The Negroni turns 100!
As bars all over the world get deep into Negroni Week, I am remembering a time 3 years ago when I, coincidentally, was in Florence Italy, the birthplace of this illustrious cocktail at the start of the international event. On the eve of Negroni Week, I met the renowned Barman, Luca Picchi, who wrote a definitive book on the history of the Negroni Cocktail and the man who created it a century ago.
Picchi’s book, The Negroni Cocktail, an Italian Legend, tells the story of Count Camillo Luigi Manfredo Maria Negroni, his lust for adventure, his capacity to make deep, lasting friendships around the world and across societal statuses and of course, how his name-sake cocktail came to be.
Camillo Negroni was born in 1868 from aristocrats in Florence. During that time, Florence was the capital of Italy and flourishing. At the age of 16, he enrolled in the Modena Military Academy. He failed his first year at the Academy and spent most of that year under one punishment or another for his rebellious behavior. Despite being characterized as “badly suited for the military environment”, Camillo went on to repeat that year with much success and quickly rose through the ranks to Lieutenant.
Suddenly, he was forced to leave his military career to secretly marry a noble woman pregnant with his child. As the marrying age was 21, both families pulled some serious strings to arrange this union.
His son was born, but unfortunately the mother didn’t survive. The child took his mother’s surname and Camillo left the scene.
When Camillo returned home to Florence, his mother and step father were extremely hostile and unforgiving. Rather than endure the guilt trip at home, he packed his bags, jumped on a ship and took a trip to the United States in 1887. He was 19.
He traveled out to Wyoming, where he worked as a real life cowboy, herding cattle to market across the prairies and into Canada.
About 10 years later, he moved to New York City. This was a drastic change in lifestyle, but one thing we know about Camillo is that he had latitude… He opened a fencing school on Madison Avenue. Benefitting from his family’s wealth (Lord knows he probably didn’t spend much on the prairie) he enjoyed the opulent life of a wealthy city dweller.
This time in history is known as the Golden Age of Cocktails in America. The introduction of Vermouth in the 1870’s led to more creativity and elegance in cocktails. By the turn of the century, US bartenders were leaders of the world in their craft. During Prohibition- 30 years later- a lot of great bartenders went to Europe to continue their practice and spread their talents in cocktail making.
Camillo liked his drink and frequented the bevy of fine establishments in New York. It was there that he met the love of his life, Anta Zazworka. They married in 1903 and the next year, headed back to Italy.
He eventually made it back to Florence in 1912. Camillo mended fences with his mother and step father and even reconnected with his son, who eventually took Camilo’s surname. He quickly settled in to the life of an Italian aristocrat, socializing with great artists, composers and others of that ilk. Yet, Camillo was known for his ability to make friends from all walks of life.
One of his favorite people on the planet was the barman at Cafe Casoni, Fosco Scarselli. Often, he would make a visit to the cafe before making appearances at ‘Vermouth hour’ to hobnob with other silk stockings. Around 1919, the Americano- a combination of vermouth and bitters was popular among the Florentines. Camillo wanted to make it a little stronger so he asked Fosco to put a little gin in it. And there you have it. The cocktail was born.
Like Count Camillo Negroni, this cocktail also has latitude. Although just 3 ingredients, riffs of this famous drink continue to inspire me. Bitter, sweet and bold. 3 of my favorite things.
Thank you, Luca Picchi, for documenting this history so well. And cheers to Fosco Scarselli and Count Camillo for bringing this cocktail to fruition!
My favorite riff is the White Negroni:
1.5 oz London Dry Gin
.5oz Yellow Chartreuse
1oz Cocchi Americano Bianco
Enjoy your Negroni Week!