Demystifying the White Negroni
In the span of a decade, the Negroni has progressed from being the bittersweet calling card of industry insiders to something that might be served at your cousin’s wedding. In other words, it’s gone mainstream, which is worth celebrating as a marker of how far contemporary cocktail culture has come. But those who were sipping Campari when it was collecting dust on the back shelf might desire something more… niche.
Which brings us to the White Negroni. No longer as esoteric as it once was, it has recently found traction on cocktail menus across New York City, perhaps thanks to the excellent iteration served by Dante. And on their last NYC visit, the Drake’s London team quaffed some more than respectable versions at Bar Pisellino and Long Island Bar.
The drink was even served at the launch party of the Drake’s Open Studio on Canal Street. That the bar’s reserves of it ran dry in an hour can be viewed as a testament to the quality of the cocktail—and the thirst of the crowd.
Though growing in popularity, it’s debatable whether the White Negroni is worthy of the name at all, as its defining characteristic is a lack of Campari. Instead it’s replaced by gentian liqueur, a category of largely French spirits that share gentian as their defining ingredient. The gentian flower grows in alpine habitats, and its root is utilised for its bitter, herbaceous flavour. Germans may recall it as the key ingredient in the pint-sized digestif Underberg, while residents of the U.S. state of Maine might have experienced it in the polarising soft drink Moxie.
The French, however, used it to make bitter aperitifs that were traditionally served on ice before mealtimes. The most widely known of these is Suze, which was ubiquitous enough that an advertisement for the spirit can be seen during the final battle sequence in Saving Private Ryan (I highly doubt that this was product placement). Most gentian liqueurs pour a lemony yellow, which isn’t exactly white, but close enough.
Suze will work for our purposes, as will its close cousin Salers, but I’m partial to the very slept-on Aveze. While not as dry as some of its compatriots, it possesses a powerful note of bitter orange that makes it more than Campari’s equal, in addition to a soft, grassy spice and pleasing florality.
The cocktail’s other defining feature is the switch from sweet to dry vermouth. I prefer to use Dolin Dry, as the French vermouth’s alpine herbs and clean character make it an ideal partner to gentian liqueurs broadly and Aveze in particular.
What doesn’t change is the presence gin. As with its ruddy colored cousin, I recommend a London dry of at least 45% ABV or higher in a White Negroni, as the pronounced bitter sweetness of gentian liqueur requires a bracing bolt of juniper for balance.
Many White Negroni recipes tilt the balance in favor of gin: it’s a respectable call, which makes for a less sweet and more bracing cocktail. While thoroughly enjoyable, my critique is that the result drinks more like a Martini variant rather than a Negroni—which aside from being made with Campari, is most famous for its equal-parts build. And if we’re going to lose the Campari, we ought to stay true to something.
30ml London dry gin
30ml dry vermouth
30ml Gentian liqueur, such as Aveze or Suze
Lemon peel, for garnish
Add all ingredients to a stirring glass filled with ice. Stir until cold, about 10 seconds, then strain into a chilled rocks glass over ice. Garnish with lemon peel and serve.