With his Happy Eater column (that name, ha!!) in London’s Guardian newspaper, restaurant critic and proud curmudgeon Jay Rayner likes to take on the ironies, hypocrisies and general maladies afflicting the food world. On the topic of picnics? “A waste of agriculture,” he recently wrote. [See: Of Course Jay Rayner Hates Picnics.]
Over the weekend, Rayner dropped some lines about why he hates the Negroni, a classic Italian cocktail we’ve spend much time discussing and dissecting. It was around 1920 when Count Camillo Negroni christened the drink at the Caffè Casoni in Florence. A well-known fan of the bottle, Negroni — as the story goes —wanted to punch up the popular Americano and asked his favorite bartender to fix him something a a little different.
The result is a supremely dry and bitter ticker-tape parade on the taste buds. Three components — all equal parts — combine for a complex marriage. Campari is the anchor. It's a mysterious spirit, bottled in such a deep shade of red that beetle blood was once rumored to be one of the main ingredients. (Fact: Not true.) The secretive Milanese producers will only say the complex aperitif is made from 60 herbs, spices and fruit peels. Sweet vermouth and gin (the Count’s crucial addition) rounds out the drink. Shaken or served on the rocks and always garnished with an orange twist, a Negroni starts overwhelmingly bitter — like your palate has jumped into an icy plunge pool. It finishes sweeter as the gin takes control.
Back in 2011, we dedicated an entire week to the negroni. Today you can find many, MANY variations available. In Chicago, the Frozen Negroni — sold by the gallon at Parsons Chicken & Fish — is arguably the “Blurred Lines” of cocktails this summer. But for Rayner, it’s a drink made with the “foul violent insult that is Campari.”
“I don't like its bitterness in the same way I don't like having my corns sliced off. Drinking a Negroni feels like punishment for a crime not yet committed.”
Rayner goes on the describe the equal-parts sipper as a “grown up drink,” comparing the astringent kick to a young adult’s first sip of alcohol. And here’s the thing about Rayner’s claim. He’s right. Very right. It’s not for everybody. My wife can’t look at the stuff, and fully vetoed serving Negronis at our wedding (though I won out big time with a Corpse Reviver).
Which is all the more surprising why it’s such a big hit. Are people just pretending to like the over-the-top bitterness and sometimes medicinal aftertaste? If the bartender goes too heavy on the Campari, this can certainly be the case. Is it the ruby red that draws them in? Or is our taste for cocktails changing — are the sweet-centric Mudslide tendencies of the 1990s and 2000s aging out? Are flavored vodkas doomed for more “adult” flavors like mescal and juniper-forward gins? Likely not. We’re all still kids at heart, Rayner contends. And just trying to figure out a way to wash down hooch in the least intrusive manner possible.
“At 46 I had thought myself all grown up,” he writes. But in the matter of the glass and the Negroni that isn't in it, apparently I am not. I'm still a child. Oh, the shame.”
Read more about the negroni on Food Republic: