Disco drinks and sugary mixes do have their place — fun is fun, after all — but with cocktails, usually bitter is better, and there's far more joy in the tart mix of a Negroni than say, a peanut butter martini.
One part Campari, one part gin and one part sweet vermouth, it has never been a concoction for the faint hearted — but it’s an enlivening way to meander through apperitivo hour.
Its charms are enduring: one legend has it that the cocktail was first mixed at Caffe Casoni in Florence in 1919 at the request of one Count Camillo Negroni, who wanted to swap the soda in his Americano for gin. On the other hand, there is Pascal Olivier Count de Negroni — who at least can be found on the Negroni family tree. He’s supposed to have come up with it while posted in Senegal sometime in the mid 1800s. The truth is unlikely to ever be certain; besides, the drink didn’t really come to be popular until sometime in the Fifties.
It fell off the radar for a little while, came back in part due to the Polpo revolution a decade ago, and since has stuck around in various guises, somewhat thanks to its innate malleability: gin can be swapped for almost any spirit but the warming, enveloping embrace of Campari and sweet vermouth always produces something good. Or go the other way; keep the gin but swap the Campari and vermouth for Lillet and Suze, and you’ll be into a white Negroni.
Little surprise, then, that Negroni week has become one of the very few of those insufferable “weeks” or “days” to catch on — its appeals is rather more obvious than, say, national egg nog day, or seagull week. Whether a loyal devotee looking for the best of the best, or a newbie not wanting a duff introduction, here’s our pick of London’s must-try mixes.
One thing that seems to push Negroni-ambivalents into fully-fledged obsessives is the ability to tinker. The classic recipe is one for a reason, but playing with the gin or vermouth can make all the difference (the Campari is best left well along). That’s where Vermuteria comes into its own: as its name attests, this is a vermouth bar — excellent food, though — meaning substitutions and tweaks can be made on a whim, until all curiousity is sated and, well, till your mind is a little on the wonk. Have a play, though the house offering, made with East London Liquor Company’s gin and their own rosso, is a wise(ish) way to put £10 to use. In fact, fair prices seem a hallmark of the place; there’s plenty under a tenner and even the vintage mixes, made with rare and hard-to-find bottles, don’t get much above £25.
38/39 Coal Drops Yard, N1C, vermuteria.cc
The Coral Room
The Coral Room proves that matching your drink to the decor is a winning combination. It’s near-impossible not to order a Negroni when entering the warm, orange-red surroundings of this elegant bar at the Bloomsbury Hotel, and those who follow suit are well-rewarded. However you take your Negroni — and here they like them best with Tanqueray 10, or Boatyard gin — the drink is finished with an ice cube emblazoned with the bar’s colourful name. If he’s in, manager Giovanni Spezziga is a master.
16-22 Great Russell Street, WC1, thecoralroom.co.uk
Now, back against the wall, gun to face, would we swear blind this really is one of the very best cocktails in town? In truth, we might say they’re on the slightly watery side, but then, they’re a fiver. They’re still good. And that matters: Brutto is built on principles of conviviality, on the idea that a meal out should mean having a good time, too. This is a place for too many plates of pasta and bottles of wine, and a few Negronis dotted in whenever there’s a lull in conversation. No surprise they get through 20 litres each week.
35-37 Greenhill Rents, EC1, msha.ke/brutto
A reminder that location can often be as important as what’s in the glass. At Seabird, which sits on the fourteenth floor of the Hoxton in Southwark, the Negroni is as down-the-line as they come — their preference is for Bombay Sapphire and Martini Rubino — but simply expertly made, pleasingly generous, and perfect for slowly sipping in the beautiful dining room, with its endless views and vibes. That feeling, one of complete relaxation, of forgetting the rest of it, is exactly what a Negroni is for. Few places summon it quite the way Seabird do.
40 Blackfriars Road, SE1, seabirdlondon.com
Larry’s gets the nod here for understanding that, while herbal gins and spiky vermouths have their place, sometimes a Negroni should be entirely familiar. This one tastes just as a Negroni should, but the place is set up for, say, no fewer than three and no more than about five. All-orange-everything Larry’s is made for calling over a few cocktails and working through the food menu top to bottom. It’s somewhere to chat long into the evening at, and that’s just what Negronis — done right — inspire.
Unit 5, 12-16 Blenheim Grove, SE1, larryspeckham.co.uk
Soho’s Bar Termini is a warm tribute to Roman cafe and bar culture, cocktails sitting alongside a very Italian coffee menu (no frappuccinos here). The Negronis once were the star of their boozy offering, served atypically from chilled, pre-mixed bottles into tiny coupette-style glasses (points docked for size — but then, they’re £8). But times change, and so has Termini. Now they just do “a house Negroni” which is simple but does the job. Have one and then try the masala Martini, which is terrific. Termini works wonderfully when treated right; it’s somewhere to pop in for a quick one, either on the way into a night or on the way back from one.
7 Old Compton Street, W1, bar-termini-soho.com
40 Dean Street
Granted, this one was always going to make the list: they put one of us on the menu. 40 Dean Street is one of those joyful half-secrets that make Soho Soho. For nearly two decades the place has been drawing its loyal crowd — a Royal or two among them, as well as an occasional A-lister — who come for the comforting Italian fare, including the fresh pasta, as well as the affable welcome and the joy of seeing owner Nima Safei in full flow, charming his audience. It’s all affordable, too, increasingly a rarity in the centre of town. The Negronis are as classic as they come, unless you order the DVH Ellis; tequila, or preferably mezcal, takes the place of the gin. It is, of course, completely mind-ruining and hence enormous fun. A bit like the restaurant itself.
40 Dean Street, W1, fortydeanstreet.com
There is a world of cocktails to try at Oriole: the downstairs Smithfield bar does some significant globetrotting on its “Old World”, “New World” and “The Orient” cocktail lists. It’s an off-menu selection, but the Negroni here has it sights set a little further than the Amalfi coast, making a quick trip over the Mediterranean to Greece. The typical three-part mix includes a house blend of sweet vermouth, and is joined by a dose of Hellenic-style resin wine, an olive and a slice of burnt orange.
Wild Honey St James
To be clear, one comes here for Anthony Demetre’s show-stopping food, for the elegance of the service, and for the gently-murmuring room. But the Negroni here is always so bloody good —noticeably so, enough to wonder just what they do to it to have it taste quite so clean and yet be embracingly rich (I suspect its in their own homemade vermouth). It’s a Negroni to have in the winter; it is comforting, rather than prickly. Demetre is also behind Vermuteria, at the top of this page, so clearly the man has a taste for these things. Well, he would do: at the top of the drinks’ menu list of classic cocktails are the words ““I am very specific with my Negroni”. The secrets? Tanqueray gin, Wild Honey vermouth, a touch of savoury bitter and the unusual mix of Amaro and Aperol. Unusual, but a bet that pays off.
8 Pall Mall, SW1, wildhoneystjames.co.uk