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Sex*, gin, Sin City

A tale of two cocktails (*The mention of sex is gratuitous. This is really just a story about drinking.)

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Rupert at Red Room says making someone a Negroni is like a first date.
Photo: Iris Dumuk

You could have knocked me off my bar stool. “I just can’t get a good Negroni in this town,” Emily declared wistfully one night in late July.

What?! Here, in this mixology mecca, at ground zero for creative cocktail artistry, in this bastion of the classic cocktail renaissance and the only city the United States the Bartenders’ Guild can officially call its headquarters? Unthinkable.

“That’s my judge of a bartender,” says Sean Bigley of the Bellagio’s Fontana Bar. “If you can’t make a proper Negroni, I’m sticking with a beer or a whiskey neat or something.” Though it wasn’t my drink of choice—at least not yet—I was well aware of the drink’s industry reputation. “Whenever any bartender walks into my bar, I immediately start making a Negroni,” says Gaston Martinez, formerly of Nora’s Cuisine, currently the United States Bartenders’ Guild’s Nevada chapter president.

So I proposed to Emily a quest for the best. A side note on Emily: She has the look of a Disney Princess, the mouth of an ice-road trucker and, apparently, the liver of a Depression-era Wall Street banker. In other words, my kinda girl.

Her answer: “I’m in!”

Italy, 1919

The drink of the day is the Milano-Torino, a combo of the popular Milanese bitter Campari and Torino’s Cinzano sweet vermouth with a dose of soda water and an orange rind or slice garnish. The drink’s popularity with Americans earns it a nickname, the Americano. First served at Gaspare Campari’s eponymous bar in the 1860s, the Milano-Torino/Americano is by now already a classic. But Count Camillo Negroni (as the legend goes …) likes his with a little more oomph and therefore asks barman Fosco Scarselli at Florence’s Hotel Baglioni for an Americano with gin instead of soda. Another classic is born.

It’s a bitter, sweet symphony

“The most important thing about a Negroni is the sweet vermouth.” Anthony “Paisan” Alba’s blood runs red, white and green with Italian pride and history. His love for his own Italian-ness, as I’ve observed, is matched only by his devout love of cocktails. As the USBG’s Nevada chapter vice president, he can be taken at his word when he explains, “With a fresher vermouth, you get a better cocktail.” Makes sense—garbage in, garbage out. Sweet vermouth, being a fortified, aromatized wine, goes … funky over time. I think back to a bottle of Martini & Rossi in my parents’ basement, moldering and ancient, having long ago taken on the odd-but-harmless rancio flavor of oxidation that would ruin the delicate, romantic ménage a trois-like balance of flavors intended by our friends Gaspare and Camillo.

As with most “classic” cocktails, Alba continues, the Negroni demands three ingredients: a base spirit and two modifiers. In this case, Plymouth gin, Campari and Cinzano, combined in equal parts, preferably built (combined) over ice in a rocks glass, gently stirred and served with a little flamed orange zest. To perform this bit of alchemy, an oblong slice of the rind is bent to express the oils and briskly ignited over the drink, imbuing just a hint of spice. Perfecto.

“This is the king of classic cocktails,” Alba says, sliding before Emily and me two ruby-red beverages, one on the rocks in the European style and one on the stem, American-style. We dive in, analyzing both with a rapt attention that quickly gives way to a thick, heady buzz.

At first sip, the Campari aggressively attacks the taste buds, its secret blend of 60 ingredients sending signals to the salivary glands to snap to attention and begin whetting your whistle, making the Negroni, the Americano or indeed any bitter a bracing aperitif. The gin is potent and floral, the vermouth delicate and caramel-sweet. In total, the balance is exceptional, the aroma—in addition to the contents—intoxicating.

The Negroni should taste, says Emily poetically, “Like 4:30 in the afternoon in August, somewhere dusty and somewhere warm. It’s a burning cool with a hint of smokiness and citrus that just goes down so smoothly.” Another effect, easily likened to the Japanese notion of umami (“deliciousness”), is the air that settles over one when drinking a Negroni—contentment, sophistication, romanticism and a connection with something venerable and historic.

For a drink with only three ingredients and a garnish, the Negroni offers enough modifications to satisfy even the inveterate Starbucks-goer: up or rocks, shaken or stirred, choice of gin, flamed or no … Really, the Negroni’s recipe is as available as open-source software.

Splendor in the (rocks) glass

Over the ensuing months we sample countless Negronis—well, actually eight within the context of the official search. But plenty more extracurricular Negronis are offered up as well. But in the end, a few stand out from the pack.

Following Alba’s Negroni crash course, we visit Downtown Cocktail Room’s George Austin Sproule. His Negroni is classic all the way—smoky, intensely citrus and full-bodied, with clove and orange spice coming through like liquid Christmas.

No substitutions, just the holy trinity of Plymouth, Campari and Cinzano. Says Emily, “I don’t get the impression when George is making a Negroni that he’s trying to make it better; he’s just making it exactly as good as it is … For a bartender as creative and progressive as George, I think that’s impressive.”

But—oh!—then there’s that ice!

DCR’s robust, voluptuous European-style ice cubes (courtesy of the Kold-Draft ice-maker that owner Michael Cornthwaite reportedly searched high and low for) lend Sproule’s Negroni a particular magnificence. Purists will complain that in Europe, the Italians actually go easy on the ice. But the size of these mammoth, square icebergs maximizes drink-chilling surface area, while minimizing melting and therefore dilution.

Aside from playing with fire and ice, Sproule says what he loves most about the drink is that “when someone orders one, they know what makes a great cocktail.” It sends a direct signal to the bartender that you know what’s what!

My indoctrination

I just couldn’t wrap my head around the Negroni. I liked it, but not enough to order it outside the context of our search. Until Ray Speight. “What gin would you like?” he asks at Wynn’s Parasol Down bar. I’m at a loss. “Try the Hendrick’s,” he prompts, reaching for the familiar squat bottle. The lighter-style gin, with its Bulgarian Rose and cucumber notes, works its magic on the vermouth and bitters to remarkable effect. This is the first Negroni I actually finish, making it—for me, anyway—the absolute best.

Hey purists, stick that in your rocks glass and sip it.

Bitters, sweet hereafter

My first Negroni-purposed visit to the Red Room Saloon was a disaster, with me sobbing endlessly to Emily about some personal drama at the bar while bartender Rupert King did his damnedest to impress us with his cocktail stylings. Alas, our Negronis sat, neglected.

To truly enjoy his work, we would need to be paying attention, both to the cocktails and to ourselves. There’s something about drinking a Negroni that forces one to concentrate. After all, it’s a drink that elicits a physical response! “Self-meditation in a glass,” Emily points out. And really, who couldn’t use a little more of that? It brings like-minded individuals together and polarizes others. Here’s an experiment I tried: go to a bar alone and order a Negroni. You won’t be alone for long.

“I think there are a lot of bartenders who have a very practiced hand and a measured eye,” says Emily now of Vegas’ classic cocktail scene. “They know what they are doing.” But for such a precision operation, Emily now faithfully frequents the Red Room for King’s winning up-Negronis. “Something where the final product is so dependent on a small variation in ration … it just requires a lot of care. He has a tendency to taste [his cocktails] before he serves them, which I like,” she says. But it’s really King’s enthusiasm for the cocktail that makes his cocktail tops. “I like the complexity and the aromas,” says the Brown-educated bartender. He learned his way around the Negroni after hearing it was Steve Wynn’s favorite. He wanted to be able to make the casino magnate’s drink on the off chance they should ever meet.

Last week, awaiting King’s arrival so we can tell him the good news, I order from one of his colleagues, Steph. “A Negroni, please.”

“The first time [my boss] asked for a Negroni, I asked, do you want extra cheese on that?” she reminisces, shearing off a slab of orange rind, lighting it and popping it gingerly into the glass. I take a deep, appreciative sip and check in as my stomach comes to life, my dulled senses suddenly sharp. Four months and about 40 Negronis ago, I’d have winced at that perfume-y, bittersweet sting. This time I actually welcome it.

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