While Negroni week will continue on through the weekend, this marks the last entry of our weeklong series. It's been a whirlwind tour of bars across the city that are slinging Campari in a dizzying array of drinks and styles. Some hold close to the Negroni tradition; others take some liberties. A few have nothing in common but the Campari itself. That's okay in my book. As relaxed and forgiving as the cocktail can be, it only seems appropriate to have an open and inclusive attitude for Negroni Week.
That inclusive spirit brings the Jungle Bird into the Negroni fold, and there's one featured at Lei Low. A somewhat recent rediscovery, the Jungle Bird brings bitter into the Tiki fold in delightful fashion, using the opposite ends of the spectrum as bulwarks to keep the bitterness on its best behavior. Deep, darkly luscious blackstrap rum provides the floor, while pineapple and lime juices frame out the bright ceiling. In between, the Campari bounces around like a laser beam in a room full of mirrors.
It should come as no surprise that the Jungle Bird features heavily on the Negroni Week menu over at Lei Low, the low-key tiki outpost in The Heights, where David Perez is a big fan of the bold combination of dark rum and Campari. "Our favorite Negroni variant is the 'Kingston Negroni' from The Death Co.'s book," says Perez. "It uses Jamaican rum and Campari. We are big fans of Jamaican rum and even bigger fans of Jamaican rum with Campari. Two big, bold flavors coalescing instead of disconnecting." Given that the Negroni is built on that very notion, this sounds just right for Negroni Week.
"Our Negroni menu will consist of Negroni and Jungle Bird variants, as well as six-dollar Negronis and Jungle Birds all week. Our featured charity will be the Houston Audubon Society. The Houston Audubon Society fights to keep our feathery friends safe, as well as their habitats," says Perez. Drink a Jungle Bird, help an Urban Jungle bird.
From the jungle to the garden, we head to Midtown, where Steven Salazar is serving up Negroni variations and Campari-based combos from the house cocktail list at Wooster's Garden for $10 each, with half of that going to benefit the Houston Area Women's Center.
Salazar sees the Negroni as an inspirational cocktail, serving as a gateway to inventiveness. "Fundamentally the Negroni cocktail is a great skeleton of creativity for the novice bartender," says Salazar. "It is a foundation of ratio for creating limitless stirred boozy concoctions, balancing it more towards different angles depending on what you swap out and which direction you alter the ratio. It is literally hours and hours of fun with your back bar!"
As with Lei Low, Salazar likes to grab some rum off that back bar for a drink called the All-Inclusive, keeping the equal parts ratio in a slightly different form, splitting the vermouth between sweet and dry, almost like a perfect rum Negroni.
3/4 ounce Hamilton 151 Rum
3/4 ounce Campari
3/4 ounce Torino Vermouth
3/4 ounce French Dry Vermouth
Build all ingredients over ice in a rocks glass, then garnish with a strip of orange peel.
While some use the Negroni as a stepping-stone for off-the-wall combinations, some prefer to keep things more traditional. Perennial favorites Moving Sidewalk and Anvil Bar & Refuge are in this camp. At Moving Sidewalk, Alex Gregg and his crew will be serving up straightforward Negronis and Negroni variants like the Boulevardier and Old Pal, all benefiting the Gulf Coast Animal Shelter. Anvil takes things even further toward the traditional, opting to go with the straightforward classic itself as the bar's featured cocktail for Negroni Week. "It is Negroni Week, after all," says Terry Williams, whose program will be supporting The Arc of Greater Houston.
While Anvil may not be pulling out all the stops and raiding the back bar, Williams and Gregg do point to one of my favorite aspects of the Negroni, and that's the fact that it serves as the perfect baseline for exploring difference within a category. With such a tried-and-true recipe at its core, it's very easy to swap out just the gin (opting for a different style or bottle), making it easy to get a feel for the differences between Beefeater and Tanqueray 10, for example (Tanqueray 10, along with equal pours of Campari and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, makes Williams's favorite Negroni build, while Gregg opts for Ford's Gin, Campari and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino). The same goes for the vermouth, where swapping in Carpano Antica might really help you notice the chocolate tones in that bottle, as it shifts the entire cocktail in subtle but important ways.
I recently used the Negroni format to get my head around a
new bottle of gin, allowing the 1:1:1 ratio of spirit, bitter liqueur and fortified wine to guide my hand with Tanqueray's Rangpur gin. Where it had come off as too soft in other drinks, paling against the vermouth in a Martini and shouted down by citrus in a Last Word, it really shone when I split it up with bittersweet Campari and the slightly briny, slightly citrusy-bright Dolin Dry Vermouth. The lime notes that had been either thin or jarring before came into sharp focus, rendering a classic Negroni profile in much lighter tones.
1 ounce Tanqueray Rangpur Gin
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce Dolin Dry Vermouth
Stir all ingredients over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime spiral cut over the glass and dropped in.
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Houston Watch Co. takes a more traditional approach to Negroni Week, too, with its focus on whiskey leading the charge. "Outside of the traditional, which is probably my favorite, I guess I would go with the Boulevardier," says Erik Bogle. "We are a Bourbon- and Scotch-heavy bar, so a Bourbon-based Negroni is right up our alley." The bar is currently aging a Boulevardier in small barrels (along with a Negroni version), and will offer them until they run out, benefiting Doctors Without Borders. Additionally, the bar will feature a traditional Negroni, as well as variations ranging from a Negroni Spritz to Negroni Jell-O shots.
Finally, we look to Barringer Bar, where Robby Cook is both specific with his gin and takes the Negroni out for a drive with The Bitter Fool, a combination of St George Botanivore Gin, Punt e Mes, Campari, fresh lemon juice and house-made orgeat. Proceeds from their Negroni riff will go to benefit CanCare, an organization dedicated to helping people with cancer and their families.
For Cook, the appeal of the Negroni gets very personal, serving as a gateway to memory. Flavor often does that, and intense flavor can trigger intense memories. As Cook says, "I have had the fortune to travel around Italy some, and there is nothing like sitting on a beach in the Cinque Terre looking at the Mediterranean sipping on a Negroni. Every time I drink one, it reminds me of that experience." While your Negroni Week experience might not transport you to a beach in Italy, it will give you a host of opportunities to drink delicious things from good people, helping a handful of charities along the way. If you ask me, that sounds a lot like living the good life in its own way.
Camparti on, Wayne. Camparti on, Garth.