Negroni Week 2015

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I have a hard time talking about the Negroni without recalling the rigors I endured before I could appreciate this celebrated cocktail. My first Negroni left me dumbfounded as to the drink’s popularity. Combining a botanical spirit like gin with Campari – a reddish-hued, bitter aperitif – and an herbal liqueur like vermouth, the Negroni struck me as an old-fashioned remedy for alleviating digestive issues, not something to be enjoyed recreationally. My second Negroni did little to improve my opinion. I probably wouldn’t have tried a third had not a well-meaning bartender handed me one without my asking. Funny thing about that third Negroni, though – I didn’t hate it. There was no moment of trumpets blaring from the heavens, but at least I was moving past the point of repulsion. Still, when I was told last year about something called “Negroni Week,” it was with tepid enthusiasm that I agreed to hit a few bars and maybe write something about my experience.

And that’s when the transformation began.

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At some point during Negroni Week 2014, I finally got it. On Monday I was a wary scribe; by the weekend, I was a devoted Negroni apostle. Blinded by botanicals and bitterness, I even invested in a Negroni tattoo.

Looking back, I can see that the conditions were ripe for my conversion.

Sponsored by Campari and industry magazine Imbibe, Negroni Week serves not only as a showcase for the cocktail but as an opportunity to raise money for worthy causes. Now in its third year, Negroni Week has expanded to include more than 3,500 participating bars and, over the course of the past two years, has raised more than $120,000 for a multitude of charities throughout the world. What’s more, Campari will donate $10,000 to the selected charity of the bar that raises the most money during the week.

Of course, Negroni Week also gives bartenders a chance to play around with variations on the traditional recipe. The Negroni’s simplicity lends itself to endless customization, and last year in the Boston area we saw the drink carbonated and bottled, done as a milk punch, and made with all manner of nontraditional ingredients, like caçhaca, sherry, mezcal, strawberry-infused tequila, and plenty more that I couldn’t possibly get around to sampling.

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Negroni 2014 Collage--2

The upside of all that experimentation is that Negroni Week offers something for everyone – even the uninitiated. Appearing in unusual forms and expanding to encompass additional and alternative flavors, Negroni neophytes may encounter more approachable renditions that can help them ease into an otherwise challenging drink. Negroni connoisseurs, meanwhile, can enjoy the cocktail in new ways. If nothing else, your purchase at a participating bar supports a good cause. And who doesn’t like that?

If you want to learn a bit more about the history of the Negroni and see some of the creative twists that Boston-area bartenders came up with last year, have a quick look at last year’s story. Otherwise, we’re on to 2015.

Trina’s Starlite Lounge

Trina’s Starlite Lounge started experimenting with carbonated cocktails a couple of months back, to great effect. It should come as no surprise, then, that their featured Negroni for the big week comes in a bottle. Made with a watermelon-infused Contessa gin and Cocchi Americano, this novel version is milder, fruitier, and considerably more playful than the original. Which is not to dismiss it as some kind of lightweight Negroni – the bitter components might be less intense, but the drink still packs a punch.

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The watermelon is the biggest surprise, in my opinion. I tend to be on my guard whenever I see watermelon in a drink, conditioned to expect something overly sweet and artificial-tasting. Not here – the fruit flavor is soft, balanced, and natural. The result is a fun, summery, highly drinkable Negroni with a crisp effervescence. If you hate summery fun, a more by-the-books Negroni is available as well. Either way, portions of Negroni sales at Trina’s Starlite Lounge support Autism Speaks.

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Kirkland Tap & Trotter

I’m sure plenty of bars plan ahead for this seven-day Negroni bacchanal, but no one plays the long game like Kirkland Tap & Trotter. Last year during Negroni Week, the good folks at KT&T mixed up the featured cocktail in a six-liter bottle – dubbed Negronizilla – and have been aging it ever since, with the intent of opening it up for the 2015 edition. That’s dedication.

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I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t on hand for the big unveiling on Wednesday night. Instead I stopped in on Monday and “settled” for the standard Negroni, made with Beefeater gin, Cinzano vermouth, and Campari. It may not have benefited from a year of aging, but this timeless recipe is never a letdown. A portion of every Negroni sold at Kirkland Tap & Trotter this week goes to the Greater Boston Food Bank.

On an aside, I admit that in the interest of writing about Negroni Week, I should have attended the Wednesday event. But on Monday, KT&T had a different kind of unveiling – the opening of the Celebrity Chef Hot Dog series. All summer, chef Tony Maws is hosting a guest chef every month, and that chef will create a variation of the house-made hot dog that KT&T is famous for. This past Monday, chef Ken Oringer of Clio and Toro led off with a Japanese ballpark street dog, topped with Kabayaki sauce, ramp kimchi, kewpi mayo, and bonito.

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Honestly, I don’t even know what half of that stuff is. But Negroni Week or no Negroni Week, I wasn’t gambling on whether these bad boys would still be available come Wednesday.

OK, now back to the Negronis.

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Brick & Mortar

There’s no dedicated Negroni Week recipe here, but it’s Brick & Mortar – you know they’re always capable of whipping up something special for you. Upon stating the purpose of my visit, I was offered everything from the traditional Negroni to a smoky take that included mezcal. I opted for a version with sherry – a “Sherry-groni” as the bartender casually coined it.

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Made with Amontillado sherry, Campari, and sweet vermouth, the sherry’s distinctive nutty notes steals the show. This complex, highly satisfying Negroni balances bitterness and sweetness and exudes an overall warmth.

Buy a Negroni at Brick & Mortar this week and you’ll be supporting the developing Minds Foundation, an organization that builds schools and promotes education in international regions that are stricken by poverty and violence.

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Moksa

Across the way from Brick & Mortar is Moksa, an old favorite of mine that’s hosted plenty of original events, offers a patio for those occasional nice days we have, and has a cocktail program that still bears the fingerprints of mixologist extraordinaire Noon Summers, who sadly moved on from Boston a couple of years ago. Moksa offers a traditional Negroni this week, but after a little negotiation, bartender Bhavik Mistri agreed that the Peking Sailor, a Negroni-type drink on the regular menu, could qualify for Negroni Week status.

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Made with Hendrick’s gin, Campari, elderflower vinegar, cucumber, and “bubbly,” this is admittedly a stretch as far as Negronis go. But it has a distinctive bite from the Campari, and the floral Hendrick’s gin pairs nicely with the bitterness. The elderflower vinegar contributes an unusual floral acidity to this refreshing, full-flavored cocktail.

Buy a Negroni at Moksa, or talk Bhavik into making the Peking Sailor count as one, and the bar will donate $1 of your purchase to GlobalGiving in support of the Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund.

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Pastoral

The Negroni traces its roots to a Florence, Italy café in 1919, when Italian nobleman Count Negroni is believed to have invented the drink as a variation on an Americano. So you’ve got to figure that Fort Point’s Pastoral, with Italian fare that balances traditional ingredients and a modern approach, would offer a top-notch version of the iconic Italian cocktail. Sure enough, the Negroni di Pastoral is a simple interpretation of the classic with a bit of a twist. Made with Bols Genever (a Dutch gin), Aperol, and Cocchi Rosa, this elegant Negroni is served “up” and rimmed with an orange peel.

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This remarkably smooth version has a mild sweetness up front, with prominent orange notes, and isn’t quite as aggressive with the bitterness. Purchase one of these beauties and you’ll be supporting the MSPCA.

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TRADE

TRADE’s bartenders are known for concocting some fabulously imaginative drinks using a full toolbox of flavors, ingredients, and innovative techniques. For Negroni week, they play it straight. Their traditional recipe combines Tanqueray gin, Campari, and Carpano Antico sweet vermouth. It might not be wildly inventive, but this recipe’s been around for nearly two centuries and needs no embellishment.

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Enjoy a Negroni at TRADE and a portion of your purchase will go to the Pan-Mass challenge, an annual bike ride that raises funds for cancer research and treatment at Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

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Ward 8

Stopping into Ward 8 was something of a last-minute decision, but a fortuitous one. I was delighted to reconnect with Amber Wirth, a longtime friend of BBH who we last saw representing Eastern Standard in a savage battle royale for cocktail supremacy. Ward 8 offers no fewer than five Negroni variations for the big week, the most liberal interpretation of which is a blended shot of Campari and Fernet Branca accompanied by a Miller High Life. On Amber’s advice, I opted for the Boulevardier, a classic twist on the Negroni made with Four Roses bourbon, Campari, and Cinzano Rosso. This smooth cocktail swaps gin for the warm, spicy complexity of whiskey but maintains the bitterness of a traditional Negroni.

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Ward 8 bar manager Mike Wyatt – who, coincidentally enough, also last appeared on this site as a competitor in a vicious bartender throwdown – came up with the Negroni Noir, a version that exceeds even the original in its bitterness. Made with Beefeater gin, cacao nib-infused Cinzano Rosso, and Campari, this Negroni exudes a rich, complex flavor on account of bitter dark chocolate component. It’s an intense interpretation but well balanced and full of flavor.

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A portion of every Negroni sold at Ward 8 will support the Animal Rescue League of Boston.

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Today marks the midpoint of Negroni Week, and you’ve got through Sunday to get acquainted with the classic recipe, try a few Negroni variations, and support some very deserving charities. For a full list of participating bars, in Boston and beyond, click here.

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