This week I’m drinking . . . . the Christmas Negroni

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I’ve been sent these rather lovely looking bottles from Martini. They are Martini Rubino Vermouth, Ambrato Vermouth and Martini Bitters. There’s something of a vermouth revival going on at the moment with delicious new products from South Africa (Badenhorst), Australia (Regal Rogue) and England (Asterley Bros). Perhaps in response to this competition, the old guard, Martini, have raised their game with new premium releases. I’m a big fan of the standard Martini Rosso which is hard to beat in a Negroni so I was keen to see how this drinks measured up. Furthermore Martini have also launched the 1872 Bitter to compete with Campari head on. I’ve been playing around with these bottles for a few weeks now and have come to some conclusions:

  1. Both the Rubino and the Ambrato totally rock either on their own or with tonic water. The Ambrato is a bit like Noilly Brat Ambré with nutty vanilla notes. The Rubino is quite delicate with sour cherry fruit and a light bitterness, a bit like a northern Italian red wine. They also work great mixed with white wine or prosecco.
  2. The Ambrato was superb in a very dry martini adding a subtle fruity and nutty note to the drink.
  3. The Martini Bitter is less thick and bitter than Campari. It’s very orangey like a halfway point between Aperol and Campari. Just with soda, I prefer Campari but mixed with grapefruit, orange juice and soda the Martini Bitter wins.

Of course this is all pissing about to the real point which is how do they fare in a Negroni. Here the results were interesting. The Rubino worked really well in a sort of lightweight Negroni using Aperol but it was rather overpowered by the Martini Bitter.

My favourite vermouth for a Negroni is the mighty Cinzano 1757 Rosso which is powerful, complex and has something of the port about it. This gave me an idea, why not use port to boost the vermouth? So I mixed half a shot of Martini Rubino with half a shot of Bleasdale The Wise One ten year old tawny (I know it’s not strictly a port, I’ll come on to that later). The result after a bit of playing about was absolutely outstanding. The extra sweetness, richness and nuttiness of the port lifted the whole drink and seemed to accentuate the herbal quality of the vermouth:

1/2 measure of tawny port or similar

1/2 measure of Martini Rubino

1 measure of gin and a little bit extra – I used my special house gin

1 measure of Martini 1872 Bitter

1 piece of orange peel

Combine ingredients with lots of ice cubes.

Australian “port” is sweeter than proper Portuguese stuff so I added just a splash extra of gin to counteract it. I think it needs to be a tawny port because you wanted that wood-aged nuttiness on the end. In fact what this reminded me of more than anything was an aged negroni I had at Bar Termini last year.

I am going to call my new creation the Christmas Negroni and I intend to drink a lot of them over the festive season.

How I made the worst negroni ever

There are a lot of ’boutique’ drinks around. There are boutique vermouths and boutique ouzos, boutique bitters and boutique vodkas. The category, however, with the most ’boutique’ labels is gin. Ever since I started writing about drink for the Guardian – about a month – I’ve been deluged with information about gins: Cotswold Gin, gin made from Icelandic spring water, small batch pot-distilled gin and even Yorkshire gin (tagline Like Gin Used to Be.) This Saturday I decided to broach the gin surfeit that had been building up in our kitchen.

So very professionally I sat down at the dining table with a proper whisky tasting glass, a bowl to spit in, a pencil, some paper and a glass of cold filtered water. I won’t reprint all my tasting notes as that would be boring but here is a brief precis of what I thought of them all:

Cotswold Gin – very pretty, floral, the juniper is there but it doesn’t hit you over the head with it, not very Cotswold though not even a hint of  red trousers.

Bombay Sapphire – doesn’t really taste of gin. This is a gin for  people who prefer vodka.

Martin Millers Gin  – clean, elegant a nice taste of gin but nothing to frighten the horses.

William Chase Elegant Gin – proper gin, really tastes of gin, one for those who really like gin. Lots of alcohol too, 48%.

Yorkshire Gin – lots going on here, liquorice, juniper, orange and pepper. Complex and unusual with a long finish.

Now obviously this is a stupid way of trying gins as nobody drinks gin neat so I started experimenting with cocktails and tonics and various things. I’d also given up spitting by this point. The tonic water – Fancy Fever Tree stuff – managed to completely overwhelm the Cotswold Gin and took the poor Bombay Sapphire to the cleaners. The William Chase worked best as, I think I may have mentioned before, it really tastes like gin.

The other boutique spirit I tried during my gruelling tasting session was called Stellacello Amaro London. Imagine it as a kind of artisan Campari and you’re almost there. Now I really really liked this. It smells a bit like Angostura bitter marmalade but the taste is of mellow oranges and grapefruit. It’s a taste that lingers pleasantly for quite some time. My wife has been making marmalade all week so it felt like my entire world was made from oranges. It’s great neat with ice. But then I remembered I had some boutique red vermouth made by Belsazar so I thought, boutique bloody negroni! As everyone knows the negroni is the easiest of all the cocktails to make.

I put a shot of Yorkshire gin, a shot of Belsazar red vermouth and a shot of Amaro London in a glass with lots of ice and some grapefruit rind. Rather than the deep red of a traditional negroni it went brown. Oh well I suppose before industrialisation and chemical dyes that’s how negronis used to look. I took a sip. It was horrible. Truly foul. Some sort of interaction between the bitterness of the Amaro and the liquorice in the gin had created a monster. I’m not sure what the red vermouth was doing* but it wasn’t providing the necessary fruit and sweetness to counteract all that bitterness and the overwhelming stench of liquorice. Oh and did I mention it was brown. After some of the ice melted it became vaguely palatable. Still it was the worst negroni I’ve ever had. I finished it with a grimace as I put our daughter to bed.

It was odd because individually all the parts were better than their more commercial equivalents but together they were vile. I’m not sure what the moral of the story is. Perhaps it’s that being a barmen isn’t as easy as it looks. Experiment with a classic at your peril.

* Expert drinker Richard Godwin, formerly of the Evening Standard, thinks the herbal quality in the Belsazar vermouth might have been to blame. 

monster notes (1)

I cunningly combined tasting drinks with drawing scary monsters with my daughter. Funnily enough this monster looks a little like the negroni tasted ie. frightening. 

Summer cocktails for the easily befuddled

Call me a terrible lightweight but I’m a little wary of drinking cocktails when the sun is out. A good summer drink should be like a relaxing soak in the pool but the sort of cocktails I love, Martinis, Manhattans etc, are all about a sharp injection of alcohol into the system, a sharp injection which can quickly turn to drowsiness or even irritability on a hot day. The fact that most cocktails need to be drunk quickly so that they don’t warm up or become dilute compounds the problem. Therefore what is needed during the summer is a drink that can take a little dilution from the ice melting and won’t get you drunk too quickly.

Take the Negroni, for example. I was introduced to this drink by my late Uncle Peter. One summer he invited me for lunch at his club, Boodles. I said I’d take an hour off for lunch and he replied, nonsense boy we won’t even have started eating by then. We began in the bar with a couple of Negronis each  – Campari, gin, red vermouth in equal measure with ice and a slice of orange. Then we had a bottle of Sancerre with our smoked eel followed by claret. I forget what we ate with the claret. Afterwards I think there may have been Green Chatreuse followed by a sleep. The Negroni has since become a firm favourite of mine but I find it much too strong for outdoor drinking.

Thankfully there exists something called a Negroni Sbagliato – literally wrong Negroni – where you substitute the gin for Prosecco. Instantly the alcohol level is halved and you have a drink that you can have a bucketful of when the sun comes out. My wife works a similar kind of magic with that old Southern States classic, the Mint Julep – she’s from California but her heart is in pre-Civil War South Carolina. Her Julep contains two shots of bourbon, one and a half of lemon juice (heretical apparently) and one of sugar syrup. You muddle them all in a highball glass with lots of ice and mint and then, here’s the clever bit, top up with sparkling water. This means that you’ll have a cool head in case the Yankees try anything sneaky.

There is one summer cocktail, however, that you must take the opposite approach with, Pimm’s. Is it my imagination or does Pimm’s get weaker every year? Certainly the way it’s served in British pubs with all that fruit and lemonade means that it’s only a notch above a shandy. I’d be happy serving it to children. In order to turn it into a drink for adults it needs a little stiffening up. For each serving of Pimm’s add a shot of strong gin such an Tanqueray Ten, you really want to taste the juniper and feel the alcohol, then top it up with not lemonade but ginger ale. Serve in pewter tankards with ice, mint and orange. That’s how my Uncle Peter used to order it in Boodles.

This originally appeared in the Spectator magazine. 

The negroni – cocktail of the gods

Like a properly-fitted suit, a well-made negroni should grab you by the shoulders, make you stand up straight and give you a general feeling of importance. Nothing hits the spot quite like it but be warned they are powerful and dangerously drinkable. Luckily, unlike most cocktails, with the negroni there is no rush; they have a very wide timescale of deliciousness being good strong but also excellent diluted as the ice melts. Diluted or not, the flavour is so powerful that you won’t be able to taste much afterwards so don’t open the good burgundy. The best thing after a negroni is another negroni but then you must move onto food or trouble will ensue. Serve the food with a neutralish Italian white wine and plenty of water.

Ingredients:

1 shot of red vermouth – Martini Rosso is fine. Thankfully the people at this blog have tasted all the most common brands so that I didn’t have to. Thank heavens for the internet

1 shot of Campari

1 shot of gin – I’m currently using Boodles gin which seems to work well. Don’t go for anything too fancy as you won’t be able to taste its complexities through the Campari and vermouth. The gin brings alcohol and juniper and not much else.

1 slice of orange – you can do that burning thing if you like but I’m happy just with a bit of orange.

Ice

Method:

Fill a glass full of ice cubes. I use a whisky tumbler that used to belong to my grandmother but anything similar will do.

Add a shot of each of the components.

Add the orange slice

Stir thoroughly

Drink slowly

Feel that medicinal goodness fill your body.