Cocktail 101

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The Best Gin for Negronis

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[Photographs: Jennifer Hess]

The Negroni might look simple on the surface. The classic cocktail is an equal-parts blend of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, but there's much more going on in this drink than you might imagine. As the story goes, the drink was invented in 1919 when Count Camillo Negroni wanted a little muscle in his Americano. He asked a bartender in Florence to forget the club soda and add gin in its place. The result: a serious drink for serious drinkers.

The Negroni's ingredients are not to be trifled with. Gin is a botanical spirit full of complex flavor. Sweet vermouth is herbal and rich, with undertones of raisins and prunes. And Campari is Campari. You hate Campari until that one moment when you love it, and then when you love it you never want your bottle to run dry.

I am on the prowl now to find the best version of a Negroni that I can devise at home. I'm going to start by examining the gin. As we know, gin is a blend of neutral spirit and a mix of juniper and other aromatic herbs and spices. Some gin distillers push the juniper to the front, whereas others craft a spirit that's more floral or citrusy. Which style of gin works best for a Negroni? I wanted to find out.

The Line Up


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I tested three basic types of gin: a junipery London dry style, a more floral style, and a Navy strength (114 proof, or 57% alcohol by volume). The London dry is a bit of a benchmark. I tested the floral style to see whether those flavors would shine through, and I tested the navy strength gin to see whether the gin's alcoholic power would enhance the drink or overwhelm its other components.

The gins I tested were Tanqueray (the original bottling, not Tanq 10), Hendrick's, and Perry's Tot Navy Strength. I think Tanqueray and Beefeater are still the best widely available examples of the classic London style, and I usually turn to them for my Friday night martinis. I'm not always a fan of more floral gins, but Hendrick's and Nolet's Silver Dry Gin are each fine examples of the style. Hendrick's has the signature cucumber note, whereas Nolet's tastes of roses and berries. At least three Navy strength gins are around these days: Plymouth, Royal Dock, and Perry's Tot. Each has a slightly different flavor profile, but they're all potent tipples with piney flavors that work well in cocktails.

As for why I chose Tanqueray over Beefeater, Hendrick's over Nolet's, and Perry's over Royal Dock or Plymouth, that's just happenstance. I like them all, and Fresh Direct happened to carry each. (Lugging home five bottles of booze—three gins, vermouth, and Campari—when you're on foot with two small children is a challenge, let me tell you. Let someone bring it to me? Golden.)

Tasting the Gins

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The first thing we did was to taste each gin on its own, neat in small glasses, so we could judge whether the flavor was coming through once mixed in the cocktail.

The Perry's Tot was definitely juniper-forward, with light citrusy flavors and a little floral sweetness. You might expect a 57% ABV gin to taste "hot" from the alcohol, but we found that not to be the case.

The Hendrick's had a milder juniper flavor, and it tasted fresher and less sweet than the Perry's Tot. The flavors were clean and soft, with hints of rose petals and that famous cucumber.

The Tanqueray had the biggest flavors of the three, strong with juniper, plus a light citrus flavor, tasting somewhat of orange blossom. We also tasted something akin to anise in the Tanq.

Get Mixing!

Several variables in each Negroni remained the same:

  • Martini and Rossi Vermouth Rosso. (I sometimes like vermouths like Punt e Mes and Carpano Antica in Negronis but the latter especially has a vanilla note that I find distracting in the drink.)
  • Campari.
  • Proportions. Each drink was 1 part gin, 1 part vermouth, and 1 part Campari.
  • Ice. I weighed the ice to make sure it was the same for each drink.
  • Glassware. A standard rocks glass.
  • Technique. I stirred each Negroni over fresh ice, to chill and properly dilute it, and then strained it into a rocks glass with one large ice cube.

My wife and I were both blind-tasting the Negronis. To ensure that neither one of us knew which glass was which, I used a method that I stole from another cocktail blogger:

  1. I mixed each Negroni and poured each one into two glasses over an ice cube.
  2. I designated the drinks as A, B, and C, and then took them out to my wife in the living room.
  3. I kept a note on my phone saying which drink was which. So, in the end, the Hendrick's Negroni was A, the Tanqueray was B, and the Perry's Tot was C.
  4. While I was in the kitchen, my wife shuffled the drinks, so that I wouldn't know which one was which. So she knew where A, B, and C were on the table, but she didn't know what was in each glass. I knew what was in each glass, but I didn't know where A, B, and C were.

Because gin is clear and the proportions of each ingredient were the same in each drink, we didn't notice any color variations in the drinks.

Results

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The first drink we tried tasted the closest to an ideal Negroni. The drink was well-balanced and only mildly sweet, with an herbal complexity and a bitter backbone. It was just what I want the Negroni to be.

The second gin carried a bit more citrus flavor into the cocktail, but the resulting Negroni tasted somewhat sweeter than the first. For me, it lost some of its bitter punch, so it just didn't shine the way the first drink did. If you preferred your Negroni on the fruitier side, though, this might be your preferred gin.

The third drink—immediately identifiable as the Negroni made with Hendrick's—didn't impress like the first two. All of the subtle qualities of the Hendrick's were pummeled by the Campari, leaving behind just a slight hint of perfume. If I'm craving something out of the ordinary, I really like Hendrick's as an occasional Martini gin, but I do not think it works well in a Negroni.

I went back to the first two cocktails, and found that my initial impression was the same: the first drink won out. We then revealed each drink's identity and confirmed: the first drink—the favorite—was made with Perry's Tot, the second was Tanqueray, and the third was Hendrick's.

Before tasting blind, I would have expected Tanqueray to be the favorite, probably because it's commonly found in Negronis out in the wild. But it makes sense to me that the Perry's ended up impressing us: this stronger gin has the muscle to grapple with the Campari and the power to carry its flavors through to the drink. If you tend to gravitate toward bitter cocktails, I urge you to give Navy strength gin a try in your next Negroni. Like things slightly softer? Tanqueray will work just fine.

About the author: Michael Dietsch lives with his wife and kids in Brooklyn. His first book, Shrubs, is due in October 2014. You can reach him on twitter at @dietsch.

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