AProbably we all know the legend by now. It’s 1919. We’re in Florence, Italy. Camillo Negroni is at the bar in the Caffe Casoni.
Camilo is a little bored of his favourite drink, the Americano. It needs spicing up. Some zing, He looks up at his friend, Forsco Scarselli, who is behind the bar.
“Se per favore Forsco, la bevanda ha bisogno di un po 'di vita, forse sostituire questa acqua di soda con qualcosa di più forte?”
Forsco looks back at him. What is this craziness? “Come quello che?” “Like what?”. Then the moment. The event. The switch up. “Well…” says Camillo “what about a big shot of gin?”
Gin? Gosh. What was this? Forsco even put a slice of orange in the drink in place of the Americano’s lemon. An orange?
The world never looked back. The magic, the alchemy, the Campari, the colour – a legend was born.
But there was more than that – the gin thought probably came from Camillo’s time living in London. Maybe the punchiness came from his time living as a cowboy in the US in the 1850s? Who knew?
Whatever, there was soon a queue of people at Casoni asking for a ‘Negroni’. The family didn’t mess about either. Later the same year they founded the Negroni distillery in Treviso, and started selling their own bottled cocktail – the Antico Negroni.
But what was happening further down the bar. Who was it looking knowingly at the old Count, rolling her eyes slightly at his boisterous pronouncements about his new invention? That’s right- nobody less than the Countess Negroni, his niece, and a magician with wine and spirits. And she had a tale to tell too.
Because the countess brought some very high standards indeed to the proceedings. She had tried the fresh Negroni that Forsco had dished up. She liked it. The first words out of her mouth were ‘I know exactly what will make this even better’. It was a ballsy pronouncement that got quite the reaction at the time.
She didn’t care. The countess knew her science. She loved vermouth. She knew that it was just wine with stuff in, and she liked the simplicity of that. She could taste the wormwood that had been infusing in the wine. In Italy it was known as artemisia, but to the north, just over the Alps in Germany – it was wermut.
Most of all, she knew how much better her beloved red wine became when it had been opened and left to breathe. The oxidation brought out the complexities and beauty of the fermented grape. She held her glass up to the light and took in the dazzling red flash in her glass.
The countess looked over at her uncle as he and his friend glugged Martini Rosso and gin onto the Campari in their glass and poured it gleefully into their mouths. That is a shitty vermouth she thought. She looked out of the window over Florence. A plan formed in her mind. An excellent plan.
The countess got in her Alfa Zagato and scoured the country from Milan to Sicily, trying every vermouth from every v ineyard and every distillery. Cases and cases stuffed the boot and seats of her car. She travelled up the Amalfi coast, lingering over every amaro.
She had read of the first juniper liqueurs at the Schola Medica Salernitana in Salerno – the first ever gin, but the world had moved on, and gin was indisputably English now. She boarded the boat to London and spent the rest of the year looking for a juniper powerhouse that could hold its own. Finally, she had the long list for her recipe.
Back at home, she played with blends. No single vermouth was right. Too sweet, too herbal, too overwheleming. She sat, surrounded by test tubes and flasks, gradually crossing names off her list. Systematically bottles were rejected. The locals sat patiently outside her door, seizing on the next rejected bottle as she sighed and left it on the doorstep.
A watery sun cast long shadows. She hadn’t looked outside for days. She had chosen. She was sure, and now she had poured litres and litres of Negroni into the barrel that was taking up too much space in the lounge. She stared into the depths of the red bath before her, waiting.
She was waiting for the drink to age. While she knew it would take weeks, she couldn’t look away. Nobody had ever aged a drink before. People knocked at the door but she didn’t answer. Letters came that she didn’t open. Each day, she took her silver spoon, dipped it in the barrel, and tasted her drink. It wasn’t ready.
A week passed. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. The drink had changed completely. The sharp edges of the amaro were gone, yet all the bitterness remained. The sweetness of the vermouth was now a warmth that stayed when the drink was gone. The rasp from the gin had disappeared, but the juniper sat on her tongue.
Her work was done. She had no interest in the opinions of others, but rumours of the perfect aged Negroni spread like a forest fire. One or two claimed to have tasted it. The pilgrimages started. An empty bottle was found. The queues formed. But they were to be disappointed, as the Countess had left, and taken her drink too.
In her letter she wrote “I cast this bottle into the Tyrrhenian Sea, safe in the knowledge that one day it will be found by someone who deserves the discovery. What started as a game became an experiment became my world. No fucker is going to make a better Negroni than this, so follow the instructions carefully.
On the beach in Seasalter, the wind off the estuary would take the feathers off a gull. Clemency bent down and picked up the glass bottle, scraping away the sand. “What’s this” she said, holding it up to the sun. “what’s what?” said Cyrus.