The strange case of the Negroni revolution

Sharp and complex, the bitter-sweet Italian digestif Amaro is enjoying a new-found popularity on British shores, says Flora Watkins.

According to bartending folklore, it’s 100 years since Count Camillo Negroni walked into Caffè Casoni, Florence, and asked for a stronger version of his usual tipple, an Americano. The barman obliged by adding gin (rather than the normal soda water) to vermouth and Campari – and a classic cocktail was born.

The true provenance of the Negroni may be lost in a haze of botanicals (as the late chef and author Anthony Bourdain observed of his ‘perfect drink’, it will ‘hit you like a freight train after four or five’), but, since its creation in 1919, it’s become the second-most requested cocktail in the English-speaking world.

Nick Williamson of Campari UK confirms a ‘real resurgence’ is under way, with UK sales of Campari up by 37% last year, compared with 2017. This summer, the company will mark the centenary of Count Camillo’s concoction with a launch party for Negroni Week (June 24–30), at which 100 variations of the cocktail will be served.

‘When I took over, nobody ever touched it. Now, we go through one bottle every two weeks and Aperol is as famous as Pimm’s.’

It has taken a long time for British tastebuds to catch up with the count’s. The bitter kick of a Negroni’s key ingredient, Amaro (usually in the form of Campari), has long been enjoyed as a digestif in Italy. Here, however, it hasn’t been to everyone’s taste – blame our unsophisticated palates and those 1970s ‘Luton Airport’ adverts with Lorraine Chase and her Campari and lemonade.

‘In Italy, wherever you go, there will be the local Amaro,’ says Alessandro Palazzi, head barman at Dukes hotel in St James’s (‘Shaken, not stirred’, December 12/19, 2018). ‘They’re mainly drunk after dinner, on ice or straight, to help the digestion. My uncle drank it as a corretto – an espresso with 10ml of Amaro.’

rosehip cup

When Mr Palazzi arrived in London in 1975, the only Amaro he encountered was the odd bottle of Fernet-Branca in an Italian restaurant. ‘When I took over, I introduced an Amaro called Cynar, made with artichoke,’ he recalls. ‘Nobody ever touched it. Now, we go through one bottle every two weeks and Aperol is as famous as Pimm’s.’

Aperol – Campari’s slightly sweeter, orange-hued sibling – has enjoyed an even steeper rise in sales: up 56% in the UK last year. Mr Williamson, who has overseen Aperol Spritz (Aperol, Prosecco and soda, with a slice of orange) ousting Pimm’s as the go-to drink for many when the sun comes out, attributes this success to ‘a broader trend for bitter tastes and flavours; dark chocolate, kale, espresso’.

For Ian Hart of Sacred Spirits distillers of Highgate, London N6, the new popularity of Amaro ‘makes perfect sense, after the rise of gin, vermouth and cocktail culture’. Mr Hart began working on his own Amaro ‘initially, to produce the missing element in a Negroni’ (he already produced a gin and a spiced English vermouth made with English wine).

‘That first sip is confusing and not particularly pleasant,’ he said of the Negroni. ‘But man, it grows on you.’

In the quest to make ‘something that was red, bitter and had complex herbaceous and spice elements’, Mr Hart incorporated oris root, Peruvian ginger and a number of other distillates, together with the gentian root that gives Amaro its characteristic bitterness. The distinctive colour of his Rosehip Cup – ‘we decided that, rather than giving it an unconvincing Italian name, we’d give it an English name’ – is achieved with grape skins. Mr Palazzi uses Rosehip Cup, as well as Sacred Gin and Sacred English Spiced Ver-mouth, to make the London Negroni at Dukes.

Mr Hart also produces a bottled Negroni. ‘It ages very well in bottles, it matures and softens,’ he divulges. ‘Mark Hix has it on his menu – he calls it the Full English Negroni.’ With his summery Rosehip Spritz, he aims to provide the weddings market with an English alternative to an Aperol Spritz.

Although Mr Williamson concedes ‘more Aperol is drunk in the summer than winter’, he sees it as ‘a great start to your evening, whatever the weather’. Food writer Valentina Harris serves Campari soda at her Christmas drinks parties as the vibrant red colour ‘makes everything look festive’. That glorious colour is extremely Instagram-friendly, which helps drive its popularity with millennials.

If you’re yet to be converted, now is the time to give it a try. Just keep Bourdain in mind. ‘That first sip is confusing and not particularly pleasant,’ he said of the Negroni. ‘But man, it grows on you.’ Cin cin.

How to make a Rosehip Spritz

  • 2 parts Sacred Spirit Rosehip Cup
  • 3 parts sparkling wine (Nyetimber is best)
  • 1 part soda
  • Serve in a large wine glass with ice and a slice of orange