The Cult of the Negroni Has Its Day

100 years after its creation, the bitter cocktail is having its big moment in the US

June 26, 2019 9:04 am
Matt Hranek enjoys a Negroni (Leah Odze Epstein for InsideHook)
Matt Hranek enjoys a Negroni (Leah Odze Epstein for InsideHook)

We throw around the term “Instagram trap” a lot these days because, well, let’s face it: just about any location in the world is a good spot for a selfie if the lighting is good. And although Dante in New York City’s West Village is, in my humble opinion, one of the coolest spots in Manhattan, calling the little bar that has been around Greenwich Village in one form or another since 1915 a trap for anything but delicious cocktails is underselling it.

But, yes, it’s also great place to take pictures of yourself. Open up the app on your phone and you’ll see plenty of people making the duck face, good-looking bartenders pouring drinks and hand-carved ice cubes with the bar’s name in them.

You’ll also see a ton of Negronis in photos taken there. Lots and lots of them. And when I walk in on a sunny late afternoon during the first week of summer, of course, I see a beautiful woman with long brown hair holding the iconic red cocktail up to her face, her iPhone in the other hand, telling the world, “I’m here and I’m drinking this Negroni.”

Naren Young, Dante’s creative director, doesn’t even notice. I’m guessing he’s seen that sort of thing a lot.

“Last year we sold over 52,000 Negronis,” he tells InsideHook. “Most weeks we serve around 1,500.”

The Negroni is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. It’s hardly new, nor is Dante the only spot in the city to get a great one, but there are few places in Manhattan, and possibly the entire country, that take the cocktail as seriously. A look at their 2019 Negroni Week menu, with versions like the Negrone, a cherry-topped Cuban take on the drink from 1939, and the Rosita, a classic from Mr. Boston’s Bartender Guide from 1988, prove that.

And while the Negroni has had its share of fans in the States since, according to legend, Orson Welles wrote in a newspaper about having one in the drink’s native Italy in 1947, it’s long played backup to whatever the more popular cocktails of the day was. With the ascension of all things whiskey in the aughts, it felt like the drink’s destiny was to be a cult favorite with a dedicated fanbase of drinkers who like things on the bitter side.

But after more than a decade of bartenders with interesting facial hair serving fussy cocktails, people might be looking for something new, a drink that could take them out of modern-day America and transport them to another time and place. That’s the Negroni, and its time has come. It’s a cocktail you could see a character in one The Talented Mr. Ripley drinking. It’s perfect for all seasons, and exceedingly easy to make (equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth). The New York Times is calling it the “perfect cocktail for 2019.” With endorsements like that, changing tastes and a little push from people with big Instagram followings, the bitter-but-refreshing Negroni is the classic cocktail of the future.

The humble but beautiful Negroni (Photo by Deb Lindsey For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The Washington Post/Getty Images

Figuratively speaking, tastes do change, though it’s not as simple as a large swath of drinkers waking up one day and realizing they collectively want to switch from sweeter cocktails to bitter ones. People really love whiskey-based drinks like the Old-Fashioned or Manhattan, cocktails that utilize ingredients like sugar or sweet vermouth, and they aren’t just going to stop feeling that way.

Ask any bartender across the country, and they’ll likely tell you that, besides stalwarts like Margaritas and Martinis, they make more Old-Fashioneds than anything on a normal shift. And many of them will tell you the reason why probably has to do with the residual obsession with all things Don Draper and Mad Men from a few years back. It seems like only yesterday when every website had to come up with some spin on the “How to make a classic Old-Fashioned” or something about the drink’s connection to the sad but oh-so cool looking AMC drama. We’ve been drowning in Old-Fashioneds for some time now, and while that isn’t such a bad thing, maybe it’s time for a change. While we’re busy debating whether its cousin, the Aperol Spritz, is good enough or not to be the Next Big Thing, the Negroni feels like it just needs a gentle push to become the go-to order for more drinkers.

One place the inspiration could come from is Matt Hranek’s Instagram account. The photographer, author and founder of Wm Brown magazine is one of the more passionate Negroni lovers out there, routinely posting shots with the hashtag #NegroniSpotting from every corner of the world, or with the group of tuxedo-clad friends he packed aboard a Belmond Royal Scotsman train on a journey through the Scottish Highlands recently. Anybody who follows Hranek’s adventures no doubt saw him aboard the train with a number of well-known menswear influencers drinking the red cocktail.

While Hranek is quick to say he’s joking after claiming the drink has risen in popularity due to his social-media posts, he does think his talking about them all the time has helped get his followers excited about the drink. “I started drinking Negronis years ago on my first trips to Italy as a young photographer,” he tells InsideHook. “I began to love them more and more as my palate shifted from sweet to bitter, and [I started] favoring gin-based drinks over wine and beer.” and while he likes the traditional recipe of gin, Campari and vermouth, Hranek mentions that he’ll also sub in mezcal in a pinch, and notes, “I am writing a book on Negronis right now, so stand by for some recipe variations, but not many.”

Of course, Hranek isn’t the only one posting the red cocktail on his IG, but his influence in the menswear world means the cocktail has a champion with a lot of sway, an influential guy even among influencers. The drink itself really shouldn’t need a ton of help: with its bright red or other reddish variations on the drink, the Negroni is really the perfect cocktail for Instagram. Just a quick search currently yields 543,000 posts using the #Negroni hashtag; bartenders holding bottles of Campari, videos of Negronis in vintage glassware and, yes, selfies where the person is holding one next to their carefully tilted face. The drink has also spawned a number of meme accounts, including one highlighting the most notable ingredient, Campari.

“I started @Campariboys with my good friend Flynn McGarry before we were good friends. His sister Paris — who helps run the account, too — and I are best friends from college and when Flynn came to visit leafy Annandale before I graduated, we drank a jug of homemade batch Negronis I had made to celebrate and discovered we both bled Campari,” says Charles McFarlane, a New York-based writer who co-founded the Instagram account with Flynn McGarry, chef and owner of Gem. McFarlane and McGarry use the account to show their love for the drink by riffing on popular memes of the day, from the boyfriend-checking-out-another-girl to the “one taught me love, one taught me patience, and one taught me pain” with bottles of Campari, vermouth and Beefeater gin underneath it.

“I think in a culture that’s so focused on new things constantly it’s comforting to have a drink that is classic and known. It gets rid of the stress of ordering and the potential for a bad drink,” McGarry adds.

As writer and cocktail historian Robert Simonson points out in the foreword for Gary Regan’s The Negroni: Drinking to La Dolce Vita, With Recipes & Lore, the drink is “a democracy,” that, thanks to its simple, three-decker arrangement, “the Negroni manages to bring every taste bud into play.” Joe Campanale, owner of the popular Brooklyn Italian restaurant Fausto, echoes that sentiment, saying that the Negroni’s popularity lies in its simplicity, but also the care somebody has to take to make one. He compares it to another popular Italian import that Americans fell in love with and made their own a few decades ago, one that has its passable versions that do the trick, but also its superior takes that build on the original.

“Pizza is only a few ingredients, right? But it’s making sure they’re all high quality ingredients so you make sure you hone that skill. Granted it’s a lot less skill to make a perfect Negroni, although it does take some level of skill as well, it’s just all these things that tells us that — I’ve heard this said elsewhere before — Italian food is more about shopping than it is about cooking.”

While social media might hold one of the keys to growing the Negroni’s popularity, there needs to be a hand to turn that key. Those hands belong to the people who make the drink: the bartenders.

As the National Portfolio Brand Ambassador for Campari America, Anne Louise Marquis spends a lot of time thinking about the Negroni. She points out, “The Negroni is a full-flavored drink with a lot going on, but at its essence it is a study in restraint,” and the drink’s limitations is compelling to bartenders. “The Negroni, like the Old Fashioned, poses a challenge: how much can you do with three ingredients?”

Naren Young and the staff at Dante realize this.

“I mean, to be honest the Negroni is a fairly polarizing drink,” he admits, but says there’s always a backup plan. “If someone has never had a Negroni before we try and steer them in the direction of something that’s maybe not as bitter and full-bodied and robust. So we start them off with something there and then hope that next time they come back maybe their palate will be used to more bitter flavors, maybe they trust us a bit more and then they can jump into the deep end, so to speak, and try some of the more esoteric things we have on there.”

Of course, the cocktail has also had its detractors. Matt Buchanan, writing for The Awl (RIP) in 2015, wrote the drink was popular among “preening gadflys who would like to portray themselves as sophisticated drinkers with a highly discerning palate that allows them to enjoy beverages that are ‘bitter forward.’”

But that was four years ago. Bitter, it seems, has moved towards the front.

As nearly everybody I talked to for this article pointed out, while the culture’s taste buds won’t change together, there has been a shift towards bitter: greens like arugula and kale, as well as coffee and dark chocolate, have all become more popular among consumers and chefs. If there’s anything to be said about 2019, it’s that we’re certainly more bitter than we’ve ever been.

But we also have more choices. And while whiskey is great, and Old-Fashioneds won’t disappear from drink menus, well, ever, whiskey-based cocktails don’t really make for great photographs. And let’s face it: that’s important these days. So as our tastes evolve alongside our continued reliance on the influence of the people we follow on Instagram, expect the Negroni to remain quite literally ready for its closeup.


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