New twists

Negroni Week

Death and Taxes bartender Matt Knowlton prepares a Queen Palm, a variation on a Negroni with jellied Campari painted on the inside of the glass.

Death and Taxes bartender Matt Knowlton prepares a Queen Palm, a variation on a Negroni with jellied Campari painted on the inside of the glass.

PHOTO/Matt Bieker

I have a friend who blames her bar-going alter ego she calls “the Negroni Monster” for some of her best—and worst—nights out. The cocktail is one of her favorites, but the triple-shot recipe and high sugar content make for potent hangover fuel. As my cocktail of choice on a night out is usually the humble gin and tonic, I didn’t know much about the Negroni beyond its apparent reputation for inciting a little too much fun.

However, this year I discovered the relatively new tradition of Negroni Week, an event started by Campari and Imbibe magazine in 2013, wherein bars all over the country highlight both classic Negronis and custom variations and donate proceeds to charity. I decided to let some of Reno’s cocktail hubs educate me about this timeless cocktail.

“A Negroni, classically, is equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, classically with an orange twist—some people ask for a lemon twist,” said Jimmy Warden, bartender at Pignic.

It’s a complex but balanced drink. Gin is a fairly neutral base alcohol, while the sweet vermouth keeps the exceptional bitterness of the Campari in line. The strict 1:1:1 ratio is crucial, then, to keep the three parts working together.

Warden also explained that the simple composition of a Negroni means the recipe can be doctored even slightly to render a totally new drink, and that Negroni Week is mostly about celebrating the cocktail’s versatility.

“So now a lot of restaurants, this week, all across the U.S., are doing just their different riffs and different variations of it,” Warden said.

At Pignic, one riff is the Spicoli, with dry vermouth instead of sweet and rum instead of gin.

I continued my one-man Negroni excursion to Death and Taxes, where bartender Matt Knowlton offered me the recipes and informed me of the bar’s chosen charity—No Kid Hungry.

At Death and Taxes, I saw just how exotic this cocktail could be and still be called a Negroni. My choice of the three offerings was the Queen Palm, which was a vibrant green, as opposed to the deep red of the traditional Negroni, with gin, coconut and jellied Campari “painted” on the inside of the glass.

Knowlton told me he’s been tending bar at Death and Taxes for more than five years, and Negronis inspire him to be creative. I asked for his recommendation for enjoying Negronis at home, where some of the more exotic additions I saw at his bar might be less accessible.

“Just use good spirits,” said Knowlton. “Use good gin, use good sweet vermouth, or try it with bourbon—it’s called a boulevardier.”

After two Negronis at two bars in one hour, I made the brief walk—mostly steadily—down Virginia Street to Rum Sugar Lime, where I decided to simply inquire about the Black Pool’s Revenge, instead of sampling it. “It’s Lemon Hart Blackpool Spiced Rum, vermouth, Campari, Montenegro and some coconut liqueur,” said bartender Mark Nesbitt.

He said that while he loves Negronis, he didn’t really start drinking them until after he started bartending, and he believes they’re most popular with other bartenders and older patrons, who are more familiar with classic cocktails.

Negroni Week itself, Nesbitt said, has been largely an industry event for the past few years, but more and more patrons are catching on.

“It’s a way for bars to showcase what they can do with this very classic, perfect blank slate of a cocktail,” Nesbitt said.