Negroni Week 2016: South of the Border and Beyond

So far in Negroni Week 2016, we've seen edible Negronis, Negroni-coladas and frozen tiki riffs. We've seen whiskey every which way, and we've gotten whimsical with booze-filled watermelons and frozen tiki drinks. The Negroni blueprint is nothing if not flexible. Today, we're taking it down to Mexico and points beyond, swapping out the traditional gin for a handful of agave spirits and brandies of the world. Whether rich and smoky or bright and citrusy, the Negroni takes them all in stride. 

"Mezcal, in general, is such a great substitute in your classic, spirit-forward cocktails, and it holds up especially well in a Negroni," says Trey Callahan of The Pastry War, where the staff will be serving up a "Smoky Negroni" to benefit Houston Latin Philharmonic. While this variant keeps the Campari and its bitter bite, it's a different drink, with a different focus. Says Callahan, "the smokiness alone that you get from mezcal adds an amazing depth to this cocktail, and at 51 percent ABV with an intense agave mash flavor and nice bright citrus notes, the Vago Espadin, specifically, lets us use the 1:1:1 ratio in this cocktail without the spirit being drowned out by the Campari and vermouth (although I would never complain about being drowned in Campari)."

In addition to swapping gin for mezcal, the Smoky Negroni opts for Dolin Blanc vermouth, to better highlight the citrusy notes in the mezcal. Along with a flamed orange peel and a dash of orange bitters, you wind up with a drink that is smoky, complex and rich, but with "a bright citrus note that you don't find in your traditional Negroni," says Callahan. 

Smoky Negroni

1 ounce Mezcal Vago Espadin
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce Dolin Blanc Vermouth
1 dash orange bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir until well chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass. Flame a strip of orange peel over the glass and insert. 

Judith Piotrowski, who manages the bar programs for both Pax Americana and Zimm's Bar, didn't fall in love with Campari, the Negroni's central player, on first sip. It was the Negroni that shifted her perspective. "The Negroni was the first way that I was able to drink Campari without feeling like I had just walked into a cloud of Aqua Net," says Piotrowski. "Honestly, that is the reason the cocktail is a classic with staying power. It is able to take something that is bitter, mixed with two other ingredients that most people today are still wary of, and makes them approachable." With the Hidden Hand cocktail from bartender Jordan Tuggle, Pax Americana is adding a third often misunderstood ingredient to the mix. 

Hidden Hand

1 ounce Reposado Tequila
1/2 ounce La Niña Primario Mezcal
3/4 ounce Campari
3/4 ounce Carpano Antica Vermouth
3 dashes mole bitters

Add all ingredients to a rocks glass filled with ice and stir. 

Kimberly Paul, beverage manager at Etoile cuisine et bar, isn't content to stick to one country or even one continent in her Negroni exploration. For this year's Negroni Week, Paul and her team have created an international Negroni for every day of the week, skipping around the globe in both spirit and ingredients. The Grand Tour runs through various gins and whiskies, along with mezcal and cachaça, along the way.

"Each base spirit and vermouth (when possible) is from a different country," Paul explains. "My favorite is The Negroni from Mexico. We are using Mestizo reposado mezcal, Campari, Balsam amaro and a touch of Ancho Reyes. It sounds like a mess, but the smoke, sweet and bitter all work together beautifully."

One spirit not on Etoile's tour is brandy. While most drinkers are familiar with the deservedly famous version from its namesake region of Cognac, fewer are aware of its more austere cousins, Pisco and Grappa. Hailing from South America (Peru and Chile) and Italy, respectively, they have so far carried less cachet than their French cousin. Bartenders at The Honeymoon and Zimm's Bar are trying to change that.

At Zimm's, the Torino Fizz comes out tall and vibrant, with a lovely foam top. It's a stunner, and a great way to introduce new drinkers to grappa, even if it is a distant cousin to the Negroni. 

Torino Fizz

1 ounce grappa
3/4 ounce Carpano Antica Vermouth
1/2 ounce lime juice 
1/2 ounce simple
1 egg white

Shake all ingredients with ice until well chilled, then strain into a collins glass filled with ice. Top with soda and garnish with a lime wheel and a brandied cherry. 

Over at The Honeymoon, Julie Lozano's Baton Rouge keeps the Campari and the ratio the same, adding rich cream sherry and bracing pisco. "This citrusy variation is by far my favorite," says Lozano. "The star of this Negroni, the cream sherry, adds a luxurious mouth feel to a cocktail that sometimes seems a bit thin."

Baton Rouge

1 ounce La Caravedo Single Grape Pisco
1 ounce Lustau Cream Sherry
1 ounce Campari 

Combine all in a mixing glass, add ice, stir until desired level of dilution is achieved, strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with an orange peel

"The depth of flavor in this variant really grows with complexity as the cocktail changes in temperature," Lozano advises.

While you're taking your World Negroni Tour, don't forget that some of those boozy travel funds go to help various causes. We've already mentioned The Pastry War's support for Houston Latin Philharmonic. Here's who else you're drinking for today:

Pax Americana: Plant it Forward
Etoile cuisine et bar: Evelyn's Park
Zimm's Bar: Child Advocates, Inc.
The Honeymoon: Habitat for Humanity

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall