Cocktails

How the White Negroni Became a Modern Classic

October 26, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

Photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

How the White Negroni Became a Modern Classic

October 26, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

Art: Lizzie Munro

The fairer, French-inspired riff is the most famous modern adaptation of the aperitivo classic.

Necessity is the mother of invention. And sometimes a Negroni is an absolute necessity.

Such was the case one hot summer night in 2001 in a small town in Bordeaux. Nick Blacknell, then the director of Plymouth Gin, was traveling from England to France to attend Vinexpo, a spirits exhibition, alongside rising London bartender Wayne Collins, who was there to compete in the Drinks International cocktail competition. The day before the contest, they settled into a guest house in Médoc. Soon, the relentless heat had Blacknell hankering for a bracing, ice-cold Negroni. As the village they were in presented no promising bar options, the duo turned to the local liquor store to rummage up the necessary ingredients: traditionally, gin, Campari and sweet vermouth.

“Once in the store,” remembers Collins, “I suggested we make the Negronis with French ingredients, as it seemed more appropriate.” Blacknell recalls being drawn to Suze, a bitter French aperitif he had discovered in Parisian bars and grown fond of. “We were confronted in the local supermarket by the usual array of rather obscure—at the time—French liqueurs and aperitifs,” he says. Blacknell then mentioned to Collins how much he liked the wine-based aperitif Lillet Blanc, so they bought a bottle of that in lieu of sweet vermouth. Given that both men were in town on gin business—and there was plenty of Plymouth back at the house—the base spirit remained constant.

Later that afternoon and several fairer Negronis later (all garnished with a wedge of fresh pink grapefruit—a twist that Collins was known to favor in Martinis, and one that he thought would lend a bittersweet lift to the drink), Blacknell’s marketing mind went to work. He suggested that, once back home, they should promote the new drink in the U.K. It would, of course, need a name. “I said, ‘Let’s just call it a White Negroni,’ as it would be easy to communicate to the trade,” said Collins. “Then, bang, that was it.”

Except it wasn’t. The White Negroni—today, beloved in the aperitivo-loving world and, nearly two decades after its invention, one of the most famous modern variations on the classic Italian cocktail—was a slow burner. “It was quietly forgotten for many years,” says Blacknell.

Collins, who was a brand ambassador for Seagram’s in the early aughts, promoted the cocktail but had a tough time getting it listed on menus anywhere. “Not many bars in the U.K. stocked Suze or Lillet Blanc,” he says. “So, we just let it grow organically by ordering it ourselves when visiting certain venues.”

Ironically, the White Negroni got its big break not in the drink’s birthplace or in England, the home of its inventor, but the United States—at a time when Suze was still unavailable. In 2002, Simon Ford was hired by Blacknell as brand ambassador for Plymouth Gin and was charged with turning the vodka-loving United States back into a nation of gin drinkers. He took the White Negroni and ran with it, introducing it and other gin cocktails to any bar owner who had even a passing interest in the spirit. That included Audrey Saunders, who was bar director at New York’s Bemelmans Bar in the Hotel Carlyle at the time, and who would soon open the groundbreaking Pegu Club.

“Audrey was the one bartender in the U.S.A. putting gin drinks at the forefront, so she was my gin partner in creation—and crime,” Ford recalls.

Crime, indeed. To get around the Suze problem, Saunders smuggled bottles on her many trips to and from England. She did the same at Pegu Club after it opened in 2005 and, after stumbling upon a small quantity of Suze online, went one better, putting the drink on the bar’s menu.

“Illegal, of course,” admits Saunders, “but from my part it was more about doing whatever necessary to expand awareness about artisanal products in those early days. Being able to finally promote the White Negroni on paper allowed me to introduce Suze to both bartenders and enthusiasts.”

Jim Meehan, a member of Pegu Club’s opening staff, was one of those bartenders. “I’ve always loved gin, Lillet Blanc and Suze, so it wasn’t tough to love this drink,” he says. He later served it at PDT, his East Village speakeasy, and published the recipe in The PDT Cocktail Book in 2011, giving credit to Collins. The book was widely read, and the drink thereafter was on the rise. An early write-up by British journalist Simon Difford in his influential Difford’s Guide also helped spread the word.

Eventually, demand for Suze among American bartenders grew strong enough that Pernod Ricard began to import the liqueur in 2012. After that, there was no holding the White Negroni back, and the drink grew from an interesting twist on a classic into a classic in its own right. As the aughts rolled into the 2010s, the drink’s popularity only increased, raised up by the reborn fortunes of the original Negroni and the public’s thirst for any variation—all of which painted Collins as one of the most prescient mixologists of his day.

“It was more of a bartenders’ drink,” says Collins. “But I guess that’s how trends begin.”

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