But most importantly, local and international charities stand to benefit from this campaign. Last year, 120 bars participated in Negroni Week and raised more than $10,000 for a multitude of worthy causes. This year, nearly 1,300 bars are participating, with the goal of raising $100,000. Donations like that will help charitable organizations that are already doing important work in communities here in Boston and beyond. And that’s always a good reason to raise a glass.

Or three.

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We’re only at the midpoint of Negroni Week, so you’ve still got plenty of time to enjoy a Negroni and support a good cause. For a complete list of participating bars, check out this link:

http://negroniweek.com/participating-bars/

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