“I’m adamant that I’ve never had a bad Negroni,” says Naren Young, bartender and Managing Partner at NYC’s Dante. “I really haven’t. Ever.”
It’s a statement sure to attract naysayers, given that the Negroni—that iconic, Italian stalwart of the strong and stirred canon—has gained something of a cult status in recent years, ushering in its fair share of strong opinions. Young also insists that the drink is considerably more versatile than many of today’s bartenders will let on—so much so that he’s dedicated an entire menu to the drink and its many variations.
“We wanted to have a drink that was our muse, and the Negroni, for us, made sense,” says Young of The Negroni Sessions, a 12-deep list dedicated to both old- and new-school iterations. Here, alongside classics like the Americano, the Negroni Sbagliato and the rye whiskey-driven Old Pal, Young has installed original, unorthodox drinks like the mezcal- and Meletti-based Negroni Coffee Swizzle, plus an orange-inflected Negroni Frappé served over crushed ice. Kicking off the list, of course, is the house Negroni, a standard blend of gin, vermouth and Campari, made, most notably, in non-equal parts.
“It’s a ratio that I’ve been using for a few years,” says Young of his decision to build his Negronis with one ounce of gin to three-quarter ounces each of vermouth and Campari. Though classicists might cry foul, he asserts the uncommon ratio results in much more agreeable take on the original: “It’s a little bit cleaner, not so sweet, not so saccharine.”
The choice in spirits is another question altogether; after all, there is more to choose from today by way of gin, bitters and vermouth than ever before. And while Young has spent a considerable amount of time testing and choosing the best spirits for the many drink variations on the menu (favoring the softer Cappelletti over Campari in the Negroni Sbagliato, for example), for the classic Negroni, he doesn’t look too far outside the box.
“Campari is the benchmark,” he says, pointing out that the Negroni is one of the few cocktails to truly hinge on a specific brand. From there, he calls on Bombay Sapphire gin, plus another large, well-recognized brand, Martini & Rossi, as his preferred vermouth.
“There’s such a huge movement in vermouths right now, but . . . there’s nothing wrong with those stalwarts that’ve been around forever,” explains Young, citing Noilly Prat and Cinzano in the same breath. “People bag them because they’re big production or they’re mainstream, but they’re really well made and they’ve been around for over 100 years for a reason—because they’re very good.”
When it comes to ice—which, to many, is nearly as important in a Negroni as its three main ingredients—Young says that a small investment in a good ice tray to produce large, dry cubes will go a long way towards making the drink more enjoyable. But he doesn’t subscribe to the dogma that the ice needs to be crystal clear: “It doesn’t really matter. That’s for bars so they can show off,” he says, bluntly. He also notes that small tweaks—adding a few drops of saline solution or chocolate bitters, for example—can bring out additional, unexpected flavors. But from there, mixing a Negroni is chiefly a matter of personal preference.
“If people at home want to experiment with [other spirits], absolutely. Go for it,” says Young, who insists that, despite its somewhat polarizing list of ingredients, the Negroni really is a hard drink to screw up.
“You’d think, ‘Oh, shit, you can’t mess with that,'” he adds, “but it really is not that hard to sub in little tinctures, bitters, liqueurs, fortified stuff. It’s really quite [an easy drink] to tinker with, more than I’d originally thought.”
It’d seem that, in the case of this controversial classic, mastery isn’t so much about creating a more exact template, but rather building on—and occasionally rewriting—an original.