In Italy, the Negroni is a grandpa drink.
Not over here. In the States, it’s a popular cocktail, seemingly beyond generational bias, that has fueled through-the-roof sales of Campari, the bitter Italian liqueur essential to its makeup.
So as a Negroni lover, I was shocked to hear that bit of truth from Dave Karraker, vice president of engagement and advocacy for Campari America, based in San Francisco. When in Rome, drink Campari and soda or Campari and orange, apparently.
Yet here the Negroni is ascendant. In the past five years, the mix of Campari, sweet vermouth and gin has pushed Campari sales from 50,000 cases per year to an expected 100,000 this year, says Karraker.
Two things happened in the United States in the past 10 years to set the stage, says Karraker: “The rise of bartenders as real craftsman,” which fueled the comeback of classic cocktails. And “the palate in the U.S. became more bitter.”
The Negroni, certainly a classic (nearly 100 years old), and certainly sporting a bitter edge (from the Campari), became bartenders’ darling. You could say, as Karraker did, that the Negroni is having a moment, except that the moment is yearslong and shows little sign of ending.
Gruppo Campari, Campari’s Milan-based parent company, would be stupid not to capitalize on that growth. Campari is not stupid. Enter the bottled Negroni, a pre-mixed cocktail released last fall. It’s made in Milan in the same facility as Campari, but sold only in the States, the test market, says Karraker.
It retails for about $40 for a liter bottle. Along with Campari, the bottled drink is made with London dry gin (contracted from a secret distillery in the United Kingdom) and a custom-mixed sweet vermouth from Cinzano (also a Campari-owned brand), and is 26 percent alcohol by volume.
Karraker says the test is limited to the United States because of the popularity of the cocktail here.
And how’s that test going? Karraker wouldn’t say. If it goes well, though, it might be easier to find a bottle. Now, it’s available in only a few markets (South Florida, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York City, Washington, Chicago, New Jersey and Connecticut).
How’s it taste? As a Negroni devotee, I must say right off that in this case, freshly made is better. But also, bottled is pretty good. The vermouth is a bit too prominent, but otherwise a good drink.
Why would you buy it? You don’t want to stock a bottle of each spirit to make a Negroni from scratch at home. You want a drink easier to mix than the proper 1-to-1-to-1 ratio. (Maybe that sounds ridiculous, but I admit to coming home late on a work night and being grateful that I could just open the bottle — one bottle, not three — and pour.)
A convenient all-in-one-bottle drink is also easy to transport on vacation, as we did last summer. This pre-dated Campari’s ready-to-drink Negroni, but we mixed our own batch, pouring it into a screw-top bottle. The ease of it was much appreciated in our little cabin in the Ontario woods.
It’s not so odd, really, to pre-mix a Negroni. Indeed, batch cocktails and aging (in bottle or barrel) of those batches has been another recent bartending trend, now spilling over into the home. The Negroni is a leading go-to drink for such experimentation, largely because it is all spirits, meaning there is little to degrade in the bottle.
And those aficionados will tell you, in bottle or barrel, a Negroni gets better. After six weeks or so, you’ve got a smoother, more integrated drink, as Gary Regan describes in his most excellent book, The Negroni.
If the Negroni does well, will Campari try selling more pre-made drinks? Karraker, the man who put sbagliato (a Negroni with prosecco instead of gin) in cans for a giveaway at a New York City cocktail event three years ago (and got soundly chastised by HQ: “How dare you can Campari!”), was noncommital.
In Italy you already can buy bottled Campari and soda, as well as a bottled Aperol spritz (Aperol being another Campari-owned brand). Maybe those will be imported? Or the Americano (the precursor to Negroni, made with soda water instead of gin), he mused — maybe it would do well here.