A negroni is not like a pizza: you can definitely have a bad one. It could flout the golden 1:1:1 proportions of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth; or it could be inadequately stirred, served over small, fast-melting pieces of ice; or—the worst offence—it could be shaken and stirred like a martini, hazy with ice flecks in a stemmed cone-shaped glass. These versions could be choked down, sure, but they’re just not right.
The ideal drink loses the dominant tastes of its three ingredients to be transmogrified into a new flavour: move over umami, negroni’s here. It should stay chilled for the duration of an aperitivo session, and despite being booze-forward, it shouldn’t be precious—though cheekily opulent variations, like Prohibition’s luxe Inception Negroni (a classic negroni inside of an ice sphere served inside of a white negroni) do earn that right.
For purposes of this experiment, versions that replace the base spirit (a negroni with bourbon is, after all, a boulevardier) or stray too far from classic components (another red bitter, like Contratto or The Woods Spirit Co Pacific Northwest Amaro, would be a welcome substitution for ubiquitous Campari; a fuller-bodied amaro, not so much) have been ignored. The frozen negroni, like a summer fling, will never be spoken of again.
Free Flowing: Luppolo Brewing Co. and Juniper
Jockey for counter service with bomber-buyers and growler-fillers and order Luppolo’s off-menu item: “barrel-aged Negroni,” says a paper sheet taped to the wall. Italian Campari meets East Van Bittersweet Vermouth and Wallflower gin from nearby Odd Society, which mingle in a mini-barrel before going on tap. The distinctive vermouth brings palate-tingling spice, a honeyed note, and a rosy coral hue, with light bitterness tickling the back palate courtesy of barrel tannins. There’s undeniable novelty in enjoying a crafted cocktail in a brewery, watching a pint-puller hand-cut and twirl the orange twist garnish, tong some ice cubes, and tap the drink into a Campari-branded cut-glass tumbler. If on-tap is a favourite style, also consider a perfectly proper Beefeater gin, Punt e Mes vermouth, and Campari negroni at the gin-focused bar at Juniper.
Special Age: Campagnolo Upstairs
Twirly moustachioed bar ace Peter Van de Reep experimented with months-long negroni aging, but arrived at blending it with balanced, younger batches: hence the Solera, a method the trained sommelier borrows from the Sherry industry. Muscular Broker’s London Dry Gin, Campari, and Cinzano Rosso go into five 10-litre mini-barrels on a shelf at the back of the bar at Campagnolo Upstairs. Batches are periodically tapped out, but the barrels are never emptied and always contain some older “mother” mixture, like a great sourdough starter. “The oldest is four years,” Van de Reep estimates. The killer concoction is long-stirred and served neat in a ghost-thin glass tumbler, revealing new notes (juicy cherry, warm toast) in a perfected classic for all-night sipping.
The Kings: Resurrection Spirits
A craft distillery tasting room is the new haunt of the Vancouver mixology scene. David Wolowidnyk, 2012 Bombay Sapphire World’s Most Imaginative Bartender, is now distilling (with fellow bar veteran Brian Grant) behind the glass in this sparse, industrial-eleganza tasting room where sleek Parisian shakers and Yarai mixing glasses imply serious cocktailing. Resurrection’s negroni involves its robustly botanical gin, its rye-based gin that goes toe-to-toe with Campari, and vanilla-forward, amber-brown Carpano Antica, the king of red vermouths. “A lot of people don’t stir a negroni long enough,” says Wolowidnyk as he whirls the concoction and lets it “poach” on ice for nearly a minute before a second stir. Served over gorgeously clear Kold Draft (the king of bar ice) square cubes and garnished with thinly carved orange zest, this drink is dark and rich.
Get Lucky: Fairmont Pacific Rim Lobby Lounge
The Lucky Negroni “is kind of how we represent ourselves as a hotel,” Fairmont Pacific Rim Lobby Lounge bartender Evita Raghunan says, referencing the minimal, Japanese-inspired brand of the chic property—and the kitschy, paw-raised lucky white cat this drink is named for. The hallmarks of a white negroni (gin plus Martini Bianco subbing for red vermouth and Luxardo Bitter Bianco as Campari’s colourless analogue) are brightened with dashes of house-made sake vermouth, a kiss of Curaçao, and one huge ice cube so invisibly clear that guests sometimes ask for more ice in their drinks. A grapefruit twist is the graceful note to the complex aromatics and exotic yet light bitterness of this drink.
Best Mistake: Crowbar
Crowbar is a vintage-looking neighbourhood bar that feels like it’s been there forever (but for the Bitcoin machine in the back). A selection of chef Justin Ell’s adventurous bar bites (duck heart skewers or grilled cabbage with kidney bolognese, anyone?) are half-price during happy hour, when the drink special is always a negroni variation. It’s currently a Negroni Sbagliato, or “mistake” in Italian, named for accidentally poured Prosecco in place of gin. Here, the happy accidents compound, with bubbles supplied by lavender-tinged Naramata Lovander (the “o” a twee heart shape on the label). Served in a retro printed glass and garnished with a lavender-speared dehydrated orange slice, it’s a frizzante, refreshing tipple that won’t topple the night. “People are consumption-conscious now,” says owner Will Johnson. “If they’re humming and hawing about having a second drink, we can offer them this.”
A Lighter Shade: Blue Water Cafe
Barman Luke McInnes cuts the Campari to three-quarters of an ounce, upped by a quarter-ounce of its sunset-coloured, less-bitter cousin Aperol. With spicy Punt e Mes Italian red vermouth, Beefeater 24, and a dash of Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters, this Blue Water Cafe specialty is pre-batched for quick service, but a three-ounce portion is poured and properly stirred to order for each guest. Crystalline ice and a heavy tumbler give it all a deluxe feel as teeming seafood towers and platters of oysters land tableside. Higher up on the ladder is the luxury suite of the cocktail list: a negroni of West Winds gin, Carpano Antica vermouth, Campari, and lavender bitters.
More and More: Pepino’s Spaghetti House
There’s elevating the negroni to mixology art, and then there’s serving it like the everyday aperitivo it is in Italy. That’s how they do it at Pepino’s, the revamp of beloved spaghetti palace Nick’s (and at sister restaurant Savio Volpe, too). At both, the negroni will be poured at the table, on the rocks, with an orange twist, from a pre-mixed and stylishly labelled bottle. The cocktail contains carefully proportioned Beefeater gin, Cinzano Rosso vermouth, and Campari (presumably, with the appropriate amount of dilution added, as the drink is not inappropriately strong). As one guest quips, it’s a negroni so chic, guests might want to skip wine and order this by the bottle instead.
Bitter spirits are having a moment, and there is plenty of exciting experimentation going on in Vancouver. But sometimes a beloved classic is best suited, and that is just fine, too.