The Negroni Is the Kale of Cocktails

With the evolution of the American palate toward weirder flavors, the ever-bitter, always permutable Negroni has become the staple of cocktail menus across the country. Here are four riffs to carry you from a.m. to p.m. in bitter fashion. (Slideshow below.)

Negroni Alla Fiama: A Negroni for the early riser. [Recipe]

Rolled Gold: The Negroni Sbagliato's power-lunching cousin. [Recipe]

Negroni: Always bitter, always classic, any time of day. [Recipe]

Blonde Redhead: The Negroni goes late-night. [Recipe]

American palates have undergone a transformation. The past few years have seen the rise of oddball flavor categories: heavy fat, high-acid, super umami and, most recently, the darkest depths of bitter. Brassicas have become the mantra of an entire millennial generation that seems to fervently believe kale, broccoli rabe and Brussels sprouts can save them. Alongside these leafy, vitamin-packed, astringent greens, an equally bitter—albeit bright red—dark horse has emerged as the cocktail canon’s savior and every-occasion drink: the Negroni.

There’s an unspoken holy trinity of strong classic drinks: the Old-Fashioned, the Manhattan and the Martini. All are evocative of an era, an occasion or a mood. But these drinks are decidedly American inventions following specifically measured ratios of spirit, water, sugar and bitters. The Negroni—one of a handful of Italian-born cocktails to capture a foreign audience—breaks this convention, boldly embracing equal proportions of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari with an unapologetic dismissal of subtlety. The Negroni means to be bitter.

With such an unlikely, somewhat polarizing flavor profile, how did this drink become the staple of every cocktail menu in the nation?

Its equal-part ratio has something to do with it, as does its ingredient accessibility. What bar (even the shittiest of dives) doesn’t have gin, sweet vermouth or Campari? The sweet vermouth might be oxidized and the Campari might be swathed in a decade of dust, but the makings are there. Similar to the holy trinity cocktails’ structure, the Negroni is highly riffable. Switch the Campari for another bitter—a quinquina, Aperol, an amaro—or swap out the sweet vermouth for any number of sweet elements—Lillet, amaro, bianco vermouth, cream sherry—and you’ve got a drink still tethered to the original, but free to roam along a broad spectrum between sweet and bitter.

In its raw form, the Negroni is an early evening cocktail, but each of these transformations allow the Negroni to become a drink for any hour of the day. Pull back on the proportions and add fresh peach juice for an a.m. drink as in the Negroni Alla Fiama. Replace the gin base with sparkling grapefruit soda and it’s suddenly an afternoon spritz, like the Rolled Gold. Change out gin for whiskey and sweet vermouth for rich, bitter barolo chinato and it’s become a digestif like the Blonde Redhead. (If you so happen to be in Portland for Feast this weekend, this is the menu for an afternoon of Negroni riffs.)

Though ever-variable, one thing is certain: The Negroni will always be bitter.