Out for the Count Tipple

As the Negroni celebrates its 100th birthday, Mark Palmer goes in search of the perfect version, from the Italian Alps to St James’s. Just don’t mention Martini Rosso…

By Mark Palmer

July 25 2019

Some anniversaries merit more attention than others, and rightly so. The 75th anniversary of D-Day Landings? I’ll raise a toast to that, with my new Campari-based drink, of which more later.

But some of us think this year’s centenary of possibly the greatest libation ever invented warrants public recognition, ideally accompanied by heated discussion about what exactly goes into it, followed by poetic references to its sublime colour and texture and ending with the feeling that all is well with this wretched world.

For it is indeed 100 years since Count Camillo Negroni walked into Caffè Casoni in Florence – now Caffè Giacosa – and asked bartender Fosco Scarselli to pour gin rather than soda water into his Americano, the drink beloved by Americans at the time, which comprised Campari, red vermouth and soda.

Signor Scarselli added a wedge of orange to distinguish it from the lemon garnish in an Americano: The Negroni was born. Equal measures of Campari, gin and vermouth – a ménage à trois, a three-part harmony, a Holy Trinity.

So popular was the concoction that the count and his family founded the Negroni Distilleria in Treviso and produced a ready-made version of the drink, Antico Negroni, in 1919. The word is that the count who was 51 at the moment of his finest hour – drank 30 Negronis a day. He died at 65.

What a legacy, even though some members of the Negroni family claim there is no record of a Camillo Negroni in their family genealogy. Never mind the origins; today, purists – and I claim to be one of them – find the whole modern Negroni experience as bitter-sweet as the drink itself. Yes, the beauty of it is the equal measures – egalitarianism on the rocks – but so many betrayals have been poured into the glass. The biggest of these is Martini Rosso, which invariably stands next to the Campari on a bar shelf, when truly it has no place in such exalted company.

Martini Rosso may taste like vermouth but it is not vermouth. It is a cheap imposter that over the years has gate-crashed so many parties that everyone thinks it belongs.

The perfect Negroni; popular Vermouth staples
The perfect Negroni; popular Vermouth staples

Certainly Valentina Bianco would never allow it in her bar, La Bouche, in Courmayeur in Italy’s Aosta Valley – and Valentina happens to be one of the world’s great Negroni experts. She’s only 33 but has already won countless awards for her knowledge about the King of Cocktails. “For me, a true vermouth must come from Torino – and that’s why I have about 40 of them from which to choose,” she says. “Many of them tell their own stories and you can sense that from the beautiful labels.” Some names will be familiar: Punt e Mes; Riserva Carlo Alberto; Del Professore Classico; Cinzano 1757.

Others not: Ricetta Belle Epoque, Ricetto Coloniale, Oscar 697. Vermouth is aromatised, fortified wine, flavoured with herbs, which must be no less than 15% alcohol by volume. The European definition stipulates that the wine used to prepare vermouth must be present in the finished product in a proportion not less than 75%.

The name vermouth comes from the Old German word for wormwood, wermut. Wormwood can be toxic in large amounts, but in small doses has traditionally been used to treat parasites – and, famously, flavour absinthe. In addition to healing the gut, it is also used to stimulate the stomach. I could go on – and I think I will. Vermouth’s invention is attributed to Antonio Benedetto Carpano, a herbalist from Turin, who in 1786 combined herbs with muscatel and sent a crate to King Vittorio Amedeo III. The king made it the drink of the royal household. So there’s a grand pedigree there for any snobs loitering at the bar.

In 1820, Giuseppe Bernardino Carpano, Antonio’s nephew, made the business official and expanded it until brothers Luigi and Ottavio, third-generation Carpanos, founded a factory in 1898 to handle increased demand.

La Bouche, in Courmayeur
La Bouche, in Courmayeur

As it happens, my friend Richard and I are writing a book about the Negroni. Which is why, while I probe Valentina about her favourite vermouth (“probably Bordiga, but they are like children to me so it is hard to pick just one”), Richard wants to know what comes immediately to mind when she thinks of a Negroni.”

Being with my boyfriend or with close friends in a happy place. Carefree, tolerant of others,” she replies. Of course there’s a juicy twist of intrigue, because no one knows what goes into Campari. No ingredients are listed on the bottle and the Campari website merely says it’s “an alcoholic spirit obtained from the infusion of bitter herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water”. Which isn’t very helpful. There are meant to be three people in the world who know the exact recipe, but no one has been told who those three are.

The secret has paid off. It is not so much a case of Campari dominating the market as Campari being the sole trader. Aperol could be considered a young pretender, but the boardroom at Campari Towers in Milan can hardly be shaking with fear.

The best sort of gin for a Negroni? There are no rules, but it has to be a straightforward London Dry rather than a mish-mash of pungent botanicals stuffed into a trendy bottle. Perhaps Plymouth, Tanqueray or good old Gordon’s would do, but my first choice is Foxdenton 48, a high-strength gin produced by a family business in Buckingham. Foxdenton’s mother’s ruin somehow doesn’t dominate the juniper and dances happily with the Campari.

Negroni-maker extraordinaire Alessandro Palazzi of Dukes Hotel
Negroni-maker extraordinaire Alessandro Palazzi of Dukes Hotel

Back in London, Richard and I fetch up at Duke’s, off St James’s Street, where a young bartender (I hate the word “mixologist”) called Maria tries to woo us with various Negroni spin-offs, including one called The Count, which has a dash or two of Ardberg single malt and Dom Bénédectine liqueur in it. Nice try. But we return quickly to the classic, one of which features Antica Formula vermouth, a popular fancy-pants but far too herby for me.

Allesandro, Duke’s legendary barman, who always sports an immaculate white jacket, joins us. He says the Negroni suddenly has become popular with young people and is experiencing some sort of a renaissance.

So we hop over the road to Franco’s in Jermyn Street, part of the Wilton’s group, and celebrate with another Negroni classic, which is not quite a classic because they use Martini Rosso rather than proper vermouth.

Which brings me to my own “not quite a classic” but one that I submit humbly for when you need that Campari fix but have a long evening ahead. Go with equal measures of Campari and London Dry Gin over plenty of ice and add tonic. I love it; Richard doesn’t. But it makes for a happy debate during this unheralded but hugely important centenary year. Even though it may not actually be the 100th anniversary at all.