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The classic Negroni is very much like the Manhattan: it’s a variable and customisable cocktail, as long as the basic recipe (spirit-vermouth-Campari) is respected. One variation is here, from Milk & Honey‘s Mickey McIlroy: the Right Hand. Here, the gin is replaced with a dark rum, and the rum and bitter flavours are drawn together with a few dashes of chocolate bitters. The result is a lovely, rich & interesting drink, with plenty of overlapping flavours. A pal had provided me with some excellent home-made chocolate & Absinthe bitters which proved absolutely perfect. I may actually prefer this to a classic Negroni – the rum is more warming, but this wouldn’t be a great pre-dinner drink, probably too rich. But as something to sip with something salty, or after dinner, it’s a great idea.
50ml dark rum (I used Skipper here)
25ml Italian vermouth
Dashes of chocolate bitters
Stir over ice in your mixing glass, then fine strain into a highball glass with a single large ice cube. Garnish with orange zest, or a dried orange slice as I did here.
I follow several Instagram accounts where the drink photography is really good, and these often lead to drinks I haven’t tried before. A happy discovery on Friday was an image of an Old School from the Dragonfly bar in Hong Kong, which sounded very interesting indeed: no proportions were given, but looking at the combination, it appeared to be a Sazerac/Manhattan variant, so I re-built their drink on that basis.
The result is really quite something – there’s a lot going here, in some really subtle proportions, and the bar has created a modern take on the classic Sazerac. The combination an amaro and a fernet in one drink could be really quite an eye-opener, but they have used very small quantities of each, and the amaro, Montenegro, is at the sweeter end of the amaro style (and also one of my favourites – so I had a bottle to hand). For the fernet, I was lucky to still have a small amount of the Britannica fernet sample that Asterley Bros sent me last month; it’s a really excellent new version of this rich and bitter drink & well worth a bottle of your time. A little trial-and-error, and I came up with something really quite smooth and delicious. If you want to be closer to the Sazerac roots, use a rye rather than a bourbon; I used bourbon & it seemed to sit well with the amaro/fernet bitterness. It’s your choice to choose the base spirit, so see what works best for you. The Lillet is the one thing I would keep as a invariable ingredient though; it has a special flavour.
My version of the Old School:
15ml Lillet Blanc
10ml Amaro Montenegro
A bar spoon of fernet – Britannica for choice
Chill an Old Fashioned glass. Stir the spirits together over ice until well cooled. Rinse the glass with a small quantity of absinthe, so that the bottom third is coated, then drain. Strain the spirit mixture into the glass and garnish with a large slice of lemon zest, expressing the oils onto the surface before dropping the zest into the drink. I served this straight up, and it seemed to suit the drink, but if you like yours with another large ice block, have at it.
A Margarita variant, the Division Bell comes from the mind of Phil Ward, one of the key bartenders credited with New York’s cocktail revival in the 90s. His much-missed venue, Mayahuel, closed there in 2017 & has since re-opened amid some controversy, but some of his most popular creations from there live on. Here is the Division Bell, that pairs the smokiness of mezcal with the citrus flavours of Aperol, which leads to its connection with the Margarita. But the smoky flavours and the richness of the Aperol make this a more intriguing proposition (though I’ve nothing against a Margarita – a properly-made one with a good tequila is a wonderful thing, indeed). I have used the most available brand of mezcal in the UK, Monte Alban, which, frankly, most mezcal aficionados think is poor stuff – but it’s what you’ll mostly find here until mezcal gets the same kind of interest levels as tequila gets now. However, the results aren’t bad at all – if Monte Alban isn’t great, then the Aperol and maraschino lifts it up. This is a really clever drink – it combines elements of a Last Word with a Margarita, and makes more of both. A perfect example of just a little tweak to a recipe can make a very different drink.
22.5ml fresh lime juice
Shake all of the ingredients with plenty of ice, then double strain into a chilled coupe. Difford’s guide suggests grapefruit as a garnish, but I preferred orange to match the Aperol better. No bitters required, as the Aperol provides this, but if you want a more bitter-fronted drink, a few drops of Bob’s Orange & Mandarin would work nicely
My sample of Asterley Bros’ London fernet, Britannica, is proving very versatile, so I have been looking at other ways of using it. Adding a fernet or amaro to a Boulevardier recipe to give it a more cutting edge is a great variation – such as the Palpable Apathy, created by David Little at the Barnacle bar in Seattle – so I decided to try something like that with my sample of Britannica. In a piece of perfect timing, a recipe from my favourite bar, Disrepute in Soho, popped up in my Instagram feed – a Bulleit Boulevardier, developed for them by Jean-Vital at Cocktail Circus. So with a salut! to the original recipe, I have replaced the Fernet Branca with Britannica, and changed the cherry wine to a cherry brandy, just to reduce the sweetness a touch. The end result is a Boulevardier with a kick – more of a Brixton swagger than Champs-Élysées stroll – so I have renamed this one the Londoner with a Bulleit, as its full-fronted bitterness seems to evoke some 60s gangster movie set in the East End. Perhaps you need to drink this one while wearing a trilby, as an additional garnish.
40ml Bulliet bourbon
10ml Britannica fernet
15ml Cinzano Rosso
10ml cherry brandy
Stir in a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with a slim strip of orange zest – mandarin, if you have it.
This drink is an update to a variation on the Manhattan, using the uniquely Italian strong bitter spirit, fernet, to replace the bitters that are so important in the Manhattan. Having re-magined the drink in an Italian style, they also re-named it I Fanciulli or the Lads. The result is a more bitter & powerful version of the Manhattan.
For my version, I was able to use the new London fernet, Britannica, made by the Asterley Brothers, who make an inventive range of modern takes on three key cocktail ingredients: a vermouth, an amaro and most recently, the fernet – which has the correct myrrh & herbal base, plus some uniquely English elements like chocolate malt and a London porter. As this was a British version of the recipe, I renamed the drink to give it a more local name – this is the London Brothers. It is a bold and bitter version of the Manhattan, and needs to be made with a strong bourbon – or perhaps even more correctly a rye – but here the 45% Bulleit was a good choice. This a strong pre-dinner drink, with a full-on bitter hit, followed by the lingering sweetness of the bourbon/vermouth combination
2 oz strong bourbon
1/2 oz Britannica fernet
1/2 oz Italian vermouth
Add alcohols to a mixing glass, and then plenty of fresh ice. Stir and double strain into a chilled coupe. No bitters are required due to the fernet. Garnish also seems to be optional
Suze, the gentian-first Swiss bitter, is a very useful bottle to have in the drink stock; not nearly as sweet as its Italian relatives, the flavour is dry and distinctively bitter, much more so than even Campari.
Gentian isn’t only found in Size, but here it’s so the dominant flavour, it gives the drink a very mysterious herbal-vegetal quality, quite unlike anything else; a simple shot poured over ice makes a very good aperitif, but too much can give that mouth-puckering feeling brought on by drinking large quantities of tonic water.
In the white Negroni, the combination of the Suze and a dry vermouth gives the finished drink a lighter taste, more herbal and delicate than its traditional and more robust cousin; people who don’t like Campari and might refuse a Negroni on that basis could find this one a more delicate and intriguing introduction; whether or not it’s better is a different debate altogether, but it’s certainly distinctive enough while remaining obviously related to the traditional version.
40ml gin (try a delicate, citrus-forward blend – I used the Japanese Roku brand here)
30ml white vermouth (I used the Spanish Casa Mariol vermut)
Stir the alcohols together over ice, then strain into an old-fashioned glass with fresh ice. Garnish with a large piece of lemon zest. Breaking the ‘always add bitters’ rule here, as Suze is herbal enough for you not to need them.
Note: if you like Suze, and I do, then reverse the quantities of the Suze and the vermouth for a more dominant flavour.
Naming cocktails is an odd thing: typically, the barman or establishment that invents a particular combination gets to name that drink (see the Ward 8 for one example). Many stories are known, some are the source of controversy & plenty are lost entirely. With a limited number of ingredients, especially in the classic cocktail era, it’s hardly surprising that some cocktails even come in different recipes bearing the same name: the Derby exists in a number of forms, all named after the famous American horse race.
So what does this have to do with the Negroni, and its many current expressions being offered in bars? The standard recipe, gin, vermouth & Campari is a great combination of strong, sweet and sour, making it a damn-near perfect pre-dinner drink, and its recent resurgence is not surprising. But the twist is that the Negroni itself is a variation – the standard history is that Count Negroni asked his favourite barman to strengthen the regular Americano cocktail by replacing the soda water with gin (most likely because he’d lived in London for a while and picked up a gin habit there), creating the famous mix. But, similar drinks exist, all bearing different names: the Old Pal replaces the gin with whisky, and the other bar classic, the Boulevardier has bourbon in the white spirit slot.
So why are modern Negroni variations not getting completely new names? My guess is that because of the popularity of the standard Negroni, bar staff are wanting to show the connection to the classic drink, whilst trying to do something original. Tequila for gin is a fairly straightforward change, and a basic silver or plata style tequila isn’t going to clash dramatically with the vermouth or Campari. As someone who isn’t completely sold on gin, except in a very dry Martini, the tequila change works very well. But I think the name ‘tequila Negroni’ is a little dull, so I have taken to renaming it the Jalisco Negroni, in honour of the area where tequila production is based. The drink, to my mind, has a slightly fresher taste than the gin version, and benefits from the lightness of the younger style of tequila.
20ml sweet vermouth
Stir the alcohols together in a mixing glass over ice, then strain into an Old Fashioned glass with a fresh single large ice cube. Garnish with an orange peel or a stick of cinnamon if you want to be thoroughly exotic.
Consistency is key in making good cocktails; after all, once you find the perfect way to make your Martini, you will want to be able to recreate that perfection each time, won’t you? And one of the most important ways to ensure this is accurate and consistent measurement of your ingredients. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do this by eye, or by counting your pour time, but that is very difficult to do without years of practice (one of the very best Manhattans I ever had was mixed for me at Tokyo’s Bar Oak by their stellar barman, Hisashi Sugimoto, who did everything by eye; no measuring at all. The drink was sublime) and unlikely to be achieved by amateurs like me.
But one of the key issues in cocktails is that there is no universal standard of measure: you will come across recipes that use ounces, jiggers, ponies, measures, millilitres and sometimes even spoons. And just like home baking, if you start with one set of measurements, you need to keep using the same scale throughout the recipe, as an ounce-to-millilitre conversion may not be accurate.
So, we need measures, and we need good ones, and most helpfully, two sizes: larger and smaller, where the latter is typically half the quantity of the former. Cocktail recipes work on the principles of proportion (e.g. a Negroni is equal measures of gin, Campari and vermouth, whereas a Manhattan requires two measures of whiskey to one of vermouth), so that actual quantity of your measures is often not so important as the ratio between the large and the small being accurate. And you’ll also soon spot that these proportions (1:1:1 for the Negroni, 2:1/5:2 for the Manhattan) give you the standard 3oz cocktail, so suggesting a typical size for the standard measure – 1 ounce (or around 30ml in our European measures). But where does that leave jiggers and ponies? Confusingly, you’ll see a typical Japanese double-ended measure (the nice conical type that look elegant when poured held between the first and second fingers) are called ‘jiggers’. But the ‘jigger’ measure in American terms is an exact 1 1/2 ounces, and the equivalent ‘pony’ is 1 ounce. But ask for a ‘shot’, and you will get anything from a 1oz pony or 1 1/4 oz or even a 1 1/2 oz generous shot glass. In the UK, we switched to exact millilitre measures in 1985, defining a ‘single’ measure as 25ml or 35ml, and a double measure to be 50ml or 70ml, at the owner’s preference – the confusing difference being that in Scotland and Northern Ireland, bar measures tend to be on the more generous size, so the larger measure can be used (at one time, asking for a whisky in Scotland would get you a single by default, but adding the prefix ‘a glass of…’ in front of the brand would automatically get you a double).
My collection of home measures, shown above, ranges from government-stamped standard measure of 50ml and 25ml, which I use for most of my home mixing. to the conical Japanese-style jiggers. All of these vary slightly: the brushed-finish ‘typical’ Japanese one in the centre of the image measures the larger size at 40ml (just under the correct 1 1/2 oz), the black version (from a Spanish cocktail set) measures its jigger at 50ml, and the oddly marked middle one, which came with an unbranded shaker set, measure its jigger at around 42ml – or exactly 1 1/2oz. Their smaller ends are then equally confusing: the stamped one has a smaller measure of about 3/4oz – half the jigger end, but not a pony; my regular Japanese measure has a smaller capacity of exactly the same amount (3/4oz), but this is more than half the larger measure & the black measure again has a smaller end that is over half the larger capacity: three measures, with no real consistency of proportion or absolute measure between them.
And then finally I have the odd multi-tool device that Liz gave me one Christmas as a sort of barman’s Swiss Army knife: the measures there are 35 & 20ml respectively; a Manhattan made with those proportions would be pretty small & pretty sweet indeed.
So why does this matter? Because proportions in cocktails matter a good deal -Manhattans and Martinis made with too much vermouth can be pretty duff (unless you wanted a gin-and-French, of course), so you need your measures to be accurate & consistent. My advice is not to rely on the typical ‘gift set’ measures too much – either buy some decent measures from a catering or bar supply company (my marked measures came from Nisbets in London, and were a couple of pounds each) – or use a kitchen fluid measure cup (I have one from Oxo that measures ozs, ml, tablespoons and teaspoons in one small jug), which is really good for the ultra-precise recipes (usually the ones that include strong flavourings like absinthe) or use a chemistry measuring flask, marked in ml, which if nothing else, will impress your friends by your mixological exactitude.