After witnessing the shenanigans and debauchery of many drunkards during Mardi Gras, I wanted to find solace in one of my favorite cocktails — the Negroni. The herbal qualities of this aperitif cocktail would surely soothe my aching body and provide a smile or two where there was only bitter scorn before.
Bitter, yes. Working in the service industry, especially during Mardi Gras, can make a person bitter when boozed patrons do things that . . . well, they just shouldn’t do. What does the medicinal mixologist prescribe for a cranky attitude and a tired body? A bitter aperitif, of course.
Enter the Negroni. An herbal cocktail consisting of Gin, Campari, and Sweet Vermouth, the classic Negroni is a balance of sweet and bitter, with flavors of pine, rhubarb, citrus peel, and other botanicals. All the components contain an herbal element, so it’s easy to assume the drink is a healthy cocktail with medicinal capabilities. Specifically, Gin is infused with juniper berries, Campari is a mixture of bark and aromatic herbs steeped in a spirit, and Vermouth is a wine fortified with grape spirit and herbs. The Negroni sounds like the perfect before-dinner cocktail for any apothecary craving an elixir for sipping, eh? …
Alas, Campari has deceived the Negroni and all its lovers; the adulteress, since 2007, has artificial coloring added to give the aperitif its famous candy-colored red hue. Why the change? Well, that’s a darn good question to ask.
Continue reading for the whole story. Or if you’re eager to start sipping, skip ahead to the recipe at the end.
What can I use instead, now that Campari is black-listed?
Since 1860, when Campari was created by Gaspare Campari in Italy, the distinctive red color was attained by the addition of a dye naturally produced by the South American cochineal insect. The wingless female insect produces carminic acid which is extracted and mixed to produce carmine dye. The carminic acid is housed on the females’ backs and when the females are pregnant their backs swell with more acid (dye) and a collection of eggs; this is prime for harvesting. In previous times, a farmer would gather the egg-swollen, acid-rich females to be killed, dried, and crushed to produce carmine dye.
If this is surprising to you, understand that cochineal insects added color to the human world for centuries before a bartender poured the first Negroni. Aztec doctors mixed ground cochineal with vinegar as a salve for wounds. During the era of exploration and colonization cochineal was second to only silver as Mexico’s most important export. Colonial Spain reaped massive profits for centuries by selling cochineal for use in dye-making, cosmetics, and medicines. Louis XIV covered the walls and armchairs of Versailles with cochineal-dyed tapestries. Campari simply followed the lead. Why then, after over one hundred years of production, would Campari change its recipe and add artificial coloring?
Well, it turns out some people are allergic to cochineal coloring and that could have been a legal issue for Campari. Or maybe the company was afraid of a vegan campaign ruining the brand by calling it “bug juice.” Either way, the recipe is much different than it was before 2007, when the official change occurred. Campari lovers claim the new recipe is sweeter and less complex. They lost us with “Artificial Coloring Added.”
Thank goodness something else happened in 2007 to revitalize the spirit industry and delight stateside medicinal cocktail admirers — the ninety two year-old US ban against wormwood was lifted. Without those two important changes, our version of the Negroni would not exist.
What are medicinal cocktail lovers to do when their favorite cocktail contains dyes that make the spirit look more like Kool-Aid than a drink for adults? They can breathe a sigh of relief because Medicinal Mixology has fallen in love with Gran Classico Bitter, an excellent alternative for Campari, sans artificial coloring and better tasting.
Gran Classico Bitter, produced in Switzerland, is based on the original “Bitter of Turin” recipe dating from the 1860’s. This classic aperitif is an infusion of numerous herbs and roots including wormwood (the plant that made Absinthe famous), bitter orange peel, gentian, rhubarb, and other aromatic plants; it is a viscous bitter with a vegetal flavor and a weighty body that some people might compare to an old-fashioned cough syrup, but not the kind of Mary Poppins remedy that needs a spoon full of sugar to go down. This delicious bitter’s flavors will continue to evolve and surprise you. Gran Classico Bitter’s color is a natural result of the herbs and plants infused into pure grain spirit.
For curious Campari fans who need more of a comparison, Gran Classico has more interesting flavors that continue to develop on your palette and enhance the flavors of the gin and sweet vermouth. It is also more potent than Campari, and certainly more flavorful than Aperol (the more subtle Campari apertif produced by the Campari brand).
Simply put, it tastes better, it’s not as mass produced as Campari, and the bottle does not need an artificial coloring disclaimer. Gran Classico Bitter is a must-have for a medicinal cocktail home bar.
Which sweet vermouth should be used?
Now that Campari has been effectively replaced by the higher-quality Gran Classico, we can move on to another key ingredient of the Negroni — Sweet Vermouth. Sweet Vermouth is a fortified wine that has spices and herbs, sugar (sometimes from beets), and alcohol added to it before aging. Fortifying wines with aromatic herbs has been around for centuries; in fact, aromatizing wines dates back to the time of Egyptians and their practice of adding herbs to wine for healing purposes. And the word “vermouth” comes from the German word for wormwood, a plant with powerful medicinal qualities that has been ingested for centuries to treat varying ailments.
We could get obsessive with Sweet Vermouth suggestions, but instead we will simply suggests a few reputable producers: Dolin, Carpano, and Byrrh.
Dolin adds bark and herbs to white wine bases to produce excellent vermouth such as the Rouge we use for concocting an ambrosial Negroni. Dolin Rouge (Sweet Vermouth) uses up to 54 different plants found in the Alpine meadows of Chambery, France; the most notable flavors come from wormwood, hyssop, chamomile, chincona bark and rose petals. The Dolin Rouge vermouth recipe, dating back to 1821, attains its red color from the herbs and caramelized sugar added to the mixture, but not from the grapes. A Negroni made with Dolin will taste fresh with herbal notes rounding out the bitterness of the Gran Classico Bitter.
Another excellent sweet vermouth is Carpano Antica Formula, an Italian aperitif based on a 1786 recipe. Carpano Antica Formula vermouth has notes of vanilla, baking spice, dried apricot, date, and candied orange. Sometimes a swig of this vermouth reminds me of chocolate covered cherries or dried figs glazed in a sweet balsamic reduction. It’s so delicious. A Negroni made with Carpano Antica Formula has a rich bitterness that is ideal for the drinker wanting a more bold Negroni. This is one of our absolute favorites.
Our final suggestion, Byrrh Grand Quinquina, was created in France in 1873 and is made by blending Muscat, Macabeu and Grenache grapes before macerating the must with botanicals such as bitter orange, coffee, cocao, and Quinquina bark (the bitter taste in tonic water). No sugar is added. After the addition of botanicals, the juice is then aged in small oak barrels. A Negroni made with Byrrh Grand Quinquina will taste clean and crisp with a less prominent bitterness than a classic Negroni. Byrrh softens the herbaceousness of the Gran Classico.
In order to balance the tart bitterness of a Negroni, the selected gin should have obvious juniper notes. This means you’ll want to select a London Dry Style. We like Martin Millers, Brokers, and Plymouth.
Can we make the damn drink already?
Alright, now that we’ve somehow turned a three ingredient cocktail into pages of discussion, it is time to mix a healthy drink and toast to good health!
The Negroni is an herbal, tart cocktail with restorative powers that will warm your cheeks; with that in mind, a few recipes are listed below so that you can approach the cocktail as a chemist would — discover how bitter or tart you prefer the concoction by experimenting with the amounts of gin, vermouth, or bitters.
1 oz Gin
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
1 oz Gran Classico
Medicinal Mixology’s Negroni
[for the serious Gin drinker]
1 ½ oz Gin
¾ oz Sweet Vermouth
1 oz Gran Classico
Combine ingredients with ice and stir. Strain over ice. Garnish with a lemon or orange twist.
Drink to good health!