In Food + Drink

The Rise Of The All-Australian Negroni

When it comes to cocktails, the negroni is one of the simplest and the most elegant. Simply mix equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, add an orange garnish, and you’re done. As Orson Welles once put it, “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.”

Next year marks 100 years since the first one was mixed in a Florentine cafe – as Australia’s obsession with the negroni rages on, we’ve increasingly looked to put our own twist on the Italian favourite. Australian-made gins and vermouths are available en mass, but Campari – the essential bittersweet orange liqueur – is unashamedly Italian. A new crop of small-batch spirits  are now allowing bartenders to make a truly all-Australian negroni.

It begins with gin

Four Pillars makes a spiced negroni gin Photo: Supplied

Of the three essential negroni ingredients, craft gins are definitely the easiest to find. Since John Lark started producing Kangaroo Island Spirits gin in 2002, hundreds of distillers have followed him and Australian consumers are now spoilt for choice. Negronis are as popular with distillers as bartenders and there are a number of gins specifically designed for the drink, like Four Pillars’ Spiced Negroni Gin. Cam Mackenzie is one of the Yarra Valley distillery’s co-founders.

“Often cocktails will have one or two ingredients that are particularly dominant,” he says.

“The consistent bit of feedback we often hear is that Campari can swamp the gin, often to the point where you cannot tell if there is gin in the drink.”

His solution was to create a gin with several unusual spices; cubeb, a member of the pepper family that Mackenzie describes as ‘aromatic and brooding’ and the fabulously named West African spice grains of paradise, which is ‘warming and potent’. The result is a spiced gin that is able to hold its own against the intense flavour of Campari without dominating.

A Drink Of Refinement

Maidenii vermouth Photo: Supplied

Shaun Byrne echoes the concern that one ingredient can be overpowering in a negroni, though he puts it down to the improvements in distillation techniques over the last century. When the first negroni was mixed, spirits often had higher alcohol content and strong flavours to mask impurities – put simply, “gin was intense back then compared to what it is these days.” With a more consistent and pure base spirit, modern gins can be far more subtle and “everything else should be following suit – you need to make the vermouth more refined and the amaro should be refined so nothing is overpowering.”

Byrne has plenty of experience balancing flavours – he ran renowned Melbourne bar The Gin Palace for 8 years – and was searching for a vermouth that could sit perfectly alongside these new Australian gins. Australia has a rich history of producing vermouth, but by 2011 there were no active producers so he decided to make his own with French winemaker Gilles Lapalus. The result was Maidenii, the first vermouth to embrace a uniquely Australian flavour, and the recipe includes twelve native botanicals

The core range includes a dry vermouth specifically designed for martinis and a sweet one for negronis. In the spirit of subtlety, the sweet vermouth is very restrained with the botanicals in terms of intensity and has 130 grams of sugar per litre, the absolute minimum sugar content allowed by the EU (Australia doesn’t currently have labelling guidelines). The result is a drink that can complement the other two ingredients without overpowering them.

The Bitter End

Botanicals in Adelaide Hills Distillery’s Bitter Orange Photo: Supplied

Every bartender has their own favourite brand of gin and vermouth, but for years the third ingredient was non-negotiable. Campari spent a significant amount of money on a marketing campaign with that message but a growing number of local alternatives combine the best features of the iconic brand while offering an Australian twist.

Applewood’s Red Økar and Adelaide Hills Distillery’s Bitter Orange both have a beautiful balance of bitter and sweet flavours, vibrant red colour, and both use a variety of native botanicals. Adelaide Hills Distillery’s aperitif was originally called The Italian (after distiller Sacha la Forgia’s mentor), but he laughs that it was too confusing ordering an Australian negroni with The Italian.

“It’s based on a recipe that I learned in Friuli in Northeast Italy, really close to where Campari is from, actually. The guys that gave it to me had four generations of developing their recipe, then all I did was adapt it for the Australian industry, took out some of the European herbs and fruits and replaced them with Australian ones.” The result is heavy on Riverland citrus and also includes riberries for colour and tartness alongside native thyme, sunrise lime and quandong. It’s delicious on its own, but is bold enough to cut through the other ingredients and still shine in a negroni, preferably with Adelaide Hills Distillery’s award-winning 78 Degrees gin and Rosso vermouth to make the country’s only estate negroni.

“It’s a little bit more approachable than a traditional negroni with really well-balanced flavours where everything works together really well, because they’re literally made for each other.”

Published 12 September, 2018