Gin. Campari. Sweet vermouth. All in equal portion. There’s not much to a Negroni, really. Yet this crimson cocktail has captured the hearts of bartenders and their patrons for 100 years, even earning a weeklong celebration with Negroni Week underway now.
The flavors are bold, yet nuanced. Campari—an Italian aperitif that blends various herbs with aromatic plants and fruits, including chinotto citrus—is the centerpiece. Botanical gin and rich vermouth round out the bittersweet spirit. A drink for slow sipping, a Negroni is traditionally served over ice in a rocks glass, though increasingly they’re presented up in a coupe.
“It’s a complex, yet very simple, cocktail that you can do so much with,” explains Alice South, bar manager for Hula’s Island Grill and its speakeasy-inspired cocktail lounge, neXt doOr.
This week also brings Negroni Week, an annual fundraising event sponsored by Imbibe magazine and Campari each June that rides the cocktail’s popularity to raise money for local charities. Restaurants and bars invite you to have “a drink for your cause” and they’ll donate a portion of sales to non-profit partners. Since its debut in 2013, Negroni Week has raised more than $2 million for charitable causes.
This year, 10,000 venues worldwide are taking part in Negroni Week. Local participants include Il Fornaio (supporting the Helen David Relief Fund, which assists women in the bar industry battling breast cancer) and Ventana Big Sur and Yeast of Eden (supporting the Surfrider Foundation). Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill is also participating, with sales of a special Negroni for the week—the Back Nine Negroni with gin, Aperol, limoncello and Angostura bitters—also benefiting Surfrider.
Yeast of Eden goes further with a sold-out Negroni Throwdown on Thursday, June 27, from 6-9pm, with a portion of ticket sales going to the Surfrider Foundation.
“The Negroni is one of the most simple and approachable cocktails out there. Equal parts of readily available ingredients make it easy for the home bartender. It also makes the diversity of variations for the professional bartender that much more enticing and deliciously manipulated,” explains Adam Ono, assistant general at Yeast of Eden. “Throwing a competition to celebrate the Negroni and its many variations is naturally enticing on either side of the bar. There are some great cocktail talents in this area and bringing them together to show off what they can do is a privilege for me and a tasty night for the public.”
Emadi, Kuhn, Osuna, Perry and South will all take part in the competition, with Grasing’s bartender Aaron Shields as emcee for the festivities. The five bartenders will have to impress a panel of judges with two cocktails: an original drink featuring Campari or Aperol and the best Negroni or Negroni variant.
Yeast of Eden’s Negroni Throwdown will give local bartenders that opportunity to work outside the box of their day-to-day bartending and geek out on ingredients and techniques. “It’s fun to do these competitions because we get to try things we can’t always execute during service,” says Kuhn. Kuhn and company have been busy refining their recipes as they ready for the competition.
The bartenders are competing not just for bragging rights and industry swag, but to celebrate their close-knit local cocktail community. (All are regulars at each other’s bars.) “I’m excited about showcasing local bartending talent and everyone getting together to show what we can do,” says Kuhn. “I can’t wait to try everyone’s cocktails. I’m sure there will be some interesting spins on a classic cocktail,” adds South.
They’re all looking forward to putting their cocktail culture and community on stage. “I’m most looking forward to having a good time, meeting new people and sharing my passion with everyone there,” explains Emadi.
Most accounts put the Negroni’s debut in Florence, Italy, in 1919, when Count Camillo Negroni wanted a boozier twist on the traditional Americano (the cocktail, not coffee, with Campari, sweet vermouth and soda). Fosco Scarselli—barman for Caffè Casoni—obliged and this bitter and boozy concoction was born.
Soon others took a fancy to the count’s drink of choice and the Negroni become a bar staple. “The Negroni is one of the Mount Rushmore cocktails. Its origin is steeped in legend and has this aura around it as much as the Manhattan or martini,” says Josh Perry, bar manager at Cultura Comida y Bebida.
“I think the reason the recipe has endured for so long lies in its elegant simplicity. It’s a pure distillation of flavor and class, a perfect representation of what makes cocktails so special,” says jeninni kitchen + wine bar’s Bijan Emadi. “I think that’s why the Negroni is so popular amongst bartenders. We all strive to make the best drinks possible and we often overthink how best to execute our recipes. When we look at a Negroni, we see something timeless, classy and damn near perfect.” Like another Italian export, Fernet Branca, bartenders’ affinity for Negronis helped push its popularity with the public too.
Over the years, the Negroni has cultivated a cult-like following grounded in bitterness. “The Negroni is just such a different cocktail and it has great word of mouth: A friend tells a friend and they love it and just snowballs,” says Montrio Bistro bartender Cesar Osuna.
But the acrid drink isn’t for everyone and there are some Negroni naysayers. “People have a wide range of tolerances for bitterness,” explains Kelly Kuhn, bartender at Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill. She admits the Negroni isn’t her favorite cocktail, “I’m still learning to like Campari. It’s so strong on its own, so bitter and astringent. But I get the appeal of that. And my palate has changed significantly over the last few years working at a brewery with so many IPAs.”
Increasingly, you’ll find a Negroni on local menus and many bartenders have signature variations of the bitter beverage. During happy hour, Montrio Bistro offers the Neo-Negroni, with aromatic Dubonnet in place of sweet vermouth. And Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse’s Naproni mellows the traditional Negroni by substituting sweeter Aperol for Campari.
Pacific Grove’s Mezzaluna Pasteria and Mozzarella Bar has probably the most extensive Negroni selection—there’s an entire section of the cocktail menu devoted to the drink. Beyond the traditional preparation, look for the Negroni’s American cousin the Boulevardier (with bourbon instead of gin), the Negroni Bianco (swapping green, herbaceous Suze for Campari) and the Back to Black (mixing mezcal, Branca Menta and coffee liqueur with Campari).
Regardless of who wins the throwdown, the bartenders are here for fun and cocktail camaraderie. The only bitterness for these competitors will be in a cocktail glass.