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How the Negroni Became an American Cocktail Icon

Some years ago, Campari started running ads featuring a recipe for the Negroni in newspapers across the United States. The tagline went, “A great American tradition since 1983.”

The ads began in 1973.

Campari, of course, was poking fun at itself. The Italian bitters was not popular in America. No one, outside of traditionally Italian enclaves in San Francisco and elsewhere, was drinking Campari. No one was mixing Negronis. Few knew what a Negroni was.

Now, had the line read, “A great American tradition since 2013,” Campari could today make claims for Nostradamus-level prognostication. Campari sales have gone nowhere but up in recent years, chiefly because Negronis are everywhere. In a decade and change, the cocktail has gone from an also-ran minor classic to a top-tier libation as ubiquitous as the Old Fashioned and the Margarita.

It wasn’t easy. The road to the top of Cocktail Mountain in the United States was winding and slow for the Negroni. You can’t blame post–World War II American bartenders for not selling the Italian drink to their customers. Most of them had never heard of it. The Negroni first appeared in a U.S. cocktail book in 1951, sailing under the name “Negrone” in Ted Saucier’s Bottoms Up. After that, it didn’t surface again until 1972, quietly bobbing up among the elaborate tiki concoctions in the revised Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide. That’s a pretty bad track record for a drink invented in Florence in 1919.

In midcentury America, a mention in a syndicated column was among the more efficient ways of getting the word out about a new cocktail. But at first, journalists were less than helpful in giving the Negroni a leg up. Columnist Art Ryon, writing in the Los Angeles Times in 1959, likened the cocktail to watered-down Dubonnet. Yum. The following year, Herb Rau of the Miami News reported, “Ever heard of a Negroni Cocktail? Moe Hardy, barkeep of Tony Sweet’s, had a call for one. Campari bitters and a sweet Vermouth. Tastes ghastly!” (Maybe if Moe had added gin, Rau would have warmed to it.)

Celebrities were more worldly and well-traveled than workaday journos and, thus, better suited to communicating the good news about the Negroni. Orson Welles, who discovered the cocktail while working in Italy in 1947, famously declared, “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.” Not exactly always-be-closing salesman talk, but a step up from “ghastly.”

A vintage ad, courtesy of Campari.

In 1957, the San Francisco Examiner wrote of actor Anne Baxter, who spent time in England and Spain making the film Chase a Crooked Shadow: “The company used to while away evenings at a little fishermen’s cafe where Miss Baxter introduced a drink composed of Italian campari (a bitters), vermouth and gin.” In separate newspaper features in 1966 and 1967, actor Ray Milland is described as nursing a Negroni during the interview. And a syndicated article in 1967 informed the public, “[I]t’s reported from London that Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian ballet dancer par excellence, favors the Negroni cocktail. It’s said that when seated in his usual corner in a favored restaurant in Chelsea that the waiter, without a word spoken, immediately serves Nureyev a Negroni.”

All these celebrity Negroni sightings may have led to the cocktail getting a better shake in the press beginning in late ’60s. An etiquette column by Amy Vanderbilt, which ran in dozens of papers, advised a young couple with party-throwing anxiety, “I find that the Negroni cocktail is very popular with people in your age group. … It is a simple drink which may be served as a cocktail, on the rocks or in a tall glass with soda water added.”

Still, whatever progress the Negroni made in the United States was minimal, and then wiped out by the disco drinks of the 1970s and cocktail dark ages of the ’80s and ’90s. When Italian bartender Francesco Lafranconi—who transplanted to Las Vegas to work for Southern Wine and Spirits (now Southern Glazer’s)—led a class for local bartenders in 2001, one of the questions on the six-page exam was, “What’s in a Negroni?” That was considered a toughie. Ninety percent of the students had no idea.

But the tide was about to change. Dale DeGroff was stationed behind the bar at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan; and, in 1999, Sasha Petraske opened Milk & Honey on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, thus sparking a nationwide cocktail revival. DeGroff included the Negroni in his influential 2002 book, The Craft of the Cocktail. That same year, cocktail historian David Wondrich wrote about the cocktail in Esquire Drinks. (By contrast, Straight Up or On the Rocks, William Grimes’ seminal 1993 history of cocktail culture, barely mentioned the Negroni.)

A vintage ad, courtesy of Campari.

Perhaps more importantly, bartender-writer Toby Cecchini wrote about the Negroni at length in The New York Times—again, in 2002, which can arguably be called a turning point for the Negroni’s fortunes in America. Not long after, Eric Felten did the same in the Wall Street Journal.

By the 2010s, riffs on the drink were doing their part to boost the profile of the mother cocktail. The White Negroni, a pale twist on the original invented by British bartender Wayne Collins in 2001, started to attract a fan base a decade later. The Boulevardier, a 1920s-born bourbon-based variation on a Negroni, gained traction in bars soon after. Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s barrel-aged Negroni became a nationwide sensation the moment he began serving them at Clyde Common in
Portland, Oregon, in 2009. In one of the oddest promotional turns in the drink’s history, cocktail guru Gaz Regan became notorious for stirring Negronis with his finger; the act was eventually immortalized by a finger-shaped stirrer produced by Cocktail Kingdom. In 2011, just a decade after stumping students on the Negroni’s composition, Francesco Lafranconi joined other Italian bartenders in celebrating the drink’s rise to dominance by mixing what was billed as “the world’s largest Negroni” at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. And in 2013, Imbibe launched Negroni Week, a Negroni-focused charity fundraising initiative (with Campari as its presenting sponsor) that’s grown from an initial round of about 120 venues to more than 12,000 participating bars and restaurants around the world.

The result of all these twining trends? Today, not only are there Negronis served at most American bars, there have been entire Negroni menus at places like Nostrana in Portland, Bar Helix in Denver, and Dante and Lincoln Ristorante in New York. Mezcal Negronis are a common order, as are Kingston Negronis with Jamaican rum. Bars have Negronis on tap. There are bottled and canned Negronis at the local liquor store; even Campari makes a bottled Negroni. There are more gins, vermouths, and red bitters on the American market than at any time in history, all itching for a piece of the Negroni action.

Welcome to 1983.

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