Last year, Felix of the Manhattans Project wrote an article also entitled On The Negroni. It’s a very good article. You should read it. Also you should respect Felix’s opinion more than mine because he’s way better at this stuff than I am.
But I’m still about to disagree with him completely on one point.
In particular, I think the following section of his article is wrong:
No. Not yet. GO AND MAKE ANOTHER TEN (HUNDRED) NEGRONIS. (seriously, get to know what’s going on with that, it’ll put you in good stead).
Don’t get me wrong. The classic Negroni is a great drink. It could be a slightly better drink (for example I entirely agree with Felix’s decision to use slightly less Campari).
But one of the great virtues with the Negroni is that it’s almost impossible to screw up - you can use pretty much any variation on the standard ingredients, and you’ll get something pretty good.
Don’t have a good vermouth? No worries. Pretty much any vermouth will do! Only have Gordons gin? No problem! Have Aperol instead of Campari? Oh well!
You just take three parts of roughly the right spirits, mix them together and serve over ice with a garnish if you’re feeling fancy and you’re going to get a good drink. Some variations will be much better than others, but it’s truly very difficult to make a bad Negroni if you have the recipe right.
This may not seem that great a virtue if your goal is to drink excellent drinks, but it’s really very helpful if you don’t drink beer and often end up in bars where their strength is more their beer than their cocktails. There will often be a decent selection of spirits behind the bar but not much knowledge of how to use them, and the negroni is your friend in this case - you ask for one, if they look confused you put on a helpful smile, point at bottles and deliver the really very simple instructions.
(Timing is of course important here. If you need to give instructions and the bar is really busy, don’t do that. It’s a bit of an asshole move)
But another great advantage of the Negroni that comes from its difficulty to screw up is that it is a great test bed for experimentation with new things. It’s a template drink.
The template is basically as follows:
- 1 part spirit
- 1 part bitter herbal liqueur
- 1 part vermouth, probably red and sweet
The nice thing is, that if you find a combination that works well you can pretty much sub out any one of these three ingredients for another in that category and you’ll continue to have something that works well. It might not work as well of course (not all Negroni variations are created equal), but then you’ll have learned something, and have had a relatively pleasant experience doing so. It’s like science but tasty.
Why might you want to do this when the classic Negroni is such a good drink? Well, partly because some of the drinks you discover by doing this are really fucking good. Felix has a list of his favourite Negroni variations, and frankly some of them just blow the Negroni out of the water in my book. Your mileage may of course vary, and you might find that actually the classic Negroni is exactly what you want, but it seems foolish not to try to find out.
Another reason is that it’s great for test bedding new spirits. My friend Ryan makes an old fashioned with just about every spirit he tries, because it’s a great showcase for how it mixes with bitters, which is basically the ur-cocktail. The Negroni works very well as a more complex version of this because it showcases how well it mixes with other spirits and what notes it adds to a drink when it’s not at the forefront.
But neither of those are the real reason I’m in favour of doing this, which gets us down to the point on which I most strongly disagree with Felix’s instructions.
Surprisingly it’s not really about alcohol. Or maybe not surprisingly, because if were really about alcohol I would probably be deferring to Felix’s expertise.
What it’s actually about is a different philosophy of learning.
If you make a thousand Negronis then you will be very drunk.
Err. Wait. Let’s start that again.
If you make a thousand Negronis then you will have learned a lot about Negronis. You’ll have tried it with different vermouths, different gins, maybe different Amaros. You’ll know a lot about how those three classes of flavours interact.
This is depth-first learning. You’ve picked a subject to specialize in, and you’ve learned everything you can about it, and you can now do that area incredibly well.
If you make a thousand Negroni variations, you’ll have explored a lot more of the space of available spirits. You won’t know any of the combinations nearly as in depth as you did by focusing more narrowly, but you’ll have got a very broad ranging view of what works and what doesn’t, and how different flavours of spirits combine with eachother, which is probably closer to what you actually need.
This is breadth first learning. You’ve acquired a wide general knowledge which you can now build upon in most situations you come across.
It’s also possible to combine the two. Once you’ve made your thousand variations, you can pick your favourite and make a thousand of those. You’ll learn just as much as you did with the original Negroni plan, but you’ll do it in the corner of the space that you actually prefer.
There’s a Bruce Lee quote about this which often gets bandied around in discussions about different learning styles:
“I fear not the man who has practised 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practised one kick 10,000 times.”
But I can’t help but feel that both of those guys would get their ass kicked by the person who practised 5000 kicks once, picked the one that worked best for their build and capabilities, then practised that one 5000 times. Them? They’re fucking scary.
On that thought I’ll leave you. Enjoy your Negronis, whatever they may be.