Drunk Uncle, left, and South by Southwest (image: Tim Nusog)
The first time I tasted a Negroni, sipped from the glass of a friend’s uncle on a trip to Italy when I was 16, I immediately spat it out. My teenage palate, honed on such sophisticated quaffs as Smirnoff Ice, wasn’t ready for the bitter, earthy bite of Campari, gin and vermouth. But over the years, as I came to appreciate the flavor of spirits, the Negroni became my favorite drink.
My relationship with scotch does not follow the same narrative arc. I first tried it while living in Jakarta, where booze was difficult to come by. On the rare occasions when you could find something to drink, it was usually limited to Chivas.
I couldn’t stand the stuff. I recoiled at its aggressive smokiness and antiseptic aftertaste. And unlike with other liquors in my life, drinking more scotch didn’t help me acquire a taste for it. No matter what I mixed it with— water, soda, green tea—it remained unpalatable. I came to the conclusion that scotch just wasn’t for me.
Then on a trip to Seattle two years ago, I made a fateful mistake. Quickly scanning the menu at an unfamiliar bar, I pointed to what I thought was a Negroni. When the drink came, it looked like a Negroni and smelled like a Negroni, but it tasted different. There was more sweetness upfront than usual, which was quickly replaced by a sharp bite, then a satisfying burn that lingered, warming my throat. I checked the menu again and was surprised to see that I’d actually ordered a twist on a Negroni made with scotch rather than gin. Even more surprising? I liked it.
Negronis riffs are, of course, nothing new. There’s the Boulevardier (sub rye for gin), the Negroski (vodka for gin) and an endless number of rum– and agave-spirit-based Negronis. Perhaps scotch’s association with snifter-holding men in tufted leather chairs has kept its Negroni variation from ascendency, but its esteem in the mixology world is widespread.
“When I was writing my book, I received a recipe for a drink that its creator, Benny McKew, called the South by Southwest,” says cocktail pioneer and author of “The Negroni,” Gary Regan. The recipe calls for Ardbeg 10-year-old scotch in place of gin. He was immediately sold. “The smokiness of scotch is a perfect foil for the bitter-sweetness of the Campari and vice versa.”
For Michael Schall, the beverage director of Locanda Vini e Olii in Brooklyn, creating his scotch-based Negroni, the Highland, seemed only natural. “The Boulevardier has always been one of my go-to drinks, so replacing the rye with scotch was an easy step to make,” says Schall. “I think scotch is a great base for a Negroni because it’s powerful, like gin, but has so much more complexity and warmth.”
Though the swap is a simple one, the scotch Negroni is very much its own drink. “To a degree, all Negronis are chasing the same flavor profile: strong, balanced, bitter, with a sweetness from the vermouth,” says Shawn Soole, a bartender and consultant based in Victoria, B.C., who has been serving his scotch Negroni, the Drunk Uncle, for eight years. “But each one is a specialty in its own right.” Regan gives it straight: “I don’t think the two can be compared; they’re like apples and oranges.”
So while my accidental scotch Negroni opened my eyes to the palatability of my least-loved spirit, the cocktail by no means hid scotch’s flavor behind those of a Negroni. “If you use a particularly smoky dram, neither the Campari nor the vermouth will be able to hide that,” says Regan. Still, the scotch flavor presents differently in this incarnation. “When people say they don’t like a spirit, it usually means they just haven’t tasted the right expression of that spirit,” says Soole.
As measurements go, specs of the scotch Negroni vary. Some might simply swap out the gin for scotch, keeping the Campari and vermouth at a one-to-one-to-one ratio with the whisky. For others, the switch requires further adjustments. “Every cocktail depends on the brands you use. A light, balanced, smoky Islay whisky works well with Cynar amaro and bianco vermouth but doesn’t play well with Aperol or Campari,” says Soole. “Something will be off-balance.”
In the Schall’s Highland cocktail, he replaces not just the gin but also the Campari and vermouth to find a Negroni-like profile that better suits the base liquor. “I felt that the usual Campari and vermouth weren’t the right complement to some of the subtler notes that scotch can bring (earthy malts, orchard fruits, melon, honey, a floral nose),” he says. “So after testing out a handful of different options, I landed on Aperol and Amaro Montenegro. Most of the time, I find Campari to be either too sweet or too bitter for mixing with other things. Aperol is just mellow, a bit of sweetness with notes of orange peel and rhubarb. Amaro Montenegro acts like a beefed-up vermouth, bringing complementary notes of rose, spice, citrus and cherry. The combination of Montenegro and scotch reminds me of the flavors that come from aging scotch in sherry casks.”
Not long ago, the notion of scotch aged in sherry casks would have been pretty unappealing to me. But today, nestled among the Campari, vermouth and gin in my liquor cabinet, there’s a small bottle of scotch, and it’s not infrequent that I’ll opt for this smoky variation over the classic when mixing up a Negroni. I guess when it comes to discovering new drinks, there’s no better guide than a drunk uncle.