The first Negroni variant I learned was the Boulevardier. Both drinks follow the same format, with a 1:1 swap of gin for bourbon, keeping the bitter one-two punch of Campari and sweet vermouth. (I know plenty of folks who up the bourbon, but I also know plenty who do that with the gin in the original. I'm a fan of the equal parts nature of the Negroni, finding that simplicity one of its charms, and tend to keep my variants in line.) Think of the Boulevardier as a bit like the Venn intersection of a Negroni and a Manhattan. From the Boulevardier, it's a hop-skip-and-a-spicy-jump to the Old Pal, which subs rye as the whiskey of choice, opting for dry vermouth in lieu of sweet. Both of them are terrific cocktails, adding a different elevation to the flexible blueprint of the Negroni.
Whiskey winds up in a lot of Negroni spinoffs. It's an effortless pair with sweet vermouth, and holds up nicely against the bittersweet edge of the Campari. I've used rye and bourbon, Irish and Scotch whiskies, and blends involving all of the above. They all wind up lending their own character, leaning the drink this way and that while always keeping the center balanced. The Negroni is the gyroscope of cocktails in that way.
As you spin through Houston's Negroni Week offerings, you'll find plenty of versions balanced along the whiskey axis. At Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar and Spirits Lounge, for example, bartender Hal Brock is a big fan of the Old Pal. "The rye and dry vermouth light up every bit of spice and bitterness, and it's perfect," says Brock. Bad News will be serving up Old Pals and other Negroni-esque drinks, including Boulevardiers on tap, during its Negroni Week party tonight, along with "Negronis everywhere, all the Campari, and our house Negroni menu to support Recipe for Success's efforts to combat childhood obesity," says Brock.
From downtown to the edge of town, whiskey makes a strong play out at Brixology, the cocktail bar attached to Brix Wine Cellars out near Tomball. The bartenders there have had a Boulevardier on the menu since Brixology opened early last year. For Negroni Week, they've ramped up their Boulevardier, offering a sort of deluxe edition, complete with a couple of fancy bourbons and a bit of fiery flare, all in support of Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation.
Le Grand Boulevardier
Make a reduction by lighting 1/2 ounce of George T Stagg Jr bourbon and orange zest. Let it burn 1 minute.
Stir [over ice] with:
1 ounce Booker Noe's Bourbon
1 ounce Camparo Antica Vermouth
1 ounce Campari
Finish with a flamed orange zest. Served on the rocks in an old fashioned glass.
If you're feeling up to a little Negroni Crawl, the folks over at Treadsack are planning one between Foreign Correspondents, Johnny's Gold Brick, Canard and Hunky Dory. Hunky Dory is where you'll find the whiskey. Head barman Chris Morris stumbled across his favorite Negroni-riff while tinkering around with the Negroni formula while working on the Hunky Dory menu.
"Every now and again during R&D at the bar, you put things together with a sense of 'What's the worst that could happen?' Sometimes you figure out the answer to that question," says Morris, "but every now and again, you get something really fun and tasty that you never thought could work. This is a case of the latter." A portion of the profits from every Rusty Nail-Groni will go to support BARC.
1 1/2 ounce Famous Grouse Scotch Whisky
3/4 ounce Drambuie
3/4 ounce Campari
Combine all ingredients with ice in a mixing glass. Stir until well chilled, then strain into a coupe glass. No garnish.
I've been running the Negroni ratio through its paces for a while myself, and one of my more recent successes also takes Scotch-style whisky as its base. Playing with the Negroni format is a great way to experiment and to explore flavor, in part because you're starting from such a solid base that it's very easy to substitute and still have a good drink. It's also easy to compare and contrast as you do so, getting a feel for how the different components interact and how substitutions and modifications change the drink.
Once you get the basics down, you start noticing some odd things that work with the major players, allowing you to branch out creatively. I'd noticed an affinity between campari and the briny, oily, savory notes of olives for a while, and finally used Negroni Week as a chance to explore that intersection. I took a handful of good, briny green olives and infused them into a half cup of Campari. When I checked it the next day, the olive-Campari was a bit rough around the edges. I added half a cup of sweet vermouth, gave it a shake and a few hours, and had something I really liked. The brine and tang of the olives had receded, and the whole thing took on a really round profile with a lot of richness in back. I tried stirring it up with various Negroni riffs (both in components and ratios) before setting on the richness and slightly smoky notes of Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt Whisky as a perfect pair. Gin seemed too thin, bourbon listed the whole thing overly sweet, and rye tasted harsh and oddly metallic. It did need a bit of a kick-up in the whisky department to really make it sing, but once it did, it was a beautiful tune.
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1 1/2 ounces Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt Whisky
2 ounces olive-infused Negroni base (see above)
Stir over ice and strain into a coupe. Garnish with a lemon peel ribbon and an olive, skewered.
Of course, I'm far from the only one out there tinkering for Negroni Week. The drink itself just makes that a simple game. As Chris Morris says: "The drink is naturally versatile, so making it more floral, or herbal, or bitter, or light, or photogenic, or earthy, or whatever your fancy is almost too easy. I mean, just think about the hundreds if not thousands of variations we'll see just [this] week alone. It's a truly blessed age in which we live." Words to live by, folks.