The Great Negroni Debate

by The Ford Mixology Lab

Recently, a well-known and equally well-respected bartender was quoted as saying that he "doesn't really see the point of a vodka Negroni."  Many of his followers responded in agreement and commented in response everything from "make it with gin and don't tell," to negative comments about the people who would order such a concoction.  Coincidentally, just prior to his post hitting social media networks, Ford Mixology Lab had conducted a taste-test of the Negroni, as well as a vodka variation and a version that was simply sweet vermouth and Campari.  The test was performed at Peels on Bowery in NYC, made by barkeeper Isaac Ramon.  All three used equal parts of Campari (of course), Carpano Antica and either Beefeater for the gin version or Belvedere for the vodka variation.

The week prior to our tasting, we read an article by another acclaimed barman about variations on classics that, along with our beliefs about the way in which people drink, prompted us to think about the "vodka Negroni."  When asked about variations or substitutions, many bartenders may think of an inexperienced drinker wanting, say, vodka instead of tequila in her Paloma because she gets "too drunk" on tequila.  Or vodka in her Mamie Taylor because she just doesn't drink whiskey.  Okay, we get how these statements would lead one to believe that the consumer is ignorant and annoying.  However, for someone to want a Negroni with vodka, well, we see something different altogether.  We selected the Negroni as the subject of our taste-test because at Ford Mixology Lab, we believe vodka offers a blank canvas.  We could have tried our experiment with something fruity and sweet and concluded, "Wow, no wonder inexperienced drinkers prefer vodka; you can't taste the alcohol!"  But what better way to see impact of the gin versus vodka than to use a stirred and spiritous cocktail with arguably offensive flavors?

In America, it seems that 'Campari' and 'vermouth' are often both dirty words.  Let's examine the facts: if we polled Americans about the single-most offensive alcoholic beverage, Campari would probably be pretty close to the top.  Ever see the old (and by old we mean 70s-era) Campari ads that humorously claim "9 out of 10,000 Americans prefer Campari?"  This made us laugh out loud.  And vermouth?!  We as Americans are so afraid of it that a steakhouse chain where one of us once worked instructed that "we don't even let our Martinis see the vermouth bottle!"  Granted, I know we're talking about sweet vermouth here, but I feel that to most Americans, the connotation is the same.  When it comes to the Negroni and the combination of bitter Campari and sweet vermouth, well, I think we can all agree that the gin is the least of the perceived evils.  So what's the beef with (or better yet, why are we so bitter about) the Negroni made with vodka?

Before we state the results of our taste test, let us say one very important thing.  We are traditionalists.  We appreciate classic cocktails.  People come into the Tequila bar where you can currently find us both behind the stick and ask, "What Margaritas do you have?"  Um, no.  A Margarita is a Margarita.  You want a fruity drink with Tequila?  Sure, but we won't call it a Margarita.  So if your issue is with the definition of a Negroni and it's blatant lack of vodka, we're not doing a good enough job of demonstrating our point.  We are taking issue with judging a person for requesting a Negroni with vodka instead of gin.  So much issue, in fact, that we decided to try it out for ourselves.

We all know the story of the Negroni...  Once upon a time, a gentleman by the name of Count Negroni wanted something more from his Americano cocktail.  The combination of sweet vermouth, Campari and fizzy water was simply not enough.  So he added gin.  Why did Count Negroni choose gin?  We're not historians.  Maybe he thoughtfully chose to include the not-so-subtle nuances of piney Juniper.  Or perhaps, gin is simply what he had handy.  We won't pretend to know the reason.  But we do know this: the Americano, in its own right, is a great drink.  If you enjoy a Negroni made with vodka, you're essentially enjoying a non-carbonated, boozier Americano.  Regardless of the reasoning for the Count's choice, we're sure he had no idea how much his decision would impact the future of the craft. Can you imagine if we were now scoffing at the substitution of gin in the cocktail, had he chosen vodka?

When Isaac, our barkeep, placed two cocktails in front of us, they were virtually identical.  Same ratios, same stemware, same color, same garnish.  One of us swears they could tell just by the nose which was which, while both of us knew instantly at the taste.  With the gin, botanicals and juniper enter with a punch that dulls the sweet and bitter elements; it almost gets in the way, but the combination is harmonious.  The gin plays off of the bitterness and adds balance, serving to complete a perfect trifecta.  The cocktail made with vodka felt like a contrast of flavors on our tongues; a sweet vermouth and Campari party in our mouths.  First came the sweet, rich and velvety notes of the vermouth.  Then the Campari entered with a bitter finish.  Flavor wise, the vodka doesn't add a damn thing to the cocktail.  But what it serves to do is highlight the two elements in a way that gin doesn't, because gin is busy bringing it's own posse to the shindig.  So, is the "vodka Negroni" just a boozy Americano?  To answer this question required a third cocktail.  Our buddy Isaac produced a concoction that was half sweet vermouth and half Campari.  The result was the sweetest of the three.  While still in balance, this libation was velvety and punch-like with hyper concentrated flavors. 

Our conclusion? Vodka isolates and expands the flavors, while gin adds complexity.  Vodka holds Campari and sweet vermouth up as two separate heroes, while gin engages them in a group hug.  With the classic Negroni, the three flavors become united.  With vodka in place of gin, the sweetness and bitterness reign supreme, slightly dampened by the dilution.  On their own, without a base spirit, sweet vermouth and Campari bounce around like the juvenile little sibling.  All three combinations are worthy of notice in their own right. 

And what are you supposed to do with this information?  Our aim, bartenders, is not to convince you to drink your Negroni with vodka.  Our aim is merely to ask you to refrain from judgement of your patrons for ordering a variation on a classic without further investigation.  Anyone with the balls to drink Campari can probably handle gin.  Is it unreasonable to think that this guest may have a purpose for his or her choice?  Don't call a Negroni made with vodka a Negroni.  Fine.  But please realize that the person ordering may not be an idiot.  Let Ford Mixology Lab leave you with a little food for thought: don't knock it 'til you've tried it.

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