It might be a little irreverent to write an ode to the Negroni during the holy month of Dry January (read Alcohol-free January) but I will do it anyway. In fact, the Negroni is probably one of the highest ABV % (i.e. Alcohol by Volume) cocktails around, having no mixer in it.
I believe it is the most talked-about drink of the last couple of years, getting articles from FT How to spend it to the New York Times and yet, only a few years ago it was considered some kind of a dinosaur of drinks.
This is a story of premiumisation, forgotten bottles, ABV %, and dry January diets.
Let’s go step by step, starting with a bit of history: it all started with the MI-TO (Milano – Torino as Campari was from Milan and Vermouth from Turin) that was made with Campari bitter, Vermouth Rosso (i.e. Martini, Carpano, Cinzano). It was probably during prohibition, that the drink evolved itself and changed name into Americano. Allegedly the name is to pay homage to American tourists visiting Italy that loved the drink but preferred it with soda, to smoothen the bitterness and add in some bubbles. In 1919, Count Negroni, in Florence at Caffè Casoni, asked the barman Fosco Scarselli to make it stronger, switching the soda with dry gin.
The Negroni was born. And it is 100 years old.
Probably such jubilee helped bringing the drink back to its laurel.
While the Negroni is making the headlines of international publications and entering the drinks menus of the world’s top bars, it has been dormant for a long time (i.e. decades) neglected by most of bartenders and consumers until a few years ago.
Everybody talks about #negroniweek (yes, it is so popular that there is an hashtag for it) but I remember a time when I had to ask for one as “off the menu” in a bar and I could see a question mark in the eyes of the bartender.
So what’s the connection with January?
A couple of weekends ago, I got the same look from a bartender in a famous cocktail bar in Prague. It was not because it was not on the menu (the opposite), but because I had asked for it in January, the holy month of the year.
Yes, January is the driest month for the alcohol industry, a sort of 31 days truce between the beverage industry operators and consumers after their Christmas holidays and New Year’s eve bacchanalia. It usually goes hand in hand with a peak in Gym membership subscriptions.
Could it then be its strong alcohol content the reason why it has fallen into oblivion until some 5 years ago?
Maybe yes. At least one of them. I remember having my first one 10 years ago, back in 2009, in Stockholm. I guess that the reason why I had not had one was the reputation of the Negroni: a heavy drink only suitable for few occasions. I assume that many consumers must have shared the same preconception. Since the day I tried the Negroni, my love for it grew and I must have ordered one in each continent that I have traveled to (at least judging from the photos in my iPhone).
Another reason that I think contributed was that bartenders neglected the Negroni in the past despite being an easy to make cocktail because, probably, they didn’t know for which occasion to recommend it and also because those vermouth and bitter bottles, hidden on bar shelves had lost bartender’s share of mind against gins, aged rums and whiskeys.
So, what brought the Negroni back to glory?
There was a need of fresh breeze brought in by smart mixologists and craft bitter and vermouth producers to shake up the trade, similarly to what happened with craft beers and natural wines.
In fact, until recently, the marketing of the Negroni was pretty much all on Campari’s shoulder. I remember the famous advert in magazines going: “no Negroni without Campari”. Rightfully so, at least before the wave of craft bitters entered the scene. With their tailored approach to seeding their new liquids into speakeasy cocktail bars, they have certainly given a boost to the cause, giving Negroni a seat at the table. Even Italian Amari (bitters), that are historically unable to cross Italian regional borders, have chosen to grow internationally (e.g. Montenegro, Braulio, Nonino to name a few), by working closely with bartenders to create new cocktails.
The Vermouth (fortified wine) craft scene development has also helped from the other end of the bar, driving the resurgence of this sleeping beauty that was once the realm only of the iconic ones (e.g. Martini and Cinzano) with smart industry entrepreneurs and mixologists (e.g. Mancino Vermouth) as well as once forgotten smaller brands that are now going international (e.g. Carpano, Cocchi etc.), riding the wave of “Made in Italy”.
In fact, the last decade has seen Italian brands performing really well. Italian food has reached its high together with brands that well represents the country’s lifestyle. Look at San Pellegrino, Peroni Nastro Azzurro (proud to have contributed to its success across Europe), Aperol, Campari, Prosecco. Look at how Pizza has developed itself in the last years with attention to top-class ingredients entering the gourmet food scene. Negroni is definitely part of that family of Italian aspirational products.
The last years there has been a rediscovery of the Aperitivo moment, something that had been neglected by many and that Italian brands (above) have managed to make their signature. They managed to win in that occasion by playing the card of an aspirational social occasion where you wind down after a workday with a drink or two, having a bite and then head home. Negroni, in that space, has managed to conquer the palates of men and women with its bitter and sweet contrast, hitting the peak of sales.
Wasn’t 2019 also the best year for No-Lo (Non alcohol – Low alcohol) drinks ?
The premiumisation trend has helped such polarisation in the alcohol industry. We shouldn’t be tricked by the growth of both No-Lo and Hi alcohol; there is room for both as the key is on the quality of ingredients, not the ABV levels.
Yes people are drinking less, but also better.
Consumers are constantly looking for novelty, substance, quality of ingredients and a story to use as social currency. The trade is looking for the same, brands, drinks and food that are able to drive up the price ladder, that they can charge more while delivering an authentic experience. Hence one trend doesn’t jeopardise the other. There is space for both world as long as brands can deliver their promise with a quality product.
Negroni is here to stay, even in 2020.
I grew up hearing my father quoting the latin motto: Est Modus in Rebus (it is about the right measure in things) and I am personally against extremes. I don’t believe in Dry January, I believe in moderation in things. The need for a month of abstinence comes from overdoing it during the other 11 months. What about changing behaviour into responsible drinking? The days of many rounds of cheap cocktails are long gone. After all, it is always about quality over quantity in things, whether in January or during the rest of the year.