“One Negroni, two Negroni, three Negroni, floor,” a barman warned me waggishly. Having discovered the classic, no-nonsense cocktail on a trip abroad, I came back to the United States with a thirst for the complex, careful balance of a Negroni. Equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, this cocktail is all about selecting your ingredients carefully, so I went out and bought scores of obscure vermouths, exotic-sounding gins, and towering bottles of Campari. As my bar filled up, I found dozens of combinations I enjoyed and even more that I still drank anyways. All through my “highly-scientific” research, I never thought to swap out the Campari. According to purists, this is an impossible task — but there are endless variations on Negronis on menus across the country, with base spirits from 12-year-old scotch to mezcal to coffee liquor. So why couldn’t I swap out the Campari?
Somewhere a Campari executive just got chills. For many bartenders substituting Campari in a Negroni is a crime worse than treason – even worse than putting ice cubes in a glass of wine. Undeterred, I started my search for a new aperitif for this cocktail in the same place many who venture to do the impossible do: with Aperol. Aperol is a splendid, slightly sweeter, far less bitter substitute, and imparts a rich, red-orange color to the cocktail. I love a Negroni made with Aperol, but it’s different enough to be its own drink, so I continued my search. Contratto makes an Italian aperitif with 100 percent natural ingredients, like beetroot, that matches Campari’s color while imparting unique, old-world flavors into the classic cocktail. Contratto’s aperitif worked wonderfully, but I still wasn’t going to give up the hunt for the perfect Campari contender.
My search took me, perhaps strangely, to the Rocky Mountains, where Leopold Bros. is producing an Italian-inspired Apertivo. This atomic-red liqueur is almost perfectly suited for Negronis, it’s dry and complex with long-lasting flavor, so you can savor every sip and every second. The color comes from a specific South-American insect that is perfectly safe and ethically sourced, while the flavor is derived from grapefruit peels and gentian root. Leopold Bros. crafted something incredible, and the Negronis I crafted with this spirit knocked my socks off. Honestly, I think all of these aperitifs are healthy competition for Campari, but I found my true spirit in the Nation’s Capital at a distillery called Don Ciccio & Figli. With a long history in the old country and a rebirth in the new, Don Ciccio & Figli is everything that is great about this country. When Don Ciccio named one of his many aperitifs after his unborn daughter, Luna, I knew I had to try it.
With a slightly darker color than the other aperitifs I tried, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this ingredient. However, the careful balance of sweetness and bitterness lent itself so well to the bright flavors of gin and the supple texture of sweet vermouth, that I knew I’d found Campari’s match. Upon my first taste, I traveled briefly to that Tuscan sun-drenched afternoon that I sipped my first Negronis, except this was better, and I was in Virginia on a cloudy day in quarantine. While Luna is the victor in this story, the real lesson was that I shouldn’t be afraid to experiment, no matter how the purists feel. I found a liqueur I never would have thought to use, made by hand with effort and heart. I’ll drink to that any day.
Prep Time: 5 min
- 1 OZ. LUNA APERITIVO (OR SUBSTITUTE CAMPARI, APEROL, ETC. I WON’T JUDGE)
- 1 OZ. GIN (LIKE PRAIRIE ORGANIC GIN, TANQUERAY, OR HENDRICKS)
- 1 OZ. SWEET VERMOUTH (LIKE VYA SWEET, CARPANO ANTICA, DOLIN ROUGE)
- GARNISH: ORANGE PEEL
- While tasty, these drinks are strong, so take it easy and sip them. That being said, this simple drink is largely about the ingredients you put into it, so feel free to experiment with different gins, sweet vermouths, and aperitifs. Nobody is going to chop your head off for getting creative with a cocktail. Keep notes of what works and doesn’t, and be prepared to make a few drinks that maybe aren’t your favorite. You can always pass them along to a less discerning friend.
I’ve written extensively about Don Ciccio & Figli, and it’s worth mentioning the ship to almost every state in the country. They make all their spirits with 100 percent natural ingredients, and they offer free tasting at their Sirena bar. I haven’t written as much about Prairie Organic Spirits, which make their 100 percent organic spirits with 100 percent Minnesota corn from local farmers. They also donate 1 percent of all their profits to advancing the education of the next generation of organic farmers, and they distill all their spirits to taste. Their award-winning, sustainable spirits are an easy, and affordable, way to drink better cocktails.