Hard Liquor History is an ongoing series that examines the origins and histories of cocktails, liquors, and liqueurs (with the occasional foray into beer and wine). Not only will it discuss the who, what, when and where of these drinks, it will also look at the historical, social, cultural, and economic influences that led to or shaped their development. This episode of Hard Liquor History features the contested origins of the Negroni. Enjoy!
When I began my research into the contested origins of the Negroni--a strong cocktail made from equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth--I had no idea I would be stepping into a hotly contested historical battleground.
The more widely accepted story of the drink’s origin comes from Luca Picchi's Sulle Tracce del Conte: La Vera Storia del Cocktail "Negroni," which follows the exploits of the book’s titular protagonist, Count Camillo Negroni (b. 1868). Once a cowboy in the American West and gambler in New York City for a time, the Milan-born Camillo returned to Florence around 1919 after the end of the First World War, presumably having grown tired of life as a cattle wrangler and high-roller.
A popular concoction at the time was the Americano, consisting of Campari and vermouth cut with soda water, but as Picchi tells it, this wasn’t nearly strong enough for a man like Camillo. Having picked up a taste for gin abroad, Camillo asked the bartender at the Caffè Casoni, Fosco Scarselli, to use it in place of soda water. Thus the Negroni was born: gin, Campari, vermouth. Liquor, liqueur, and aperitif. Not a drink to be taken lightly, indeed.
Picchi cites birth and death records, interviews with people who knew of Camillo, family trees, and artifacts that back up his version of the story. To be fair, Sulle Tracce del Conte is rather difficult to find, since it has gone out of print and does not appear to have been reprinted in English, so unfortunately we have to take Picchi's word for it that the book was well-researched.
But the story grows more complicated.
The contemporary Negroni family asserts that Count Pascal-Olivier Negroni of Corsica (1829-1913) was the actual inventor of the cocktail, and that he developed it several years earlier while stationed in Senegal. Pascal's descendants, particularly his 4th cousin Noel Negroni, are vehement that the Camillo version of the story is both false and borders on an insult to Pascal's memory.
As proof, the Negronis often cite a 1980 article published in the Corsican paper, Corse Matin, which states that the cocktail was invented by Pascal in Paris "on the eve of the Great War." Two inconsistencies--in the location and the timing--call the Pascal version into question. The Negroni family says he invented it in Senegal, but the article places him in Paris; and Pascal died in 1913, a year before the start of the First World War. We would have to believe he created the cocktail when he was in his late 70s or 80s for this to have happened "on the eve" of war.
Pascal also wrote a letter to his brother in May of 1857, recounting the popularity of the "vermouth-based cocktail that [he] invented." But the letter conspicuously lacks any mention of either Campari or gin, which was the ingredient that transformed the Americano into the Negroni, after all. Campari itself wasn't invented until 1860, so it would not have been possible for this to be the same cocktail with which we are familiar.
So what to do? Well first, enjoy your Negroni. The dispute over who invented it doesn't change its distinctive and delicious flavor. Given that the one piece of evidence for the Pascal story is so dubious, and that the Camillo version put forth in Sulle Tracce del Conte seems to be so well-researched, even scholarly, I have to come down on the Camillo side. Though again, I would like to review Picchi's sources.
This is not to say that Pascal equivocally did not invent the Negroni, just that there is not enough evidence to effectively contradict the Camillo story. I sincerely hope that both sides--Picchi and the Negroni family--are able to turn up more and better evidence for either narrative. Like any historian, I love questions, doubt, and intrigue, but I do eventually want to know the truth. If only so I can go back to enjoying my Negroni in peace. Salute!We’ll talk more about the Negroni and related topics in our forthcoming podcast, History on the Rocks - Episode Zero. You can read more about it here in our curated Negroni glossary.