Cocktails & Capers on the Negroni
June 24-30 is international Negroni Week, which benefits a wide variety of charities.
The Negroni makes a substantial appearance in Cocktails & Capers (in case you needed reminding that I have a book), in a chapter about amaro, Ian Fleming, Dusko Popov, the Americano, Gabriele D’Annunzio, World War II, organized crime, Campari, and wild Italian counts.Yes, all those things go together. More or less.
So here is an excerpt from that chapter, “Casino Amaro,” that recounts the tangled, entertaining history of my go-go cocktail.
For a short story, Fleming packs quite a bit of detail and drinking into “Risico.” Aside from the Hotel Excelsior in Rome (at Via Vittorio Veneto, 125 00187 Roma) and Caffè Florian in Venice, Bond drops in at Harry’s Bar (Calle Vallaresso 1323, Venice). Harry’s Bar should not be confused with Harry’s New York Bar in that old villain of a city, Paris, where young James Bond spent a night drinking before losing his virginity. To confuse matters further, Harry’s Bar in Venice is currently owned by restaurant company Cipriani S.A., which opened a Harry’s Bar in New York—but not Harry’s New York Bar. Caffè Florian and Harry’s Bar have a storied list of clients and historical accomplishments. Aside from being one of Italy’s oldest cafés, Florian is an opulent showcase for art and historic Venetian design, with a clientele that has included one of history’s most famous womanizing spies, Casanova, and writers such as Lord Byron, Marcel Proust, and Charles Dickens. Harry’s Bar in Venice was frequented by Ernest Hemingway (who also frequented Harry’s New York Bar in Paris), Truman Capote, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Charlie Chaplin, though probably not all at the same time. It’s the birthplace of the Bellini, so named because its pink hue reminded Giuseppe Cipriani of the toga of a saint in a painting by 15th- century Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini.
“Risico” does not state what James Bond drinks while at Harry’s Bar in Venice. While it’s safe to assume he probably stuck with the Americano, the bar is famous for its version of a cocktail near and dear to 007’s heart: the Martini. They make them very dry indeed at Harry’s Bar: 10 parts gin to one part vermouth and served in a glass with no stem. It’s a variation on another variation of the Martini: the Montgomery, named after cautious British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and boasting even more contempt for vermouth. The Montgomery’s 15 parts gin to one part dry vermouth are said to have been derived from always-cautious Monty’s preferred ratio of “my troops to their troops.” Bond completes his afternoon drinking tour of Venice at Quadri (Piazza San Marco 121, 30124 Venice). Again, “Risico” doesn’t clue us in to what Bond ordered while visiting this caffè once visited by the likes of writer Alexander Dumas and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (not to mention the world’s second Jimmy Bond, Woody Allen). Perhaps he switched things up and moved on from the Americano to a Negroni, sometimes referred to as “an Americano with guts.”
In his book Everyday Drinking, acclaimed British author Kingsley Amis described the Americano as “good at lunchtime and before Italian food.” He then went on to write: “If you feel that, pleasant as it is, it still lacks something, throw in a shot of gin and the result is a Negroni. This is a really fine invention. It has the power, rare with drinks and indeed with anything else, of cheering you up.” Among other literary accomplishments, Amis was hired to write the first official James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, after the death of Ian Fleming. The first drink Bond has in “Risico” is a Negroni “with Gordon’s please.” In the movie For Your Eyes Only, loosely adapted in part from “Risico,” the drink is changed to the Greek pastis ouzo, which happens to play a major role in Amis’ Colonel Sun. In the cinematic adaptation of Thunderball, Bond congratulates himself for disarming a henchman by mixing himself a Negroni.
The origin of the drink, like so many, is a mix of supposition, archaeology, and the acceptance of hearsay as fact because, “ehh, why not? That’s been the story for a long time.” As one story goes, the Negroni was invented at the Caffè Casoni (formerly Caffè Giacosa) in Florence when Italian Count Camillo Negroni explained to the resident bartender, Fosco Scarselli, that while the count did love himself an Americano, he wanted something similar but with a little more punch to it. Negroni suggested ditching the Americano’s soda in favor of gin. Scarselli obliged, also substituting a garnish of orange peel for the Americano’s lemon peel. And so was born the Negroni, according to the book Sulle Tracce del Conte: La Vera Storia del Cocktail Negroni, written in 2002 by Lucca Picchi. There is now also an English translation, Negroni Cocktail: An Italian Legend.
Count Camillo Negroni, according to the book, shared a peculiar trait with Seraffimo Spang, the head of the Spangled Mob in Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever: dressing up like a cowboy. Picchi’s book claims Camillo was the grandson of English poet Walter Savage Landor. He spent a lot of time in America, first working as a cowboy (thus his affinity for dressing up like one) and later as a gambler in New York. Other than his existence, his presence in New York, and a photo that makes him look more like a humorless banker played by Lon Chaney than a professional adventurer, most of the claims about him remain difficult to independently substantiate.
This account of this Count seems reasonable but has been disputed hotly and with supporting documentation by Noel Negroni, who claims that it was his relative, a Corsican war hero named Pascal Olivier Count de Negroni, who led the first cavalry charge of the Franco-Prussian War, who invented the Negroni. According to Noel Negroni, there never was a Count Camillo Negroni; no such person shows up in the Negroni family histories. Instead, Pascal invented the cocktail while stationed in Senegal and dedicated it to his fiancée. This claim is supported by personal letters mentioning the drink, though it would have been a bit different back then since Campari was not yet in existence. However, there would have been any number of similar bitter liqueurs from which he could have chosen. He also probably wouldn’t have called it a Negroni, though who knows with those aristocratic military types? More than likely, the thinking goes, people who liked it were asking for that “Count Negroni cocktail.” The name stuck. And if it was Camillo who invented the drink? Well, same thing. “Give me an Americano the Negroni way” just becomes Negroni.
Of course, Noel’s research doesn’t preclude there being a different Negroni family than his own or of one man having multiple names. Which, it turns out, is exactly the case. The existence of Pascal Olivier Count de Negroni has never been in doubt, but like Noel Negroni, people began to think that this mysterious and flamboyant Count Camillo was just a myth—until confirmation of his immigration to New York was discovered by Drinking Cup writer Rusty Hawthorne and a phalanx of other researchers. Or at least, there was indeed a guy named Camillo Negroni who, it seems, was some manner of Count. As for the rest of his rather fanciful, biography…well, there is not any proof that Count Camillo was the swashbuckling cowboy cosplayer claimed by the legend.
The debate has escalated, as things inevitably do, to a battle for the honor of two competing families over a claim that it’s unlikely could ever be definitively proven and which would, in the end, reap them no particular benefits other than points of pride. Still, the lengths to which the Corsican Negronis have gone to debunk the claims that Count Camillo Negroni invented the cocktail are as impressive as they are extreme and include hiring handwriting analysts and mounting an expedition to Senegal. That alone deserves a toast.
In any case, the almost universally accepted image of Count Negroni—a tall, mustachio’d man in a top hat, a cardboard cut-out of which accompanies almost every Negroni Week celebration and is widely circulated by writers and brands alike—isn’t any Count Negroni, Camillo or Pascal. It’s anthropologist and explorer Arnold Henry Savage Landor (incredibly, no relation to Walter Savage Landor). Count Camillo does have a possible tenuous link to the Landor family through his mother, but that link has yet to be proven as anything other than a coincidence of name, much like the one that confused the two Count Negronis. However, it might explain how a portrait of Arnold Henry Savage Landor ever came to be mistaken as a picture of Count Negroni. Whether or not you should affect a bad Sean Connery slur next time someone names Landor as Negroni and explain to them, “Actually, that’sh exshplorer Arnold Landor, a lover of catsh,” depends entirely on you and whether or not you want any friends.
It seems like the true origin of the cocktail will remain disputed, but does it really matter? Look at those back stories! Both are great. While that may continue to be a bone of contention among the families vying for the claim of “inventor of the Negroni,” the cocktail is better served by fanciful legend than truth. Negroni drinkers win either way. The thing was invented either by a fist-pumping 19th century war hero who led a dramatic charge, or it was invented by an eccentric count who dressed up like a cowboy and gambled with gangsters in New York. The important thing is, you can order one. If you happen to find yourself in Florence, drop by the Caffè Giacosa and toast both Counts. Cowboy attire is optional.
- 1 oz London dry gin
- 1 oz Campari
- 1 oz Carpano Antica Vermouth
Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of orange peel. You can also strain it into a rocks glass over ice. And you can stir it if you want. This cocktail can do anything!
Cocktails & Capers: Cult Films, Cocktails, Crime, and Cool by Keith Allison is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, on the shelf at the Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn‘s Video Vortex, and wherever you walk in and demand loudly that they stock it!