Negroni Week Recap: One Swiller's Search for Copacetic Campari

If charity isn't a good reason for drinking, then what is?

Last week over 6,000 establishments in over 44 countries took part in the third annual Negroni Week, designating favorite charities (from food banks to pet adoption) and dreaming up riffs on the classic three-ingredient cocktail of Campari, gin and vermouth. With an additional $10,000 promised to the top fundraiser, the stakes were high for competitive cocktails.

While I was more than happy to celebrate a week of charitable imbibing — especially one that reaches as far as Nigeria, Poland, Australia and India — I shamefully admit that I truly dislike Campari. The last time I was in Italy, I herded my boyfriend into an osteria, made him order an Aperol spritz and a Negroni, and proceeded to detest them both.

Years later I was working for a magazine that had little more in their liquor cabinet than Aperol, Campari and far too much tonic water. Again, I thought I would try these Italian traditions, and again I was terribly disappointed (I'm also not the greatest mixologist, so there is that to take into account).

This week I thought I would try once more, with the naïve belief that any flavor can be masked or mellowed with enough mixers and panache. So, I put on the dedicated Pandora station and went out to conquer my Campari aversion.

A week of Negronis introduced me to some innovative options — Negroni floats, Negroni fruit bowls, Nebgroni punch infused with fruit peels and oleo saccharum — but even creative concoctions like Cafe Du Nord's refreshing Mr. Jones and Me, made with coconut water and “secret spices,” didn't mask the tart tannic pucker of Campari, which was probably meant to be celebrated, not avoided.

An early American riff on the Negroni is the Boulevardier, made with equal parts Campari, vermouth, and whiskey (typically bourbon or rye, I went with Wild Turkey bourbon). The tart interplay of Campari and vermouth remains, but the rich and complicated flavors of a quality whiskey make for something more elegant than refreshing, but still intriguingly (and in my case, unpalatably) bitter.

When in doubt, lean toward dessert.

Playing the bitter sweetness of chocolate against the bitter tartness of Campari seems a fairly natural notion and was something I saw throughout the week, most notably during Saturday's sold out screening of La Dolce Vida at the Alamo Drafthouse, where I sampled a malted chocolate Negroni made with Campari, vermouth, crem de menthe, Dandelion chocolate, malt, sea salt and Strauss ice cream. Served in a daiquiri glass with a thick blue straw, the drink was more soda shop than cocktail, but even chocolate and cream could not mask the bitter undertones I'd been failing to appreciate.

During a Sunday brunch at ABV, I made one last effort with the Lamborgroni, the luxury vehicle of the Negroni world, made with Campari, Old Raj 110 Proof gin and Matthiasson Napa Valley Sweet Vermouth. It was beautiful, truly, but still too bitter to be something I could swill with a smile.

Delving into Campari-infused food items was a choice I probably should have made sooner. ABV's Negroni petit fours — which consist of Campari mousse layered on gin and vanilla cookies, drizzled with sweet vermouth caramel and garnished with candied orange peel — were like little cheesecake bites of Campari and easy on the tastebuds if not on the waistline. Maybe, I thought, this was my answer. Maybe Campari wasn't made for me to drink.

But it was the Sbagliato (“messed up” or “mistaken” in Italian), which really won me over. Legend to be the result of a busy bartender mistakenly using sparkling wine instead of gin in a Negroni, this simple spritz of Campari, sweet vermouth and sparkling wine balanced perfectly for me, with the acidic sweetness of the wine all but canceling the puckering tartness that had overpowered my palate, while still giving you that beautiful pink color. I have found my Campario savior and it is the Sbagliato.

Did you miss out on this week of imbibing in classic cocktails alongside 44 countries around the world? Never fear, bar tenders throughout SF will have no qualms about splashing out this little Italian treasure. And if you're looking to make your own attempt at a Negroni novelty, check out Negroni Week's website for a list of recent recipes

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