The Negroni Sbagliato has a perception problem. Though “Negroni” is in the name of the mixture of sweet vermouth, Italian bitters (usually Campari) and sparkling wine (usually prosecco), not everyone agrees it is a proper alternative to that strong, spirituous aperitivo cocktail.
“To me, this is an Americano,” said Joaquín Simó, the owner of Pouring Ribbons, a bar in New York’s East Village. Simó was one of the judges at a recent blind sampling of 10 different Negroni Sbagliatos. “And an Americano is a daytime drink, when you don’t want that measure of gin. I view this as an alternative for an Americano, rather than an alternative for a Negroni.”
Though the inclusion of bubbles would seem to nudge the drink into the spritz category, PUNCH senior editor Chloe Frechette acknowledged that one of her problems with the cocktail is “it’s never bubbly enough.” That issue, however, did not irk a fellow judge, bartender Blake Walker. “I don’t think of it as a spritz,” he said, “so the lack of popping effervescence doesn’t really bother me.”
Still, the judges—who also included PUNCH editor in chief Talia Baiocchi, partnerships manager Allison Hamlin and assistant editor Tatiana Bautista, as well as Orlando Franklin McCray, bar director of Nightmoves in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—agreed that the cocktail’s profile had risen over the last decade because of the skyrocketing popularity of not the Americano nor the spritz, but the Negroni.
“People say, ‘I like a Negroni, so I want to taste other things that are like a Negroni,’” said Simó. More often than not, they end up with a Negroni Sbagliato.
But what is this particular Negroni-adjacent option supposed to taste like, or look like, or even be made of? No one was absolutely certain.
“It’s kind of an interesting drink,” said Frechette, “in that I don’t know if everyone has a spec that they dedicate thought to.” Walker said the drink felt like something so loose in concept that a bartender could free-pour it without fear of veering wrong. And McCray stated that however many times you ordered it, you were never going to get the same drink twice.
Indeed, no drink out of the 10 tasted—which were sourced from bartenders across the United States—resembled any other. Some were dark in hue, while others were as bright as a sunset. Most were served over ice in rocks glasses, but a couple arrived in highballs and one specified a Nick & Nora glass with no ice whatsoever. Campari was the most common Italian bitter used, but it was not a given. Vermouth brands varied and, in one case, failed to show up at all. The only constant was prosecco, but even that varied in its ratio to the other ingredients. Some bartenders didn’t call for a measurement at all, but simply instructed drink-makers to “top with proscecco.”
These variations were all fine by the judges, who expressed no ties to any particular Italian bitters, vermouth or sparkling wine. Lambrusco was a perfectly fine, and even welcome, option. Simó suggested using a rosé sparkling wine.
“The drink is not defined by the prosecco, even though that is technically the defining ingredient,” said Frechette, expressing one of the many paradoxes that seem to surround the Negroni Sbagliato.
Fittingly, given the number of question marks that envelop this seemingly simple drink, three very different expressions took the top three spots. Tied for first place were versions by Joe Campanale, of the Brooklyn restaurant Fausto, and Abigail Gullo, a Seattle-based bartender. Campanale went for a double dose of bitters, using one ounce each of the Brooklyn-made Forthave Red and Cappelletti from Italy. To that base he added a mere half-ounce of Dolin sweet vermouth, one ounce of sparkling water for added fizz and a topper of prosecco, all served over ice, stirred gently, and garnished with an orange slice. The judges found the drink the most beguiling of the 10, with endless layers of piquant, spicy, herbal and savory flavors.
Gullo’s rendition was more straightforward, calling for one once each of Campari and the French quinquina Mattei Cap Corse Rouge, crowned with two ounces of prosecco and an orange twist. The judges found the drink’s profile to be classical, with a dry finish and notes of vanilla and creamsicle, and the prosecco showing strong at first sip.
Bringing up third place was the highball-bound drink prescribed by Anthony Schmidt of San Diego’s J & Tony’s Discount Cured Meats & Negroni Warehouse. Schmidt’s very careful instructions begin with one ounce each of chilled Campari and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. To that he adds, while tilting a Collins glass, three ounces of chilled prosecco and one and a half ounces of chilled seltzer, namely, Topo Chico. The ice is added to the drink afterward—“This lets gravity fold the beverage for you, while keeping as much carbonation as you can trapped in the drink,” Schmidt notes—and the drink is garnished by a lemon twist (discarded) and an orange twist in the glass. The panel found the drink bright and juicy; light, but not watered down.
The only thing the judges really thought was lacking from the three winning drinks was food. Throughout the appetite-invigorating tasting, panelists looked around for an elusive bowl of potato chips or olives. “We’re all wanting snacks with this,” said Walker. Simó wasn’t surprised by the collective hankering.
“That’s what these drinks are built for,” he said.