In 1950, Horace Sutton published his book, “Footloose in Italy.” In that book he suggests a couple of drinks he found to be native to Italy – the Negroni and the Cardinale. A drink called the Negroni is said to appear in literature from as early as 1919, but without any full recipe or indication of ingredients. When its recipe does finally start to appear in 1940’s and 1950’s, it is not for the true cocktail thought of by many Americans today. It was a cup.
Cups could be described as wine-based slings that are diluted with a small amount of (usually charged) water. They may contain sour or succulent juices, but never in sufficient amounts to render them punches or succulants. When they were made in batches during their heyday, they usually contained one 6 fl-oz. bottle (the standard size at the time) of soda water or seltzer water per full-sized bottle of wine. When made in single servings, that proportion would be scaled to 1 fl-oz. of charged water per gill (4 fl-oz. – the old standard single portion) of wine. Look in any old book of mixed drinks from before Prohibition and you will find that cups usually have about these amounts of charged water and are always based on some type of wine. [When made as a true cup, the Pimm’s No. 1 Cup is based on “green ginger” wine and modified with Pimm’s No. 1 liqueur.] The original Negroni was a cup based on vermouth wine.
Sutton’s Negroni is composed of “vermouth, campari [sic], seltzer and gin.” Sutton’s listing of vermouth wine as the first ingredient is suggestive of its being considered the base, and thus the drink would be a cup. Croft-Cooke’s Negroni is even more incontrovertibly a cup. It contains only “a little gin” and “about a teaspoonful of Campari bitters,” but a full wineglass-ful (2 fl-oz.) of vermouth wine, which is obviously the base of the drink.
If you look back to the Sutton passage, you will notice that he describes the Cardinale as “a Martini with campari [sic] which turns it red.” That sounds a bit more like the Negroni people think of today. But Sutton’s description of the turning color suggests – and other sources from the period make it explicit – that dry vermouth wine is the type in the Cardinale.
Before any recipe for the Negroni (and any mention of the Cardinale) there was the Camparinete Cocktail. It appears in a San Francisco book published in 1934 by Boothby’s World Drinks Company and attributed to William Boothby (even though he had died in 1930).
The 1934 Camparinete Cocktail is based on a half-jigger (1 fl-oz.) of gin, modified with a quarter-jigger (1/2 fl-oz.) of sweet vermouth wine (a.k.a. ‘Italian vermouth’) and bittered with a quarter-jigger (1/2 fl-oz.) of the Campari brand of cinchona bitters. It is diluted with method ice and strained into a glass cocktail goblet. The garniture is a twist of lemon zest. That should seem familiar to all so-called Negroni enthusiasts, even if the name does not.
I think it is fair to assume that at the time of the publication of the Camparinete Cocktail in 1934, anything called a Negroni in Italy would still have been a cup, rather than a cocktail. Perhaps because a simple reading of the ingredients made the drinks seem more similar than they are, and maybe because the Camparinete Cocktail by any name is a better drink, people began adapting what they still called the Negroni into the Camparinete.
So the drink that is now commonly called the Negroni already existed in an American book with its own name in 1934. Since Campari is a grand bitters, the Camparinete is elementally that most American type of drink – a bittered sling, otherwise known as a cocktail.
What does this all mean for the bar-lore of an Italian count? If any one of the men proposed as the count Negroni in question was involved with creating any drink, it surely was not the drink documented in the 1934 recipe above (no matter what you call it). That creature is of an elementally American species and breeding – and its home range is where its recipe first appeared – as the Camparinete Cocktail.
Here are the recipes from my own book: