I am just finishing up Jason Wilson's great book Boozehound. While I have really enjoyed reading the entire tome, I find myself going back to his chapter on Italian aperitif wines and bitter spirits and making these cocktails again and again. I have already broken my New Year's resolution to stop adding bottles to my bar at an ungodly pace (yes, it's only January 7th - sigh), cleaning out my local liquor store's selection of bitter spirits and busily toying with bitter-flavored cocktails these past weeks. See these posts on the Brooklyn, Pamplemousse D'Amour and the Corpse Reviver No. 2.
Since the Ace is on a bitter kick I figured that I would profile probably the most basic and also the best-known of the bitter cocktails - the Negroni. If this cocktail has not already permeated the cocktail menu at every hipster joint in your town, trust me that it will sometime in 2011. And while I am not one for fads, I must admit that the Negroni is a great little cocktail that is worthy of your attention. Not everyone will like it - after all, bitter has long ago exited the American taste palate and may take a long time to re-enter - but those that can hack the bitter qualities of the dominant spirit will love it.
The basics of the Negroni are pretty simple. The traditional recipe is as follows:
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. dry gin (I prefer Plymouth or No. 209)
1 oz. Carpano D'Antica sweet vermouth
Put an up glass into the freezer to chill. Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with lots of ice and stir briskly for 30 seconds until well chilled. Strain into the chilled up glass and garnish with orange zest.
This is an excellent drink that balances the bitterness of Campari with the floral qualities of gin and the earthy, raisin-like qualities of Carpano.
But Campari is just one of the plethora of interesting new bitter spirits out there that can lay claim to some form of European heritage. There are a number of excellent new bitters and amari out there that combine herbs and vegetal flavors with fortified wine. One new entrant in this space is Gran Classico, (see a profile of it from Imbibe Magazine here) a new product from Tempus Fugit Spirits that markets itself as the long-lost "Bitter of Turin". It lists a Negroni recipe right on the back of the bottle, thereby competing directly with Campari for the hearts and minds of Negroni drinkers.
So I mixed up a pair of Negroni cocktails - one using the traditional Campari and the other one replacing Campari with Gran Classico.
The first thing that jumps out at you when you compare these cocktails is the color. Its tough to tell from the picture at right, but Campari has a bright red coloring - something along the lines of a raspberry syrup. This gives the Campari Negroni its slightly supernatural but quaintly familiar red coloring. The Gran Classico Negroni is brown - much like you would expect from a Manhattan or any other whiskey- or cognac-based cocktail.
As different as these two drinks look, the real difference is in the taste. Again, Campari tastes very good - and there's something familiar about the slightly syrupy sweetness of the Campari and the way that it downplays the bitter flavoring of the spirit. It comes across to me like a spirit geared toward the traditional American market's attitude toward it's flavor profile - pleasantly bitter but not too much so.
Contrast this with the Gran Classico Negroni, which was the winner for me. The Gran Classico spirit comes through with an unfettered bitter quality that lets the vermouth do the work in sweetening in this cocktail. I really preferred the herb-forward, bitter flavoring of the Gran Classico. In short, for my dollar the Gran Classico yields a higher-end, more artisanal cocktail.
Campari is still a great spirit with a lot of utility in the home bar. And many readers out there may find that they prefer the Campari flavoring over the alternatives. Whichever bitter flavoring you choose, there are a wealth of really great cocktail recipes out there that take advantage of this fashionable flavor profile. More coming soon...