Is it worth the time searching for the ultimate Negroni? The formula for the century-old cocktail is simple and seemingly carved in stone: equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. They’re all going to taste basically the same, aren’t they? 

Not so much. During a recent sampling of twenty different Negronis, the PUNCH staff found a surprising amount of deviation from drink to drink—in taste, potency, balance and quality. The reasons for this were multiple. The choice of gin and sweet vermouth brands varied and, somewhat more surprisingly, so did the Italian red bitter component, which was not always Campari. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)

Furthermore, the participating bartenders who submitted recipes—which included St. John Frizell of Fort Defiance in Brooklyn and John deBary, bar director for the Momofuku chain of restaurants, our two guest judges—did not feel an overwhelming need to adhere to the traditional equal-parts structure of the drink. Some upped the quotient of gin. A couple rebels reached for Old Tom gin. Others lowered the amount of the vermouth or the bitters, or both. And a few even piled bitters (the aromatic kind) upon bitters.

This, it turns out, is an exciting and confusing time for the Negroni, Italy’s great contribution to the cocktail canon. Never before has the aperitivo cocktail been more popular. But never before has the drink’s template been less concrete. Bars are awash with Negroni variations, as bartenders try to coin a three-part mixture that can compete in flavor with the original. At the same time, a flood of new Italianate red bitters products are trying to convince people that they can give Campari a run for its money.

The Negroni, while a latecomer to barroom prominence, has a history that goes back to 1919 Florence. The going story—and, so far, it appears to hold up—is that the drink came about when one Count Camillo Negroni asked the bartender at the Caffe Giacosa in Florence for an Americano with a bit more kick to it. That kick came from gin.

The drink received various celebrity endorsements (Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles) as the century dragged on. But it wasn’t until the cocktail renaissance of the early 20th century—with its embrace of both classic cocktails and bitter elixirs—that the drink came into its own. Today, a Negroni is a common order in bars and restaurants throughout the world, and the favorite drink of many a cocktail lover. Through its popularity, it has dragged into the spotlight kissing-cousin cocktails, such as the Boulevardier (bourbon, sweet vermouth, Campari) and the Old Pal (rye, dry vermouth, Campari), as well as inspiring at least one modern classic, the White Negroni (made of gin, Suze and Lillet Blanc).

Like most famous cocktails, the Negroni engenders argument. And most of these spats surround the use of Campari. Some believe the liqueur’s place within the drink is not up for debate. Others aren’t so sure, including, somewhat surprisingly, both of our guest bartenders.

“I think Campari would love for people to think” it’s essential, said deBary. “I love Contratto,” he added, mentioning another Italian aperitivo. “Campari is very weighty and spicy. Contratto is fruitier.”

“It doesn’t have to be Campari,” Frizell agreed. However, when someone orders a Negroni from him, Campari is what he reaches for, because the customer generally expects it. (“It’s like Coca-Cola, Campari,” he said, admitting nothing else tastes like it.)

The two agreed on other matters as well. Most modern Negronis are served on the rocks, and that’s how they like it. “Serving it up is an abomination,” said deBary. “Especially if it’s made super classic, it’s a bit heavy to have no dilution. With ice, it’s a nice slow fade.”

All were in accord, as well, that the drink is a one-and-done (or perhaps two-and-done) affair whose place is at the start of an evening or prior to a meal.

“You’re not going to session this drink,” said Frizell. “You’re not going to pound three Negronis.”

In a blind tasting, the panel sampled 20 Negronis from today’s top bartenders.

It took some time into the tasting before the panel found a Negroni they truly endorsed. Some were too thin or weak; they didn’t have that bracing botanical punch one looks for in the drink—that biting, drying astringency that Campari can offer when properly layered. Others were unbalanced, with the critical aromatics of gin seemingly missing in the equation.

A couple entries veered so far away from the traditional Negroni model (one featured Suze, another Jägermeister) that the panel regarded them as variations, and out of the running. “The Negroni variation doesn’t excite me as an idea,” said deBary. “I either want a Negroni or something else entirely.”

The top three vote-getters stayed within classical lines, and all of them—the two bartenders’ flexibility concerning Campari notwithstanding—contained the famous red bitter liqueur from Milan.

Best-liked was the now-famous Negroni served at Dante, the aperitivo bar in Greenwich Village. Conceived by owner Naren Young, it contained one ounce of Bombay Sapphire, a three-quarter ounce of Martini & Rossi rosso vermouth and a three-quarter ounce of Campari. “That’s the most archetypal,” said deBary. “Classic.”

Just a hair’s breadth behind Young’s drink was Frizell’s own version, which was made of one-and-one-quarter ounces of Beefeater gin, one ounce of Carpano Antica Formula vermouth and a three-quarter ounce of Campari. “You get the Campari bitterness without the Campari sweetness,” PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi.

Third in the rankings was a recipe from JP Fetherston of the Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. Like the above two, Fetherston used more gin than the other two components, calling on one-and-one-quarter ounces of Fords gin, one ounce of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and one ounce of Campari.

“Maybe one-and-one-quarter gin is the key,” said Frizell.

Also admired were the Negronis from Sother Teague, of Amor y Amargo, who employed a powerful ounce-and-a-half of Beefeater gin, making for a brawny drink, and Jeffrey Morganthaler, of Clyde Common in Portland (and the inventor of the barrel-aged Negroni), who called for equal parts Beefeater, Cinzano Rosso and Campari.

In the end, the search for the ultimate Negroni was more arduous and worthwhile than anticipated. Still, according to deBary, the Negroni, unlike some other classic cocktails, remains elemental; it is ultimately about the formula and less about the skills of the person who makes it.

“Give people a recipe and they can make it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who the bartender is.”

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