The Negroni Manifesto: An Interview with Timothy Maxwell

by Timothy Maxwell

So where should we start? What do you love about the negroni?
Like all beautiful things, the negroni is perfectly balanced. The balance between dry, sweet and bitter is the main balance you need to worry about. That’s the only recipe you need. That’s where the playfulness comes in. Although the traditional is the most well known, drinks like the Boulevardier have become a drink in their own right, just by changing one of the ingredients. Rye whisky instead of gin. It adds smokiness but it still has that dry element.
As with any simple recipe, the quality of the ingredients is really what matters.
True Italian.
What’s a negroni gin? Has it got that juniper flavour has it got that...
It’s probably better to think about what’s not a great negroni gin. Because there’s only a few. Like with every recipe, someone will say “you never use this.” But you can always find a combination that works beautifully with that. I’ve found that the heavy botanical gins like Hendrick's or Gin Mare. Really botanical gins are what I’d generally steer clear of. Primarily because it’s easy to lose the balance. Again, you might find that if you infuse your vermouth with cinnamon and use a gin like hendrick's it will balance out into a crazy botanical fusion. But generally I steer clear of these gins.
It’s the really interesting thing about the Campari it seems. You can change out the Vermouth or the Gin and the Campari has to be adaptive to work with the changes.
It’s almost like a negroni is a seesaw. The Campari is your fulcrum point. You might have a really sweet vermouth and then maybe tequila, the Campari will always hold it up. It sits in the middle, balancing the two each side.
Oh I see, so you’re matching the vermouth to the tequila, or the whisky, or the gin.
If you had three negroni’s. A boulevardier, a bianco and a traditional negroni, all with the same vermouth and Campari. It’s likely not going to taste great. You’re not balancing it either side of the fulcrum. I would recommend, if you really love your negroni’s and you want to experiment. Go out and get 3 different entry level vermouths. Antica Formula, Donno Rosso and maybe like a Dolan Sweet. From there, you probably have a bottle of whisky lying around or a bottle of tequila lying around...gin etc.

It’s almost like a caprese salad. Any good Italian chef will be able to make a caprese salad you’ll remember forever because you can mix it up. They might use unfiltered olive oil, or they might use balsamic. They might use a different salt or pepper. It’s essentially three ingredients, and just like a negroni, it’s so susceptible to change. It’s about making each ingredient sing and that's why the negroni is, for me, the most fascinating cocktail. It let’s the ingredients sing.

To really make the ingredients sing you have to have 3 things right. The stir, orange oil and you have to use the right ice. 

"Like all beautiful things, the negroni is perfectly balanced."

Ok let’s start with the ice.
Well firstly let’s talk about stirring the ice. Whether you’re using party ice from your esky or whether you have big solid dense blocks of ice with no air bubbles in it, this will determine how long you stir the drink for. What you really want to look for is something that’s refreshing and doesn’t have that thick taste. It will take some time but the more you do it the better you’ll get at judging your stir. Basically what you need to know is the denser the ice the longer the stir. So if you’re using shitty party ice, stir that thing quick and pour it quick.
How do you know how dense your ice is?
So to give you an example: What everyone knows as party ice, the stuff that you get from the petrol station. That is hollow, they’re trying to bump that out as quick as possible. It’s full of air bubbles and it’s not dense at all. That will dilute really quick. Your good ice, you’ll only be able to find from a really good ice maker, like Hoshizaki. If you go to Japan, you’ll know good ice, because it’s usually a solid cube of ice and it’s got no air bubbles in it.
So what about the ice that I put in the ice cube tray, in my fridge?
So if you’re using the ice from the tray in your fridge at home, those are going to be pretty dense ice cubes but there can be a few variables, it depends on your freezer. So maybe it’s really bloody cold, it’s frozen quick with air bubbles in it, or maybe you’ve got a nice ice cube, you can see through it, it’s clear. Then you’ve got some nice dense ice.

To give you an idea about how serious people are about ice and cocktails, there are bars in New York for example that have dedicated staff only taking care of ice.

The Ice Man!
Or woman! It’s their job to just rock out ice for the whole bar’s service. Their whole job is make sure they have consistent, clear, dense ice. It can make or break a cocktail.

So that’s your stirring. If it’s not dense be quick, if it is dense, you can take some time. Taste it if you’re not sure. If it’s still got that gluggy thick taste, it needs more of a stir. If it’s light, fluffy and flavoursome, go for it.

You seem to mainly use one large piece of ice.
My most preferred type of ice for a negroni is one big cube of ice. It could be spherical...shape doesn’t really matter, especially for a negroni. It’s more about aesthetics but, as long as it’s dense, and big, it will have a controlled rate of dilution. It means that from your first sip to your last sip, the variables in terms of taste are not going to be massive. If you’re using ice that’s less dense, the drink is going to be completely different from the first sip to the last sip.
I noticed when we were shooting the recipes, you were really focused on the orange peel. I’m a negroni drinker and I haven’t noticed the same focus on that in other bars I’ve been to. You’re attention to detail was intense.
Yeah, I guess putting this into a food context. You can have green leaf salad in a fantastic Italian restaurant. It might be a simple salad dressing but it just makes the salad sing. I view the orange peel the same way. If you get a good quality orange, like a juicy peel orange and you squeeze that peel so it covers the drink with that orange oil. It’s like a salad dressing, it makes the whole drink sing.
What are some things we should look out for?
A few things to look out for when you’re using the orange peel. You can actually use a peeler and that will generally give you a nice peel without the pith. But I like to chop it to retain maximum juice. Sometimes I think if you peel, it take a lot of the juices away from the skin and therefore you get less oil. So I like to cut it down nice and thick and then sort of sashimi the pith off, gently so you’re not losing the oils. So you can give the drink a nice coating of oil.

..."you squeeze that peel so it covers the drink with that orange oil. It’s like a salad dressing, it makes the whole drink sing."

We tried your coffee negroni and coffee is packed with oils. Was there a thought around that?
Yeah I guess. The coffee negroni is one of our favourites. A lot of people don’t order it because they think it’s going to be really intense. It’s not though, it’s really balanced. From the vermouth to the gin, and then the campari that has been soaking coffee beans. Campari is the mediator, it’s the fulcrum point between the two as I was saying. Just giving that a slight coating of coffee, it let’s it sing throughout the who drink. It’s not just a coffee aftertaste, it rides through the whole taste. The oils are the carrier of that, that’s for sure.
When I’m making it at home, how do I know I’m getting the orange peel element right?
What you’re looking for is almost that petroleum coating on the surface of the drink. You’ll be able to see it on the service. Then you want to wipe the peel around the rim of the glass, just so your mouth gets all those nice oils when you sip. It’s these little things that make the drink sing. It’s like the salad dressing, if you have a really hoppy, vinegary salad dressing will just make those lettuce leaves come alive.
Are there common mistakes you see when people make a negroni?
Yeah, I think often people don’t get the stir right. They’ll stir for too long or not long enough. All these things are common mistakes though. It’s doing them all together that makes a great negroni.
So what I’m hearing from you is make a lot, drink a lot, make a lot again.
Yeah and also, drink other people's negroni so you have a reference. Like when you’re cooking you’ve got to eat good food to know good food. So drink good drinks and you’ll be able to make good drinks. Know what you’re looking for as far as taste.
Who else does a great Negroni is Sydney?
The guys at ACME and The Passage do fantastic negroni’s. Ed over there is doing beetroot negroni’s as well. Good italian restaurants are usually a safe bet. 10 William Street, fantastic. Even some of the pre-batched negroni’s are worth a try. Icebergs do individual pre batches with a little corked bottle. Its just up to you to crack the orange for the fresh oils. There’s even barrel aged negroni.

..."your mouth gets all those nice oils when you sip. It’s these little things that make the drink sing."

And why do you think the negroni has become so popular recently?
I think there’s a couple of reasons. One, yes it’s an aperitif but it’s also a digestive. I find you can drink a negroni and you can drink wine and it doesn’t clash. Don’t want to put myself out there as too much of an alcoholic. You can have a negroni at any time of the night or the day...after noon. It’s adaptable to so many situations and really, it’s a great drink.

If someone comes to bar and says, “I don’t want something too sweet, and I don’t want something too crazy.” A negroni is a safe bet. It’s balanced and it’s really approachable. Gluten free...vegetarian. Haha Actually it didn’t used to be vegetarian. They used to use a certain type of beetle in campari, to make it red. There’s a bit of negroni trivia!

Perhaps we can end with a brief history of the negroni?
The brief history is, in iIaly, there was the Americano and it was the most famous cocktail. It was vermouth, campari and soda water. This guy named Count Camillo came in and said, “I want something stronger, give me something stronger.” So the bartender...this is widely disputed by the way, as all of these stories are. Anyway, the bartender put gin instead of soda water and the negroni was born.
Here's 6 Negroni recipes for you to try:
Whiskey "Boulevadier like" Negroni
Blood Orange Negroni

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About the Author

Timothy Maxwell

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