The Bittersweet History of the Negroni

It may be the modern bartender’s drink du jour, but the classic Negroni cocktail is at least 100 years old.

We say “at least” because, like all tales told during late nights around the bar, one should never let the truth get in the way of a good origin story.

Unlike the perfectly balanced recipe for a good Negroni, the drink’s history is rather messy. As a kind of starting point, the forefather of the Negroni is likely the Milano-Torino cocktail. Often nicknamed the Mi-To, this drink was first stirred up at Milanese bar Caffè Campari during the 1860s. The cocktail was named for its minimal ingredients: Campari (invented in Milan) and the vermouth at hand (from Turin). When an influx of Americans came to holiday on the more permissive shores of Italy during the States’ prohibition era, they wanted what the locals were having. By adding soda water, the recipe was lengthened into a highball to cater to their less robust tastes…and probably also to take full advantage of unsuspecting tourists’ dollars. Thus the drink that was once the Milano-Torino morphed into the Americano.

As popular legend goes, a certain Count Camillo Negroni had been gallivanting through the Wild West and New York resulting in an obsession with American culture. His travels to London no doubt acquainted him with the debauchery to be found inside various gin parlours. Arriving back home in 1919, the Count requested that his friend and bartender Forsco Scarselli punch up his usual Americano order at Florence’s Caffè Casoni. The soda water in the drink was to be replaced with gin while retaining the bitter and sweet elements of the original. The bartender decided to switch the traditional lemon garnish for orange so the two drinks wouldn’t get confused. Other patrons began to order “Count Negroni’s drink” and the rest is – highly disputable - history.

One small problem: Count Camillo Negroni probably didn’t exist. And even if he did, he wasn’t a count. Or maybe there were actually two counts at once? Another contender for the real inventor may have been a French military general not an Italian aristocrat (sacre bleu!) Commander Pascal-Olivier de Negroni purportedly came up with the drink decades earlier in either a Parisian officer’s club or while stationed in West Africa as a gift for his new bride.

There was a distillery that was founded in 1919 by a cavaliere (an Italian knight) with the surname of Negroni that still exists outside of Venice today. Negroni Antica Distillery began by producing a liqueur called Antico Negroni which echoes the flavours of the Negroni in ready-made form. Some say this was the Count’s relations taking the opportunity to profit from the drink’s sudden popularity but the Italians were obviously too busy living la dolce vita to write the important things down.

One thing we can all agree on. It’s a leisurely pastime to ponder your preferred version of alternate Negroni history while you sip your next one.