Back in 2009, during the halcyon days of the cocktail revival, the arrival of a new arcane spirit was a significant event. Unlike today, where new releases hit the market almost every other week, sometimes all it took was the debut of a critical new product to spark the creation of a modern classic cocktail.
One day in late fall of that year, spirits importer Eric Seed, a Minnesota-based Johnny Appleseed whose bags were filled with rare and obscure elixirs, walked into the dark, low-ceilinged cavern known as Death & Co. The East Village cocktail bar had been open a little over two years, and represented the epicenter of cocktail creativity in New York. It was therefore one of the first stops Seed made whenever he was in town with a new bottle of liquid magic.
On this occasion, the specimen was Smith & Cross, a navy-strength, Jamaican-style rum. Standing behind the bar were Phil Ward, Death & Co.’s tall, taciturn head bartender, and Joaquín Simó, Ward’s more approachable colleague.
The reaction was positive. “I remember comments of, ‘Hey, it’s got the hogo!’” recalls Seed, using the rum term denoting a certain hard-to-define funkiness.
Simó wasted no time testing the rum’s mixability. He immediately grabbed the bottle and began to build a rum Negroni on the spot—a straightforward application of Ward’s “Mr. Potato Head” approach, in which one ingredient in a classic cocktail recipe is switched out for something broadly similar in character. It was, said Death & Co. co-owner David Kaplan, a “very Phil Ward moment,” albeit executed by someone other than Ward.
When it came to choosing the vermouth for his impromptu rum Negroni, Simó grabbed the Carpano Antica. Normally, he was not a fan of the burly Italian vermouth; he found it to be a bully that aggressively dominated drinks. But in this case, it made sense. “Smith & Cross is no shrinking violet, so it stands up to the bombastic chocolate and bitter orange notes in the vermouth while drying out the Campari's richness and tempering it's bitterness,” he explains.
Simó’s on-the-fly creation, dubbed the Kingston Negroni, debuted on the Death & Co. menu in the spring of 2010. He recalls the cocktail going over big with the bar’s hardcore clientele who, at that time, were thirsty for anything new in the boozy, brown and stirred category.
“People really like that drink,” remembers Brian Miller, another bartender on the Death & Co. opening staff. “It gets people to drink rum [who] I don’t think normally would call for it.”
Word of the cocktail spread fairly quickly. In fall 2010, John Ottman, of Rickhouse in San Francisco, asked Simó if he could list it on their menu. In early 2011, the recipe was posted on Gumbo Pages, a well-read cocktail blog authored by Chuck Taggart. In 2014, the drink got further exposure when it was included in Death & Co.’s bestselling cocktail book.
“This was a Death & Co. classic to some degree before the book,” says Kaplan. “That said, I think the book helped spread a number of drinks from the canon—this being one.” It was also featured in books by cocktail writers Brad Thomas Parsons and Kara Newman.
Within the last several years, however, the drink has found renewed relevance. Key to its rise has been the flowering of rum and tiki culture and the rise of home bartending. (The three-ingredient, equal-parts recipe makes for a very easy build.) But perhaps no trend lifted the cocktail’s reputation more than the popularity of the original Negroni, especially over the past five years.
“The reach of the Negroni Week promotional machine has certainly expanded awareness of the Kingston Negroni,” says Simó. When the Negroni celebrated its 100th birthday in 2019, this rum version could be found on menus across the country, including Lei Low in Houston and Pearl Diver in Nashville. It remains one of the only Jamaican rum–based modern classics.
Simó is still not sure what possessed him that fateful day back in 2009 when—faced with a spirit that he described as redolent of grilled banana bread and smoking allspice branches—he suddenly thought: aperitivo material. “It still strikes me as strange,” he says. “It’s certainly not the most imaginative thing I’ve ever done.”
But its simplicity is, no doubt, a factor in the drink’s success. With just three ingredients, it’s become a showcase for the power and complexity of Jamaican rum. As Miller explains, “I often cite that drink when I tell people: Anything you can do, rum can do better.”