This one is a testament to conquering fear. Fear no gin! Fear no sweet vermouth! Fear no Campari!
I have at various times in the early development of my cocktailian studies feared all of these ingredients, but now I love all three of them dearly. In fact, I can't get enough of them. Plain vodka is almost never touched in our house anymore, but we go through frightening amounts of gin, regularly stocking Plymouth (our favorite), Hendrick's (our second-favorite), Bombay (our workhorse), Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Tanqueray No. 10 and Citadelle (plus we've also got Beefeater, Magellan and an extremely rare bottle of Tanqueray Malacca, a gift from a stupendous friend). As for Campari ... well, I don't drink it on the rocks like many Italians can, and a Campari and soda is not my favorite. But as an ingredient in numerous cocktails, I find it to be wondrous stuff.
Given my previous fears, I once thought a Negroni was one cocktail I just wasn't going to attempt. I was afraid of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, and here's a drink that's made with all three, in equal parts. Zoinks. Even as I made my progress and thought to myself, "Gee, y'know, one of these days I oughta just try one," I never quite got around to it.
Chance intervened. One Sunday evening several years ago I was having drinks with my friends Gregg and Michael at the Traxx Bar, located in L.A.'s fabulous 1939 Art Deco masterpiece, Union Station, right across from its parent restaurant of the same name. The bartender was cheerful and friendly, but alas, she attempted to serve my Manhattan on the rocks, and with no bitters! That's one of those drinks that is always served up, unless the customer asks specifically for it on the rocks. Then I watched her make the drink (which I always do now, so I can shout a warning before he or she tries to do something like squirt soda into my Old Fashioned), and it was just Maker's Mark and Martini & Rossi, shakeshakeshake.
When I ordered it, I had specifically said, "And don't be shy with the bitters!" ... and she had put none. "Uh, Angostura bitters, please!", I interjected. She looked at me and said, "Oh, okay ... I always leave them out because nobody likes bitters anymore!"
Such utter sacrilege. Coming from a professional bartender! Dear, without bitters it is simply not a Manhattan. It's just whiskey and vermouth, thank you. The things we cocktailians have to put up with days, sweet sufferin' JAY-sus ... but I digress. The subsequently corrected Manhattan was lovely, thank you, but then Michael ordered a Negroni.
Wham, there it was. Right in front of me. He sipped it and smiled a beatific smile. "Hey, can I have a taste of that?" Sure thing! *sip*
Complex. Spicy. Bitter, although not overly so. The tiniest bit of sweetness to offset that. A perfect aperitif, a drink to wake up your taste buds and shout "Ciao, ragazzo bello! Come stai?"
What's more, our once-favorite restaurant in our area, the late, lamented Cinnabar in Glendale, had their own version of this drink, which doubled the amount of Campari (ye, gods!) and added two dashes of orange bitters. It works beautifully, and wakes up the tongue even more. It was because of this that I quickly became a Campari addict, and nowadays we never make our Negronis any other way -- both because we like them better, and because we'll always honor and remember Cinnabar every time we quaff one.
THE CINNABAR NEGRONIFor an extra-special drink, use a Carpano's Punt E Mes or Antica Formula, two top-shelf sweet vermouths that add a wonderful layer of spice to this drink. Fee's or Regans' Orange Bitters work well, but these days we're liking Regans' for its layer of spiciness as well.
1 jigger (1-1/2 ounces) Campari
1/2 jigger (3/4 ounce) gin
1/2 jigger (3/4 ounce) sweet vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
Shake with cracked ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with half an orange wheel.
As usual, if you're in the Long Island Iced Tea or Sex on the Beach crowd, don't bother with this; you've got a long way to go. If you drink "Appletinis" made with that vile Borg-green Pucker crap, ditto. If you have a palate and you're adventurous and want to try something that may surprise you, give this one a shot next time you go out to a decent bar. Paul Harrington says you'll either love it or you'll hate it; I'm hoping you'll love it.
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Chuck Taggart email chef (at) gumbopages (dot) com