The room is dimly lit, you can barely see the person opposite you, but the music is loud and clear. Deliberate shadows are cast to conceal the more mundane aspects of this place – a fuse box, a light switch, a speaker system – while strategic lights draw the eye towards shelves stacked with bottles of booze in all manner of shapes and sizes. Beneath the shelves, in-between a long narrow space, a few smartly dressed bartenders move swiftly back and forth selecting the ingredients they need.
Two napkins are placed diagonally square in front of a couple at the bar and a polished, low-ball cocktail glass is placed on top. Next to this is a crystal jug filled with ice, one-part gin, one-part vermouth, and one-part Campari. Every now and then the liquid is stirred, gently, as the ice chills and slightly dilutes the alcohol. While this happens, the bartender fills a small glass bottle with tonic water and places it next to another low-ball, already filled with gin, a wedge of lemon and some ice. Moving back to the crystal jug, the bartender slowly pours its prepared contents into the waiting tumbler, which now holds a large square cube of ice, then cuts a slither of orange peel to garnish the drink, but not before twisting it to release the oils into the finished cocktail. Much like a dancer, a painter, or chef, every gesture has a purpose; every detail is intended.
It’s a familiar scene amidst unfamiliar times. After six years of lock-outs in NSW and two years of lockdowns in the country, such a spectacle may now be an almost distant memory, for some. Or not at all for others. Imagine turning 18 in 2020.
As alarm bells ring, and war drums beat, and the world seems to creep ever closer towards failure mode, one discerns a swelling signal through all the noise. An echo of an atavist esquire pleading with his overreaching political and administrative minders in office and beyond to, ‘Please, stop meddling with me, here, within these four holy darkened walls. Let it be between my bartender and me.’
Indeed, while the world outside goes mad with known unknowns and chaos sustains its reign for some two years and counting, inside this scene, this setting, this stage lies proof of the orderly knowables of those old familiar potables, which prosper at the hands of any skilled bartender. Particularly, one who understands why people, like the atavist and I, attend to such scenes in the first place: to escape.
“Haven’t seen you here for some time,” the bartender says as she wipes the bar clean. “Where have you been?”
“Oh, I’ve been around. Just not about.”
Like a narrow stage, the bar is maybe two metres wide, if that. It’s a carefully curated set design of bartending tools, bottles and flasks, books, glassware – of course, and a deluge of booze hailing from all four corners of the world. All united upon shiny, dust-free shelves in blissfully ignorant amity.
Let’s give it up for the spontaneous configuration of creative human energies; of millions of people with their various skills and talents all organising together in organic order – like a murmuration of starlings – in innate response to basic human necessity and desire. In this instance, me wanting, nay, needing a drink. Namely, a Negroni.
More than a century ago, an Italian Count by the name of Camillo Negroni was visiting his favourite bar and requested something stronger than his go-to Americano (a mix of Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda water, aka the Milano-Torino). The Count’s bartender friend Fosco Scarselli is said to have substituted the soda for gin and added an orange garnish. And so, the Negroni was born.
The Negroni is, quite simply, a perfect cocktail. Perhaps it’s the perfect cocktail,
especially suited to dimly lit and darkened bars. Made from a trinity of equal parts
Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth, the drink’s creative simplicity belies an elegant complexity.
The Campari component hails from Italy, near Milan. Intensely bitter with strong orange citrus notes, it was invented in 1860 by Gaspare Campari. Its carmine colour was originally derived from the ruby hue of crushed-up little bugs called cochineals. These insects produce a carminic acid that deters predation by other insects. When extracted and mixed with calcium salts, it makes a carmine coloured dye, also known as cochineal. These days, Campari uses an artificial dye to achieve that iconic carmine colour instead.
The gin is Moore’s Dry Gin. Made in a calm, fragrant garden oasis at Erina, on the Central Coast of NSW. Isolated, it’s rich and viscous and smells of juniper and grapefruit, pink peppercorn and coriander. When blended, its gentle herbal sweetness becomes a mooring for the medicinal carminic acridity.
Finally, the sweet vermouth component of this drink is by Cinzano. It’s the top-shelf 1757 Rosso Vermouth Di Torino. Known in Piedmont as ‘wormwood wine’, the name ‘vermouth’ is the French pronunciation of the German word for wormwood, wermut.
The Negroni is a little bitter and a little sweet, slightly dry, but unquestionably refreshing at the same time. It’s intended to be sipped slowly but surely, and thoughtfully, too, in moments of peace.
Yes. The Negroni is the perfect cocktail for old-school atavist esquires hoping for a distraction from the intractable complexities of the real world. It’s for those who wish to escape to the simple, subtle theatre of a dimly lit bar, to ponder and bear witness to all the magnificent things that emerge when humans act together in concert, rather than in conflict.