The Negroni and Its Cousins

IMG_20140130_175123The Negroni is a classic cocktail that has its origins in Italy after World War I, and it features two classic Italian ingredients: amaro and sweet vermouth. It has come to be one of the all-stars of the classic cocktail revival movement.

Amaro is the Italian word for bitter, and amari are bitter liqueurs produced in Italy (or sometimes in France, though the French have different names for them). The Italians were also the earliest purveyors of fine sweet (red) vermouth, while the French were better known early on for dry (white) vermouth. Nowadays, you can find good brands from all over making both sweet and dry vermouth, but the most interesting sweet vermouth still comes from Italy.

The classic Negroni has equal parts gin, Campari amaro, and sweet vermouth–one ounce of each. Campari is distinguished by its bright red color, which originally came from the use of crushed insects. You will no doubt be pleased to learn that Campari stopped using the insect dye (aka carmine dye) in 2006. It has a strong bitter herbal flavor with notes of citrus.

Classic Negroni

  • 1 oz dry gin
  • 1 oz Campari
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth

Stir and strain into a coupe or small rocks glass. Garnish with flaming orange peel (we’ll talk about that trick another day. If you can’t pull it off, just use a regular orange peel).

The Negroni can have endless variations, depending on the type of gin (or other base liquor), type of amaro, and type of vermouth you use.

A word on vermouth:

The two most common brands of vermouth you will see in stores are Gallo and Martini Rossi. I NEVER EVER USE EITHER OF THESE BRANDS for any drink. In Birmingham, you can get a decent selection of vermouth at Whole Foods, the Western in Mountain Brook, V. Richards, or Highland Package store. Keep your vermouth in the fridge after opening, and it will last a good while.

The first Negronis I ever had used Carpano Antica Formula for the vermouth, but a lot of mixologists say that Carpano is too sweet, and the vanilla notes overwhelm the drink. Similarly, Punt e Mes can be used to add an almost chocolaty herbal flavor to the Negroni, but it may be overpowering for many palates. The failsafe is to use a decent but mild sweet vermouth like Cochi Torino.

As for the gin, I would go with any call-brand London dry gin–Beefeater, Tanqueray, or Bombay are all fine options. I’ve heard of people using Genever in Negronis, which sounds interesting, but I have yet to try it out. I’ve also made some really interesting Negronis using Hendricks.

The Cousins

If you start switching out the base liquor or the amaro, the drink will go by another name. As I said earlier, the possibilities are nearly infinite once you start experimenting.

A close cousin of the classic Negroni is a drink called the Raultini, which substitutes the milder Aperol for Campari. A second cousin once-removed is the Boulevardier, which starts with a Raultini and substitutes rye for the gin. Jack Wyrick, a bartender at Octane and all-around cool person, told me about a nifty variation called the Negroni Bianco, which uses Salers amaro and dry vermouth, along with gin.

All of these variations use equal parts base liquor, amaro, and vermouth. Some mixologists also play around with doing these drinks Manhattan style with 2 oz of base liquor and a half ounce each of the bitter and vermouth. This is a very successful method if you want to get drunk faster, but it loses the essential character that makes it a Negroni, in our humble opinion.

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Rosemary Cocktails

We made some rosemary syrup for some experiment that we neglected to document. The syrup itself is simple enough to make. Add a few sprigs of fresh rosemary to the pot while making regular simple syrup (1 part sugar to 1 part water) and then strain the rosemary out before jarring. Any sort of herbal syrup, like mint syrup for juleps, would be made the same way and can add a spring to the step of an otherwise ordinary cocktail.

Anyway, it’s been in the fridge for a couple of weeks, and since we don’t know how long it will last, we decided to try and use some of it tonight on a few new experiments. For the first one, we tried a sweet spin on the classic Complement Cocktail, which normally uses akvavit, a Scandinavian liquor that is similar to gin but uses fennel for flavoring instead of juniper. Since you can’t get akvavit in Alabama, we made a a fennel tincture by letting some fennel sit in a jar of vodka for a couple of weeks. We keep the tincture in a dropper  bottle because a little goes a long way.

Rosemary ClooneyThe Rosemary Clooney

  • 2 oz London dry gin
  • 1/2 oz rosemary syrup
  • 1/2 oz St. Germain
  • juice of half a lemon
  • 6 drops of fennel tincture

For our second drink of the night, we chose to use tequila and Armagnac, two ingredients that don’t usually get a lot of love in cocktails. We added a splash of Campari to brighten things up.

The Song of the Forest People

  • 2 oz reposado tequila
  • 1/2 oz rosemary syrup
  • 1/2 oz vsop Armagnac
  • splash of Campari
  • 2 dashes orange bitters

Finally, we decided to try the rosemary syrup with a bourbon cocktail. We happened to have a jar of bourbon infused with mustard seed, which we were inspired to make after having a cocktail with mustard seed apple brandy at Food Bar one night. It seemed like it would go well with the rosemary. The dry sherry and Luxardo helped to round it out.

The Spring Chicken

  • 2 0z mustard seed-infused bourbon
  • 1/2 oz rosemary syrup
  • 1/2 oz dry sherry
  • 1/2 oz Luxardo marischino liqueur

Dog’s Nose

We had read once that a Dog’s Nose is two ounces of gin mixed with beer. Sounds awful, and it is–if that’s all you do. We assumed any American lager style beer would do, and that it was served cold. Wrong! A proper Dog’s Nose should be served warm with a little sugar and a little nutmeg, and it needs a heavier beer like a porter or stout.

Somewhere in our travels across the internets, we came across a book called called Drinking with Dickens, which is quite fascinating for many reasons, one of which is that it is written by the grandson of Charles Dickens. It also goes into detail about all the various types of alcohol being consumed in all of Dickens’ novels. And finally, its recipe for the Dog’s Nose is not just drinkable; it’s delicious and a perfect addition to a chilly November evening in front of the fireplace.

For historical accuracy, I used Hayman’s Old Tom gin, and I’ve also had good results using Bols Genever. Any gin you happen to have around will probably work fine though.

Dogs Nose

16 oz Guinness
2 oz of gin
1 tablespoon of brown sugar

Warm ingredients in a saucepan (medium heat) until hot but not boiling. Pour into two large coffee mugs and sprinkle with nutmeg and/or cinnamon.

The Gin Experiments

A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a recipe for making your own gin at home, safely and legally. No bathtubs are involved. You see, at heart, gin is really just a neutral grain alcohol that has been infused with juniper berries and other botanical ingredients. It’s been said that gin is the original flavored vodka, although it was once something more like flavored moonshine.

A little history:
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In the 18th century, whiskey and gin started off in generally the same way, by distilling whatever grains happened to be around. In those days, distilling methods were pretty low tech — think your typical backwoods moonshine still, not terribly clean, perhaps infested with bugs. To improve the flavor of their product, whiskey makers started aging it in wine casks or oak barrels. In Holland, they used some commonly found botanicals to add flavor–most notably, the juniper berry. The Dutch word for “juniper” is “genever,” so Dutch liquor became known by that name, later shortened to just “gin.”

Genever, still made today by the Dutch company Bols, is maltier, sweeter, and earthier than the dry gins most of us are more familiar with today. English distilleries in the nineteenth century created a more filtered gin, still slightly sweet, called Old Tom.  In the twentieth century, a drier and even more heavily filtered version of gin gained popularity, London Dry, which was the only gin most Americans knew about for decades. More recently, older styles of gin have become popular again, and some companies are making a wide variety of gins. The only common factor is the trusty old juniper berry.

If you think you don’t like gin, you probably just haven’t had the right one yet.

GinMost commercial gins include the juniper and other botanicals before distilling, which is why the result is a clear liquor. However, without access to a still, you can simply infuse the botanicals directly into already distilled liquor. Because the berries and other stuff goes straight into the liquid, it will end up with some color to it, but don’t let that scare you.

There are a lot of recipes online for homemade gin. I started with something similar to the one I found here and gradually experimented with some other recipes. For all of these recipes, I leave the botanicals in the alcohol for 3 days and then filter out the solids using cheese cloth.

The first gin we made here at the Whiskey Thief is something we now simply call Gin #1. It uses a lot of spices that you might associate with Indian food–cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, etc. It tastes like Christmas morning.

Gin #1

  • 750 ml of 100 proof vodka
  • 2 tablespoons of dried juniper berries
  • 1 tablespoon of coriander seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon of allspice berries
  • peel of half an orange
  • 1 cinnamon stick

I have also used whiskey as a base for Gin #1, instead of vodka. It makes for an interesting spiced whiskey, but I don’t think it’s really gin unless you start with something more neutral.

Jen likes Gin #1, but I find the coriander overly intense. When I revised the recipe, I cut way back on the coriander and added some clove. I also switched from vodka to a white (unaged) whiskey, aka moonshine, hoping to achieve a sweeter Old Tom-like gin. Having compared the result to some Old Tom gins purchased in another state, I think ours is a contender.

Old Tom #1

  • 750 ml of white whiskey (I like to use Prichard’s)
  • 2 tablespoons of dried juniper berries
  • 1 teaspoon of clove
  • 1/2 teaspoon of coriander seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon of allspice berries
  • peel of half an orange
  • 1 cinnamon stick

After that, I decided to see what it would be like to concentrate just on juniper without any other flavor components. Juniper actually has a really complex and interesting flavor on its own, with subtle notes of cinnamon and vanilla that can easily get covered up by citrus peel and other spices.

Super Juniper

  • 750 ml of 100-proof vodka
  • 4 tablespoons of dried juniper berries

That’s it!

The most recent and possibly most ambitious experiment has been to try and make a cucumber gin. Commercially, the only thing on the market like this is Hendrick’s, and it’s rather expensive. For my first attempt, I used too much cucumber, and I neglected to peel them first. The peel of the cucumber left the gin tasting bitter. With some trial and error, I came up with a recipe that we think has a similar flavor profile to Hendrick’s, but it’s much stronger. We had to cut it with more vodka to achieve the desired result.

As a bonus, we had gin-flavored pickles at the end. They still needed to be sweetened, but putting them in a mason jar with some sugar for a couple of days did the trick.

Cuke Juke Gin

  • 750 ml of 100-proof vodka
  • 2 tablespoons of dried juniper berries
  • half a small cucumber, peeled and sliced
  • peel of one lemon