When Jeffrey Morgenthaler, former bar director at the now-shuttered Clyde Common, had the inspired idea to start resting cocktails in 1-gallon oak barrels, he didn’t set out to create a modern cocktail classic. In fact, little did he know, back then in 2009, that he had inadvertently jump-started an entire new modern cocktail genre. Soon enough, you could sit down on a stool in San Francisco, New York or London, scan the backbar, and among the bottles and fresh glassware, there’d be a tiny wooden barrel. “What’s in that thing?” you’d ask. The answer, more often than not, would be a Negroni.
More than any other cocktail, the Negroni seemed to actually improve when aged, mellowing the Campari, integrating the ingredients. It even worked in Bordeaux-, chardonnay- or sherry-seasoned casks. Rather quickly, however, bartenders determined that this mini-maturation need not happen in a barrel at all.
Douglas Derrick, for instance, had become a fan of amphora-aged wine during a stint at Portland, Oregon’s Nostrana. In 2015, when he became a bar manager at another Portland restaurant, Ava Gene’s, he commissioned a 24-liter amphora from a local potter-turned-winemaker Novum Ceramics. The resulting Negroni, buried and aged underground for six weeks, had added texture as well as a less sweet, more earthy flavor profile. Now a district manager for Campari Group, he has continued to make amphora-aged Negronis to kick off each year’s Negroni Week.
“As far as the creativity of using other vessels, I hope we keep moving forward,” says Derrick, who dreams of aging a Negroni in a beeswax-lined vessel, which is known to add subtle honey notes and a textural roundness.
In fact, with so many bartenders trying to one-up each other during Negroni Week—Campari’s annual celebration of the equal-parts classic—aging the cocktail in oddball vessels has become a popular way to flex. In 2017, Ryan Casey, then the beverage director at The Dewberry in Charleston, South Carolina, aged both overproof gin Negronis and rum-based Kingston Negronis in fresh coconuts for 10 days. The drink softened and took on sugars from the white coconut meat before being poured directly from the drupe into guests’ glasses.
“I had seen [Negronis] aged in leather at the Artesian,” recalls Casey, citing the experimental London bar. “I thought it was cool, but I thought it kind of tasted gross.”
There are twice-aged Negronis, solera-aged Negronis, smoked wood iSi whipper–aged Negronis, and even Negronis aged underwater. “I don’t see an end to new and inventive ways to age, infuse or inspire a new Negroni,” says Eddie Avila, bar manager at San Diego’s The Fishery, who currently offers a watermelon rind–infused take on the drink. (The inverse of the trend also exists: Luppolo Brewing Company’s sour ale, for example, is aged in an ex-Negroni barrel.)
But not everyone sees this trend as a positive.“The classic is a classic for a reason,” says Melissa Watson, a self-proclaimed “nerd” for the cocktail whose Instagram handle is @negroniqueen. “A Negroni aged in a coconut is fun to try, and I kind of like a spin like that if it ties into a food pairing, but it’s not going to scratch the itch when I’m craving a Negroni.”
The category’s creator, however, takes no issue with the practice.
“If you expected to get an old guy complaining they’ve gone too far, you won’t hear that from me,” says Morgenthaler. “Someone will only come up with the next big thing by taking these risks. You have to try everything, and it might get weird before you discover something exciting.”
Which brings us back to Casey, now the bar director at The Dabney, a one-star Michelin restaurant in Washington, D.C. Lately, he has come to realize that the most important element when aging a Negroni is not necessarily the vessel, but the time.
Enter the 100-Day Negroni.
Casey uses 3-liter terra cotta pots courtesy of Mancino vermouth, filling them with an equal-parts Negroni made with a slightly overproof gin. As the cocktail ages, untouched over those 100 days, the clay begins to pull the dye from the Campari. It also begins sweating on the outside, while a thick layer of sugar and salt develops on the clay’s outer wall.
“It’s a living thing, doing something more than it does just being in a barrel,” says Casey. When the temperature inside the restaurant is hot, the sugar in the cocktail seems to react and a sheen develops on the liquid’s surface. When it gets colder, white crystals sometimes form.
After about three months, the volume reduces by half and the liquid becomes thick and viscous, dark red like a syrah. Time-consuming and expensive to make, Casey plans to serve this Negroni neat and at room temperature in a small sherry glass, pairing it with a dish, yet to be determined, from chef Jeremiah Langhorne.
“You can put it in front of someone who doesn’t like Campari and they will still love it,” says Casey. The drink has strong notes of cinnamon on the nose, followed by roses on the palate and a gentian finish. “It’s the best Negroni I’ve ever had.”