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A Good Negroni -- why so difficult?

A visit to the lobby bar at the new W Hotel, and a few other instances around town got me wondering: why is it so hard to find a good negroni in this city? Obviously you can count on Drink, Eastern Standard, Green Street and places like that to get it right, but it seems like more and more places that claim to be serious bars have either never heard of it, skew the proportions (equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and campari? that *can't* be right!) or make it correctly but then garnish with a lemon slice. What's up? Am I wrong to be baffled by this? Is it a more obscure cocktail than I think it is?

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Eastern Standard
528 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215

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  1. I like a lemon slice in mine. And, a heavy splash of club soda in the summer.

    1 Reply
    1. re: trufflehound

      Oooh, club soda. Nice idea! Does anyplace serve it that way (other than the trufflehouse)?

    2. It's baffling. Drinkboston.com had an interesting discussion on this issue: http://drinkboston.com/2009/08/12/the... The blog's author, Lauren Clark, considers the Negroni a "safety drink", the kind you can order when you don't trust the bartender's skills, but my experience around Boston is far more like yours: this oughta-be-simple drink is a huge crapshoot.

      The comments on the article are (as usual for that blog) pretty funny; a lot of pros read and comment there. I quote my own comment here:

      "I have drunk enough misbegotten Negronis now to fairly accurately predict the outcome based on the bartender’s initial reaction when I place my order:

      1) The Not-a-Ripple: Success! This bartender knows how to make the drink without thinking, likely has tasted a good one, may bristle a little if I try to explain or specify further; after all, what kind of jackass doesn’t know how to make a proper Negroni? It will be properly bedecked with an orange twist (not a wedge or half-wheel of orange or lemon or lime).

      2) The Furrowed Brow of Consternation: Also good news! This bartender has no idea of how to make a Negroni, and so will ask me how and make it to my exact 1:1:1 specification. Usually an excellent drink.

      3) The Pause and Half-Nod: Uh-oh. This bartender has a vague idea of how to make the drink, but not really. Even if I specify “1:1:1″, it’s going into his/her mental categorization as “martini-like”, meaning it will be 95% gin with a drizzle of the other two key ingredients, plus maybe some seltzer, OJ, and an entire orange wheel. It will be faintly pink and thoroughly dreadful. With extremely bad luck, it will contain vodka and/or cherry juice (as happened to me recently).

      Unfortunately, over 50% of bartenders in untested establishments fall into Category 3. Safety drink? Ha! More like Lottery Drink! (But it is sweet when I get a proper one.)"

      http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

      14 Replies
      1. re: MC Slim JB

        finding a proper negroni is my holy grail, except at someplace like esk. and in a bar like that, i'm more likely to order something else, since i know they're up to the task.

        the martini-like conundrum abounds and i have stopped more than one clueless keep from putting dry vermouth in it. jeebus. that's happened twice now at cafe marliave, so i give up there.

        i don't expect a bar manager to have lower standards than the chef. the chef expects consistent execution from his line cooks. every plate, every night. too many of these bartenders seem to have no training, little oversight and lack a sense personal pride in doing their jobs well. instead they just go through half-a**ed motions and expect 20%.

        1. re: hotoynoodle

          Agreed. Drinkers should have a sense of context, a voice that tells them "This looks like a shot-and-a-beer kind of place, or at best a beers-and-highballs kind of place, so maybe ordering a shaker cocktail isn't such a hot idea." But there are plenty of Boston bars with 20-drink specialty cocktail menus, prices over $10/pop and yards of super-premium vodkas. Those are the bars where keeping atrociously undertrained bartenders on staff is a travesty.

          http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

          1. re: MC Slim JB

            concur completely. i don't go to foley's for an aviation, ok? however, i think too many get hired from shot and beer bars and aren't adequately trained. and drilled, all the time.

            you have no idea how many potential "bartenders" i have interviewed in my career who couldn't name even one single-malt scotch or more than one or two brands of gin. never mind the conversation of free-pouring vs. jiggers.

            <<rolls eyes>>

          2. re: hotoynoodle

            If I'm reading you correctly, I'm similar in that the places that I know can make a good negroni can also make other things well which are even harder to find, so I tend not to order them.

            I haven't come across a negroni as screwed up as a manhattan I had recently, where I watched the bartender pour in rye (she didn't really know what rye was, but i saw the bottle and pointed it out ... should have been a red flag), dry vermouth and rose's lime juice. Blech.

            1. re: jgg13

              exactly my point. i don't go to bertucci's for steak -- sporkie only.

              ew. what the what with the rose's? what on earth did she think she was making?

              recently saw a steakhouse drink menu and their manhattan was knob creek and cherry liqueur!

              1. re: hotoynoodle

                I saw her pouring in the lime and said to myself, "that *better* not be my drink" ... sure enough it was.

                The thing was, I had just asked what kind of sweet vermouth they had (my assumption of M&R was right, I just wanted to imply that she should use sweet vemouth w/o potentially insulting her) and verified that they had bitters. I then asked for a rye manhattan, and she used neither sweet vermouth or bitters. Perhaps I should have gone w/ the "potentially insulting her" route of saying exactly what I was after. C'est la vie.

                1. re: jgg13

                  a close friend is keen on manhattans and shares your pain about the bitters. we've been to higher-end places that don't even stock it!

                  1. re: jgg13

                    what establishment was that? might have to start carrying the flask

                    1. re: barleywino

                      Oh, it was some bar in Foxwoods. The only reason I even asked was that I saw the bottle of rye, and while she very much looked the part of "ditzy blond waitress getting by via large breasts" I overheard her talking to someone about something or other that made me think she might actually be competent.

                      Later on I ended up at a different bar in the complex where an old timer bartender took care of me ;)

                    2. re: jgg13

                      Ordering rye and expecting American straight rye is still a pipe dream in most Boston bars, too. Most don't stock it, and bartenders will reach instead for a Canadian whisky, usually a bland blended product with no rye in the mash bill, tasting nothing like American straight rye.

                      http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                      1. re: MC Slim JB

                        Having just returned from a trip to Toronto where I had a fantastic Manhattan made with Canadian rye, and having had some aged Canadian rye over the summer, I have to rise up in defense of our northern neighbors. I agree that Canadian and US (since we are all technically "American") rye are not the same, but would argue that not all Canadian rye is usually bland.

                        Though if that characterization is narrowly aimed at the standard brands found in Boston bars--then I'm in agreement.

                        1. re: MC Slim JB

                          This was Beam Rye, IIRC (and I might not RC, but it was an American rye). I could see the bottle ... just ended up pointing it out when she gave a weird look. I usually prefer bourbon to canadian rye in a manhattan, but have found that the "old guy hotel bar/caterer" type bartender will both tend to reach for canadian rye but also tend to make a better overall drink than the average bartender, if that makes sense.

                        2. re: jgg13

                          At our restaurant, I *always* put just a little bit of bitters in a Manhattan (as well as good whiskey and good, sweet vermouth). I've had about one Manhattan drinker in five *return* the drink saying it tastes "funny." It's 'cause of the bitters.

                          One older fellow actually screamed at me, "If I wanted an Old Fashioned, I'd have *ordered* an Old Fashioned." I guess muddling the fruit and sugar is not important to him, as he believes the difference between and Old Fashioned and a Manhattan is the addition of bitters.

                  2. re: MC Slim JB

                    Heh, that exactly matches my experience. When I go into a strange bar and get reaction #2, it's sort of a relief.

                  3. Going out for a Negroni for me is getting to be like going out for a steak: I know I can make as good or better at home, so why bother? That said, I've had perfectly decent ones at Deep Ellum: despite their reputation as a beer-centric place, they're fine with cocktails.

                    Another kind of bad Negroni: I was at a bar in NYC with my editor a couple months ago and I was served a Negroni on the rocks. Seriously.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                      Man, I love my Negroni served on the rocks, in a nice heavy rocks glass. On the rocks is, in fact, the official IBA recipe for the Negroni.

                      But I know plenty of folks, including MC Slim, prefer their's straight up. I always specify.

                      1. re: rlove

                        I think people should get their Negroni however they like it, and that drink is very fine on the rocks. But I did order one at the Caffè Giacosa (originally known as the Caffè Casoni) in Florence, where the cocktail was invented, and didn't specify how I wanted it. They served it to me up, so I consider that the canonical version.

                        http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                        1. re: MC Slim JB

                          I visited Roberto Cavalli's Caffè Giacosa this summer, and I think we can both agree, MC Slim, that the place bears zero resemblance to the original Caffè Casoni. They did, however, make a wonderful Negroni, straight up.

                          Two reasons, beyond the IBA recipe, why the drink makes sense on the rocks: First, the drink contains Campari, which is generally consumed on ice, even in Italy, where much else isn't on ice. Second, the drink's predecessor, the Americano, containing both sparkling water and Campari, is always consumed on the rocks. Thus it seems a natural progression that Count Negroni's "addition of gin to an Americano" resulted in a drink served on the rocks.

                          That said, obviously neither approach is superior and we will enjoy the classic drink however we choose--I, in fact, enjoy both presentations, but I have an odd predilection for the weight of a heavy rocks glass in my hand. :)

                          Given how much drink histories are apocryphal, we will likely never know the original drink's origins.

                          1. re: rlove

                            Yep, most drink origin stories are shrouded in mystery and competing ownership claims.

                            I'll buy that on-the-rocks rationale (I'm a big Americano highball fan, too), though if the old Count were a fan of American-style pure-booze cocktails, which Italians don't seem to drink much of, he could have been an up-cocktail guy. I will have to take your word on Caffè Casoni: I never visited it in that incarnation.

                            http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                      2. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                        I agree, I drink most of my Negronis at home, though I do prefer them on the rocks. When I'm out at a place that does cocktails well I'm always in search of something new and different and DRY (I can't stand sweet drinks, with the occasional exception of a properly-made margarita). Lately I've grown quite fond of ESK's Green Point.

                      3. You can do what Christine from the Bostonist did -- get her preferred recipe printed (hers are beautifully letter pressed) onto business cards. She's considering expanding to other recipes such as the Bijou.

                        http://cocktailvirgin.blogspot.com/

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: yarm

                          bartenders hate when people hand them drink recipes...its tacky, obnoxious and annoying. Ive never seen so much hand wringing over finding a Negroni, as much as I enjoy them, its fairly easy to tell where to order them and where not

                          1. re: jvish

                            please refer back to the top. places like marliave that promote themselves as "craft cocktail bars" struggle with making a negroni. hence the hand-wringing.

                            1. re: hotoynoodle

                              I got a decent Negroni - no questions asked - the first time I ate at Marliave, a little over a year ago. Don't know what's happened with their bartending staff since then.

                            2. re: jvish

                              Actually, not easy at all to tell. That's why I posted.

                              1. re: jvish

                                You seem to have missed the entire point of this thread, jvish. People aren't hand-wringing: they're making the observation that despite its simplicity, many bars of the sort that ought to know how to make one -- I'd say if you have a specialty cocktail list with a few shaker drinks on it, you qualify -- don't know how.

                                I've been complaining about this issue here forever, as the Negroni is my standby cocktail, e.g., in this post from over five years ago: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/148256

                                As baffling as that is given the recipe's simplicity, that's the reality. I'd estimate I've ordered one at literally over a hundred bars in Greater Boston -- knowing full well that you don't order a Negroni at a place like Doyle's -- and my hit rate is probably somewhere around 30%.

                                http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                            3. One more thing to consider: even if the proportions are right, you could get some old sweet vermouth. That stuff does spoil after a while and if it isn't fresh, you will notice. Also some gins are more mixable in the drink than others.

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: marais

                                Great comment regarding the vermouth. Which is exactly why it baffles me how a Negroni could be someone's "safety drink." If you are in an establishment that makes you think of pulling that card out, you should probably question the freshness of the vermouth sitting on the bar (or in the well).

                                1. re: Canadian Tuxedo

                                  Agreed 100%. I was going to comment with the same point as marais, but was beaten to the punch.

                                  I've had okay success with my Negroni orderings across town, with the biggest hit being not an inability to recall the recipe, but the use of old, dank vermouth.

                                  1. re: rlove

                                    Spoke too soon!

                                    Visited The Four Season's Bristol Lounge this week for a late night drink.

                                    First tried to order an Aviation, and was told by the waitress (I wasn't sitting at the bar) that they "don't have one of the ingredients for that."

                                    Then I ordered a Negroni. It wasn't bad, and the vermouth wasn't dank, but the proportions were more 2-1-1 gin-vermouth-campari, or even 4-2-1. I guess it is unthinkable anyone would want a straight up drink that isn't nearly all vodka or gin, or that someone could enjoy a lot of Campari. Oh well.

                                    -----
                                    Bristol Lounge
                                    200 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116

                                2. re: marais

                                  Here, here!

                                  There are very few bars that properly take care of something as perishable (comparatively) as vermouth. Sure, hard liquor's relatively easy to care for -- but Vermouth's a wine product and does, indeed, go sour despite the addition of fortification, herbs and Sulfites.

                                  The martini craze has the dry vermouth flowing pretty well, however, the poor lowly bottle of sweet vermouth, so often used only for the occasional Manhattan, is gonna go bad before it's finished.

                                  I've seen two or three enlightened places that did something bright... they poured vermouth from small, pint-sized bottles (like one would find in the liquor store) instead of "bar-sized" (full litre) bottles. That's a great idea!

                                  1. re: shaogo

                                    Another way to keep vermouth fresh is to treat it like any open bottle of wine you don't intend to drink that night or discard: an air-evacuation system to retard oxidation and microbial growth. I use VacuVin and refrigerate my eight or so open bottles of vermouth at home, and see that same approach used at many bars with big wine BTG offerings. A serious wine bar could use its nitrogen system.

                                    http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/