The world's greatest cocktail and where to get the best in Nashville
Here it is, the topic I’ve been waiting for: the humble yet perfect Negroni. It is possibly, in my opinion, the greatest cocktail of all time. Bitter-forward, but balanced. Perfect for opening up your palate and appetite during cocktail hour or capping off the evening. It also leaves a nonexistent margin for error – the ingredients are common staples, so they’ll show up in nearly every bar. Craving something more than just a liquor and a mixer at a dive you stumbled into? Get a Negroni. Sure, you might have to tell the woman/man behind the pine what it’s comprised of and that the proportion is equal parts, but with that knowledge, he/she can’t screw it up. Trust me. I’ve even had a well-intentioned person, assuming this drink was “fancy” and couldn’t be as simple as pouring the ingredients over ice and giving it a stir, shake them before straining over ice. Faux pax? Sure. But I wasn’t complaining. It’s still delicious and there’s no need to be precious about it.
Though well known as (and originally) a combination of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari in equal parts, a negroni can actually be comprised of any spirit, sweet, and bitter, opening near-endless possibilities of combinations without worry of a mistake. Obviously, this doesn’t mean you can’t play with the proportions based on specific ingredients’ flavor profiles but sticking to equal parts brings the margin of error down to about zero.
Let’s elaborate a little more on what I mean by “sweet” and “bitter.”
‘Sweet’, in this context, does not mean syrup or straight sugar. It can mean vermouth (considered sweet in the cocktail world no matter what type), or you can swap any other fortified wine (sherry, Madeira, port, Masala, to name a few) or even a liqueur if you so wish.
Bitter refers to exactly that, aperitifs and digestifs – amaros especially, as this is an Italian cocktail after all. But French aperitifs and digestifs work amazingly well – such as chartreuse, Suze, Bonal, etc.
To have extra fun, you can split your proportions – as in, if you’re using 1 ounce of each item, you could split your base spirit into ½ ounce one thing and ½ ounce another (like gin and rum or tequila and mezcal), or you could split your bitter, ¾ ounce Montenegro and ¼ ounce Cynar, for example. Splitting opens up the opportunity for more ingredients and even more delicious combinations. This is also why you may see more than three ingredients listed in the description of many Negronis. They’re no less a Negroni, they’re just splitting their three categories into multiple items making up the same proportion of the drink. (I’ll reiterate, that doesn’t mean some don’t deviate from the 1:1:1 method to account for different flavor profiles, but for the sake of simplicity, we’re keeping it to that.)
A Negroni is usually served on ice (especially in its origin country of Italy). There are some holes in the history of that origin, but it’s pretty widely accepted that Count Camillo Negroni took to having his Americanos (an Italian drink that combines vermouth with an aperitif or digestive bitter, seltzer, and ice) stiffened up with a splash of gin. (While we’re at it, and for the sake of some cocktails listed later, a Sbagliato is a Negron that swaps out gin for sparkling wine. The name in Italian translates to “mistake”, as in what happened when a Milanese bar owner in the 1970s somehow poured in sparkling wine instead of gin.)
Each year, there occurs a glorious week where all is right in my world: Negroni week. Originally in July, but ever since 2020, it’s been in September. This annual event launched in 2013 by cocktail authority Imbibe Magazine, celebrates “one of the world’s greatest cocktails”. Even better, it’s also an effort to raise money for charitable causes. What started with 120 participating venues is now thousands around the world, serving classic negronis and/or their own variations. Each venue used to choose a charity, but now all donations go to Slow Food. It is a $25 donation prior to Negroni week, and although an additional donation isn’t necessary, many places choose to allocate an amount from each Negroni or total Negroni sales. To date, the week has raised over $3 million dollars.
During this year’s Negroni week, I wasn’t able to hit as many spots as I usually do (a far cry from the Negroni weeks of the pre-pandemic era, where I would sample at multiple spots a day and dabble in judging a competition or two.) Here are some stellar offerings from the few places I did get to try:
DICEY'S PIZZA TAVERN
diceystavern.com • @diceyspizzatavern
Though I didn’t see any special Negroni week offerings, a menu staple is a drink called Sbagittarius, a Sbagliato riff with Aperol, Punt e Mes, and bubbles. So good, I’ve been making it at home ever since (and I forgot to get a picture before downing half.)
bay6nashville.com • @bay6nashville
As usual, the offerings from Nashville’s best-kept cocktail secret knocked my socks off. First, the aptly titled Bay 6 Negroni, with Japanese gin, aperitif, blanc vermouth, and a citric acid-saline solution, was a true ode to the classic, with an extra punch of flavor-enhancing tartness from the latter.
Next, the Neck Tat (man, I love that name for a drink). A combination of gin, bitter Bianco, umeshu (a liqueur made from ume plums), and that citric acid-saline solution. This was my winner for the week, with the umeshu’s sweet and sour notes singing amongst the bitter. I’d say I’ll be back, but this place basically has my name engraved on a bar stool by now.
THE FOX BAR AND COCKTAIL CLUB
thefoxnashville.com • @thefoxnashville
Honestly, it’s pretty hard to make any list of the best drinks without including these folks each and every time. They are a staple of consistency in the departments of modern techniques and deliciousness. For Negroni week this year, The Fox offered up three stunners.
Firstly, a Sbagliato with the traditional Campari, a split between vermouth and Cocchi di Torino, and topped with a sparkling rosé, was a slightly elevated take on the classic. Next, my personal favorite, a cocktail called Negroni Vert, using Hendrick’s gin, Chartreuse, Elisir Novasalus (a bold, savory, and complex digestivo that is DIVINE on its own), and Dolin dry vermouth. Playful and herbaceous, it really hit all the right notes.
Finally, The Fox rolled out a playfully titled N/agroni, made with NKD LDY non-alcoholic gin, DHOS bittersweet, and Lyres aperitif dry. I was familiar with Lyres, a fabulous alcohol-free alternative to vermouth, but the DHOS was new to me. Regardless, in today’s drinking culture, successful bars will be those who embrace non-alcoholic options. It was great to see this on a specialty menu like Negroni week, ensuring the inclusion of everyone, so often forgotten in events like these.
Here’s one of my negroni recipes I love to enjoy at home, with a fruity twist.
• 1 ounce Luxardo Sour Cherry Gin
• 1 ounce Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
• 1 ounce Cynar
Combine all ingredients in a rocks glass. Add ice (ideally one large cube) and stir. Garnish with a lemon twist.