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Cocktails

It’s the Mezcal Negroni’s World

February 24, 2022

Story: Kara Newman

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

It’s the Mezcal Negroni’s World

February 24, 2022

Story: Kara Newman

photo: Lizzie Munro

How the agave-based spin on the aperitivo classic became a menu mainstay.

No one seems to remember precisely who mixed the first mezcal Negroni. 

Was it Misty Kalkofen, an early and longtime advocate for the mezcal industry? No, she says, though she recalls drinking Vida Buenas, a variation that uses Aperol instead of Campari, on her first trip to Oaxaca in 2009.

Perhaps it was Phil Ward, creator of mezcal standard-bearers like the Oaxaca Old- Fashioned and the Division Bell, who went on to open New York’s influential agave bar Mayahuel in 2009. Though he notes that serving the mezcal Negroni was “a no brainer” in the bar’s early days, Ward stakes no claim to originating the recipe.

Could it have been Joaquín Simó, who created myriad mezcal Negronis over the course of his career, including the Midnight Marauder and the Charming Man, both currently on the menu at his bar in New York’s East Village, Pouring Ribbons? Strike three. Simó does, however, remember trying the recipe as a bartender in the early days of Death & Co., after Ward developed a taste for mezcal.

“It was a dealer’s choice, the first time I tried it,” he remembers. “The Oaxaca Old-Fashioned was such a big hit, and of course we’ll Mr. Potato Head everything,” he said, referring to the practice of switching out ingredients in existing formulas to invent new riffs. “We were trying mezcal in a ton of things … including the Negroni.”

Possibly, the mezcal Negroni doesn’t have a single originator. Some—like Simó—suggest that the drink was an organic evolution of the late aughts, as the popularity of both the bitter Negroni and often-smoky mezcal grew in tandem. 

“Initially, those were two challenging things that were the cool kids,” Simó recalls. “They rose at the same time.” The mashup of the two seems practically inevitable. Negronis, with their equal-parts construction, have a particularly malleable template; subbing in one white spirit for another—mezcal for gin—was easy enough. Plus, anything in the Negroni family was easy to make, easy to batch and easy to replicate at other bars, rendering it ready-made for virality.

Mezcal Negroni Drink Recipe
Recipe

Negroni Absinthe

A nuanced riff on the mezcal Negroni with a splash of crème de cacao.

By 2009, the mezcal Negroni had become hard-wired into the bartender zeitgeist. Lynnette Marrero, now bar director at New York’s Llama Inn and Llama San, remembers the evolution of the cocktail as entirely organic. “That’s when we were all starting to play with amari and mezcal,” she recalls. “It seemed natural to introduce it into a Negroni.”

Cynical minds may be tempted to credit the marketing team behind Del Maguey and Campari for piloting the rise of the mezcal Negroni. In fact, Marrero herself created The Armada, her Campari-heavy Negroni riff with cream sherry and mezcal, for a 2010 celebration marking the 150th anniversary of Campari. But that would be only part of the truth.

The other part lies in the enduring appeal of the mezcal category as a whole. Drinks made with agave spirits are strong sellers, with some experts suggesting they may even outpace vodka in the years ahead. “It’s a spirit that has so much flavor and nuance,” Marrero explains of mezcal. “It’s like gin, there are so many styles that you can innovate with.” The ever-widening array of bottles spotlighting different agave varieties, blends and regions adds to the attraction. The original mezcal Negronis almost certainly were mixed with Del Maguey, and almost certainly with espadín, the predominant brand and variety a decade ago, Marrero posits. Today, “there’s so much variety,” she notes.

A decade-plus later, the drink is no longer novel, yet it has endured, and it continues to inspire new variations, such as Sarah Morrissey’s Negroni Absinthe, a sort of “improved” mezcal Negroni with hints of crème de cacao and absinthe, at Ernesto’s in New York; the herbaceous White Mezcal Negroni, from Maxwell Reis of Los Angeles’ Gracias Madre, which splits the base between mezcal and gin; and Leanne Favre’s delicate, strawberry-infused Negroni de Nubes at Brooklyn’s Leyenda.

We’ll likely never pinpoint who mixed the first mezcal Negroni. But as it continues to grab the imagination of the current generation of bartenders, perhaps what really matters is who is going to mix the next ones to come.

“Has the mezcal Negroni peaked yet?” Marrero asks. “Probably. But once it peaks, it becomes a classic.”

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