Grand Ole (Concrete) Opry: A Homage Negroni

I had a Negroni, perhaps for the first time ever, after my favorite work friend suggested it at a recent offsite. 

Fried after marathon interactive workshops and the cognitive load of interacting with dozens of other people – gasp – in person, we ditched the usual shop talk in favor of two of my favorite topics: music and booze.  I wasn't surprised when we attacked these topics with the same intense intellectual curiosity that makes us good "partners in crime" at work, and as a bonus, I came away with some inspiration for this here blog. 

It's possible my friend made this suggestion when we were out for a morning walk, desperately seeking out something beautiful to look at amid the miles of parking lots, sprawling retail complexes, and super-sized entertainment venues surrounding our hotel in Nashville's outskirts. (We were unsuccessful, by the way. Whether it was following a promising-looking walking path over a quaint bridge only to emerge not 20 yards later into another parking lot, or watching koi fish skitter nervously through manufactured ponds strewn with wish-infused coin, we were thwarted at every turn  hence the name of this cocktail). 

We went our separate ways when the offsite wrapped up, she to Boston, me back to Chicago, others back to Charlotte, Baltimore, San Antonio, and beyond – and most of us back to the isolation of remote work. I'll admit that I experienced a bit of withdrawal – bouncing back from COVID has been an interesting experience to say the least. Despite my aversion to all things bitter, I found myself ordering a Negroni when visiting a bar a few days later, if for no other reason than to remember what it's like to be able to connect with people in ways I can't otherwise given the barriers of video calls and written communication.

But I digress; we're here to talk about this Negroni. 

Unlike martinis and all the other aromatized wine cocktails that tend to suck every last ounce of blessed sweetness out of this world, it was a bitterness I thought I could work with... and not just in a "choke down that Vesper like a good Bond fan" kind of way – I mean for real. 

As it turns out, a Negroni isn't just a bitter bomb like a shot of Fernet Branca or a Northwest IPA  the balance of bitter with the clean astringency of the gin, the subtle sweetness and the grape tannins of the vermouth, the dilution, and the syrupy (but not too syrupy) texture make it the cocktail it is, and a difficult one to make at that. Unlike other cocktails, it's hard to rationalize how individual ingredients that don't taste particularly good on their own come together to taste like that – a Negroni is not generous enough in flavor or texture to compensate for shoddy balance or technique in the way a margarita, whiskey sour, or pretty much any other cocktail on the planet is. Perhaps even more remarkably, however, is that the Negroni is the first cocktail I've encountered with a personality.

As a Guardian article featuring spirits expert Richard Godwin relates, "The negroni... embodies sprezzatura  an Italian mood of nonchalant, urbane elegance." Various other translations suggest it's far more than mere nonchalance – it's about putting in effort but coming off as careless, and the more effort you put in, the more effortlessness and carelessness you strive to project. A Negroni is an exercise in the art of making the difficult look easy, and of feigning that you don't give a shit so convincingly that it should actually be listed as an ingredient in the cocktail. If you don't like it, that's okay, because it wasn't trying that hard anyway, so fuck off and go order yourself an Old Fashioned.

And if you have aspirations of trying to change it, well... the result just isn't a Negroni anymore. My initial instinct to add sweetness suddenly seemed as misguided as the brick walls shielding the earthy beauty of the Cumberland River and its overgrown riverbanks from view.

Perhaps unintentionally, my friend presented me with a pretty staggering challenge. How could I adapt such a difficult cocktail for my particular palate while still retaining the sprezzatura

Undaunted (okay, maybe slightly daunted), I dialed up the orange flavors and selected a gin that balanced the intense flavors without being overpowering. I found the sweetest, most syrupy sweet vermouth I could find. And I included the best ingredient among those that we think are sweet but that are actually bitter – chocolate. 

The full list of mods:

  • I swapped out Campari with Tattersall Distilling Bitter Orange, which amped up the orange flavor while also taking the edge off of the bitterness you get with Campari. It was a good opportunity to try something new/not-Campari, but Campari will still work fine – if you go with Campari, lose the brandy mentioned in the recipe and double the gin.
  • With the milder bitter rosso, the gin is a bit much, so I partially subbed Koval's Bierbrand, a fascinating brandy made from beer that failed to meet Goose Island's quality standards. This has been a spirit I've had no idea what to do with, so I've been throwing it at everything I make lately to see what sticks – it stuck. Another mild brandy or vodka would also work. I tried Luxardo Maraschino, and while it was delicious, it pushed the drink into "not-a-Negroni-anymore" territory.
  • I used Koval for the gin, but I imagine that almost any dry gin will work. My pal recommended Ungava, but that's a really, really bitter gin (wow, for real), and adding it to a bitter cocktail was way beyond what my taste buds could handle. It was delicious in a Last Word, though  it's a lovely balance to sour and sweet.
  • I swapped half of the sweet vermouth for Hotel Starlino Orange Aperitivo to amp up the orange even more.  Lillet, Cocchi Americano, or dry vermouth would also work in a pinch, but I'd probably just go all-out with the sweet vermouth instead.  I used Carpano Antica Formula for the other half, which is delicious and probably too sweet for a Negroni, but it's also technically not cheating, so there you go.
  • I infused the batch with crushed cacao nibs, which weirdly added some umami. Hard to explain, but I'm definitely not complaining, as it's pretty delicious.
  • I drank it shaken and straight up. I liked the ice shards and dilution vs. the cubes (and the Bond-ness of not following the cocktail rule that says you should stir a clear drink, not shake it).  If you prefer it served over ice in a squat tumbler like a typical Negroni, that works as well and is definitely more authentic.

Grand Ole (Concrete) Opry

2 oz. Koval gin

2 oz. Koval Bierbrand

1.5 oz. Tattersall Distilling Bitter Orange

1 oz. Hotel Starlino Orange Aperitivo

1 oz. Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth

1/4 c. cacao nibs, crushed

Orange twists

Makes 2 cocktails.

Combine ingredients except orange twists in a mason jar or other airtight container. Infuse for 2-3 days (to taste), shaking a few times per day to help the infusion along. Strain, expressing as much liquid as you can, and discard the solids.

Fill a shaker with ice, pour in your liquid, shake hard to break shards off of the ice and make it very cold. Think of your shaking experience as very violent but short – you want ice shards and cold without too much dilution.  Strain into two chilled martini glasses or coupes, express and garnish each with an orange twist, and serve.

Pro tip: this is for a two-cocktail batch. When infusing, standard procedure is to refrain from pressing on the solids, but the reason for that is because it makes the liquid more bitter. In this case, press away  bitter is the name of this game, and you want two full cocktails.