Depending on the day, I just might tell you that the Negroni is my favorite drink. A whole lot of folks in the bar world agree with me on this. So much so that, for the fourth year in a row, bars around Houston (and around the country) are hosting #NegroniWeek, a celebration of all things Negroni. Started as a partnership between Imbibe Magazine and Campari, the Italian bitter liqueur that is one of the drink's essential components, Negroni Week isn't just a celebration of the beloved cocktail: It's a chance for bartenders to get competitive for a good cause. For every Negroni (or Negroni variant) sold during the week (June 6-12), a portion of the proceeds is donated to a charity, with each bar selecting its own recipient.
Because I love both Negronis and drinking for a cause, I'm going to highlight some of the participating bars, featuring a new handful each day. Some of them have offered up a recipe for you to try at home. All of them have some great ideas for Negroni tinkering, a bit of fun made possible by the format of the drink itself.
To kick things off, I suppose we should get down to what that drink is. It all starts with one part gin (London dry is the standard here, but feel free to experiment), one part sweet vermouth (I've grown fond of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino) and one part Campari. When I say "part," here, I'm talking ounces. You can obviously batch this up if you want (one of the pleasures of equal-parts cocktails is how damn easily they scale), or even trim it down if you just want to dip your toes into the Negroni waters. Pour everything in a mixing glass, add a bunch of ice, stir until well chilled, and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice (a single large cube is nice), or into a cocktail glass with no ice. Or just stir it with ice in the glass from which you'll drink it. I prefer stirred and then strained onto fresh ice. If you're feeling fancy, garnish with a wide strip of orange peel, after twisting the peel over the glass to express the oils.
Made to its original specifications, the Negroni is all about balance, but it's also incredibly forgiving. The perfect version is sweet and rich and bitter and bracing, all of these things jumping out at you prominently before settling back into their seats for a nice smooth ride. If you over-pour one component or under-pour another, it won't be perfect anymore, but the innate balance of those ingredients will see you through to a drink that's still pretty damn good.
If you want to get a little crazy with your Negroni drinking, I suggest you head on down to Grand Prize Bar tonight, from 6 to 10 p.m., for their kickoff party. There, Lindsay Rae and her team, along with officers from the Houston chapter of the USBG, will be serving up an array of riffs on Negronis, taking this storied old pal of a drink and turning it on its head. Think frozen cocktails (the Jungle Bird, a Tiki-kissing-cousin of the Negroni), Jell-O shots and drinking out of coconuts. Anthony Calleo of Pi Pizza Truck and a forthcoming concept from Cherry Pie Hospitality will be serving up small bites.
Grand Prize will continue offering Negroni variants through the week, with a share of the profits going to Wildlife Center of Texas. Stop by for Negronis on tap, another frozen Jungle Bird (duh), Campari-Coladas and, according to Rae, "whatever crazy Jell-O shots come out of our test kitchen."
Grand Prize will also be offering a variation on the "White Negroni," an often-employed spin on the drink that omits Campari and sweet vermouth in favor of clear spirits that follow the same bittersweet and herbal profiles.
"At the moment, the White Negroni has found a place in my heart," says Rae. "I think it may be the Suze and Lillet combo that won me over. We will have a variation of the White Negroni rotating through the daily Negroni cocktail on the Grand Prize Menu." Here's an example recipe:
1 ounce Cana Brava Rum infused with pickling spices
1 ounce Lillet
1 ounce Suze
Rae says, "It holds true to the bittersweet pairing, with the Lillet and Suze, but has a little extra kick with the subtle spice of an infused white rum. It's classic but playful. (Also, the Jungle Bird on the frozen machine isn't something to scoff at either. Raul Rojas has made that recipe something to fawn over.)"
Whether you're a seasoned Negroni drinker or new to this wonderful cocktail, the Grand Prize team has something to delight and intrigue you. As Rae says, "It's hard not to love the Negroni. It's simple, refreshing, bitter and comes together in all the right ways. Yes, it is a drink you have to grow into, but once you do, it can be a darn good friend."
Pretty soon, in fact, you might even call it an old pal.