Popular wisdom would have us believe that the Negroni, the creation of a bon vivant count, has always worn an air of elegance. But before it became a symbol of sophisticated drinking, before it garnered worldwide recognition and became the beneficiary of its own dedicated week, the Negroni was the dominion of the cultural undergrowth of Italy, the tamarri (think: Jersey Shore).
In fact, ordering a Negroni in Italy during the drink’s dark ages—in the late 1970s, ’80s and ’90s—was akin to asking for a Vodka Red Bull in the States in the 2000s: something for the drinkers more interested in the effects of alcohol than the taste.
“In the second half of the ’80s … in the Tuscany clubs, the Negroni was served in a highball glass with two ice cubes and a slice of orange,” says Luca Picchi, bartender at Caffè Gilli in Florence and author of the book Negroni Cocktail. An Italian Legend. “It was like having three strong Negronis in one glass.”
Though this may come as a surprise to drinkers more familiar with the ubiquitous equal-parts Negroni—gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, on the rocks with an orange slice; the one printed on the label of Campari bottles around the world—this boozy, club-Negroni represents, in many ways, a natural progression for the drink, which evolved from a vermouth-forward aperitif to club-kid stalwart.
“In the second half of the ’80s … in the Tuscany clubs, the Negroni was served in a highball glass with two ice cubes and a slice of orange.”
One of the first codified recipes for the Negroni appears in Constantino “Constante” Ribailagua’s Floridita Cock-tails, under the name of “Negrone,” where it is credited to Manuel Sánchez Maspons, the assistant editor of Diario Indipendente in Havana. (While this edition is dated 1939, there is some speculation on the part of historian David Wondrich that it wasn’t actually published until after World War II.) Calling for two parts sweet vermouth, one part gin and a half-part Campari, the printed recipe is a far cry from today’s typical Negroni build. But even this dialed-back rendition represented a departure from earlier versions. According to an article by Enzo Grazzini in the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera dated November 15, 1962, the original Negroni—created by Fosco Scarselli for Count Negroni at Florence’s Caffè Casoni in 1919—contained only “a few drops of gin.” It wasn’t until 1947 that the familiar equal-parts recipe appeared in print, in Amedeo Gandiglio’s Cocktails Portfolio, a collection of 325 recipes discovered by bar historian Paolo Ponzo.
“The Negroni had two dark ages in Italy,” explains Ponzo: “The first one, inevitable, during the years of the fascism and WWII (in which you couldn’t find gin all over the country); the other one during the dark ages of mixology, the prerogative of the tamarri and drunkards.”
So how did the déclassé drink shake its unequivocally lowbrow image to attain its current position as the second-best-selling drink in the world? To vermouth expert Fulvio Piccinino, it comes down to the ingredients. “The dark ages of the Negroni were also the dark ages of bitters and vermouth,” he explains. “Then brands like Campari, Aperol and Martini [& Rossi] made some … advertisements to modernize the two categories.” (Remember Campari’s “red passion” campaign and the Martini & Rossi Charlize Theron ad from the 1990s? That’s it.)
In the 2000s, the Negroni—in its equal-parts iteration—began to be embraced by Campari, becoming a focal point of competitions, which Piccinino notes “are often trendsetters.” As for why the equal-parts recipe found favor with modern audiences, Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters and Amaro, notes that there’s a certain appeal in the fail-safe formula. “The Negroni’s equal-parts, three-ingredient template makes it a hard drink to mess up,” he says. It’s worth noting, too, that the rise of the equal-parts Negroni coincides with the modern gin craze, which saw the number of gin brands more than double across the globe.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the cocktail revival was just getting underway. A re-educated public was trading cloying ’tinis for strong, bitter and stirred. The Negroni was waiting in the wings—a cocktail with the flavor profile, presentation and backstory tailor-made for this new era. “It can still be a divisive drink for some, but the Negroni is one of the first truly bitter cocktails that most Americans encountered,” says Parsons. But it’s more than mere nostalgia that keeps the Negroni legacy alive. As Italian bartender Picchi explains, “The Negroni survived wars, trends and trash because it basically has a noble soul.”