It’s pretty much agreed that you don’t shake a Negroni. Among the cocktail cognoscenti, the act is considered just plain wrong, like cooking a steak well done. The rules state that unless you’re James Bond, you stir cocktails consisting purely of spirits (martinis, Manhattans, Negronis, etc.) when you want a smooth, cold, weighty texture like a lake that’s about to freeze over. And you shake drinks containing juice, cream, or eggs — ones for which a frothy effervescence is desirable. Yet rules wouldn’t be rules if you couldn’t break them. And so we have Jamie McCormick — co-owner of the East Village coffee spot–cum–nighttime aperitivo bar Abraço — asking the question: What’s wrong with a slightly frothy Negroni? McCormick, you see, shakes Negronis like hardware-store clerks shake cans of Sherwin-Williams paint and serves them with ice straight from the shaker. Shaking speeds up dilution, but that’s kind of the point. “I thoroughly embrace the dilution of a rocks drink as it’s sipped,” McCormick says. “As the ice dissolves, the drink evolves.” If you’ve ever had a Negroni and thought that it tasted best after you were about three or four sips in, you know what he’s talking about.
Curious as to whether McCormick is a lone-wolf Negroni shaker, we asked some cocktail whizzes if they had ever heard of anyone shaking that cocktail before, and what they made of the practice.
Most of the folks we surveyed looked at us like we belonged in a home. But the great Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club fame said that she used to get requests for shaken Negronis from old-timers when she ran the bar at Bemelmans in the ’90s, and offered this insight: “While Campari is bitter, it is also sweet. The vermouth is also sweet. When you make that drink to classic 1:1:1 specs, you’re only providing one ounce of gin to go up against two ounces of bitterish-sweet. I have to wonder if the shaken version stems from the same idea as the shaken vodka martini: In those days when we had shitty ice, shaking helped to chill the drink faster. I also have to think that while the drink is decidedly more diluted, that the excess dilution helps to counteract all that sweet.”
Saunders also vaguely recalled her mentor, Dale DeGroff, shaking Negronis in the late ’90s at his midtown bar, Blackbird. It turns out that he stirred them, as he recommends doing in his book, The Essential Cocktail, after building the drink in an iced old-fashioned glass.
Another cocktail brainiac, Jim Meehan, who ran PDT before he relocated to Portland, Oregon, hates the idea. “If I saw a bartender shaking a Negroni,” he says, “I wouldn’t order a cocktail at their bar.”
As for us, having downed more Negronis in our lifetime than possibly even Count Negroni, we remember a time (late ’90s? Early aughts?) — though we could be wrong — before the Great Negroni Craze when stirred Negronis were typically served straight up in New York. If you wanted a Negroni on the rocks, you had to ask for it. Now that’s changed. When you order a Negroni in a bar today, it virtually goes without saying that you’re going to get a Negroni served on the rocks — or, increasingly, a rock. Stirring a Negroni in a mixing glass and straining it over a single gargantuan ice cube is all well and good, but depending on how fast a sipper you are, and considering that big dense ice dilutes slowly, you’re not that far removed from drinking your Negroni straight-up. Abraço’s McCormick for one is not a fan of the colossal cube: “I never liked them,” he says. “I feel like you have to hold them in the glass with your finger as you get to the end.”
The ultimate authority on all things Negroni, though, is Gary “Gaz” Regan, who wrote an entire book on the subject a few years ago titled The Negroni: Drinking to la Dolce Vita, with Recipes & Lore, and it’s interesting to note what a breezy, broadminded approach Regan takes regarding what defines a Negroni and what constitutes a great one.
“The incredible aspect of the Negroni that not everyone understands is that it works every time no matter what brand of gin or vermouth you use. And you can slap my wrist and call me Deborah if it doesn’t also work no matter what ratios you use,” writes Regan. Gaz goes on to champion all sorts of riffs and twists on the Negroni in his book, and provide recipes for everything from a Negroni-esque Drunk Uncle (Islay Scotch, Martini Bianco, Cynar, grapefruit twist) to a Pizza Negroni (involving tomato water and a salami garnish). But there are limits to this loosey-goosey liberalism. Even the reformist Regan does not offer a recipe for a shaken Negroni. And one ingredient is inviolable: “Campari is a given,” he says. “It’s the defining ingredient. Without Campari, it ain’t a Negroni.”
With this, as with the rest of the orthodoxies, McCormick would beg to differ. He uses a Spanish gin instead of a London dry, and a super-herby vermouth. He substitutes Contratto red bitter for Campari because he finds it milder but at the same time more complex, and he also doesn’t care for the fact that today’s Campari is artificially colored. So what’s the verdict on McCormick’s shaken, Campari-shunning, seemingly rogue Negroni? We’ve got to admit that we love it. Since trying it at Abraço, we’ve made it at home with the same ingredients McCormick uses, putting it up against a stirred Negroni using the same as well as classic ingredients. Not only did it hold its own: Shaking yields a drink that’s colder, less sweet, and more refreshing, but not too diluted. Of course, it’s a different drink with a very different texture than a stirred Negroni, and we would never give up the classic version built in a glass with ice. But we’re sold on the shaken variant, happily working it into our Negroni repertoire, especially during the hot summer months. In short, it’s a Negroni that’s still a Negroni — no matter what purists might say— but one that goes down as easy as an Aperol spritz.
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On the menu at Abraço; $11; 81 E. 7th St., nr. First Ave.; no phone.
*This article appears in the June 24, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!