From the Manhattan to the Negroni: A Tour of the World’s Finest Cocktails

Welcome! Today we are going on a little journey. A tour of the world’s finest cocktails — or at least of Joe’s favorite cocktails. And these are not just a random assortment of cocktails. They are a family. Each one is distinct, but they share a common gene pool.  And like any family it all starts with the patriarch. The granddaddy. The king.

The Manhattan

We start with the King of Cocktails. After years of being considered your father’s drink the Manhattan is experiencing a rebirth as more sophisticated drinkers flee from the slums of Appletinis. The Manhattan gives us the core of our cocktail family. Its characteristic boozy, spicy profile is passed on to its descendants. And as is the case with many grizzled old veterans we delight in its straightforward simplicity:

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

The Manhattan wraps you in warmth like a good hug from a loved one. The powerful whiskey flavors are softened by the vermouth and gently melted ice. The vermouth adds depth and a touch of sweetness, which is enhanced by the aromatic bitters bringing a fantastic nose to the drink.

It is bliss. But possibly not perfection. What if you want more off all the good things a Manhattan brings? Can we evolve it? Oh yes we can…

The Little Italy

If the Manhattan is a warm hug, the Little Italy is a warm, lingering kiss from Sophia Loren. It takes the Manhattan and replaces the bitters and a bit of the vermouth with Cynar, an Italian Amaro:

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 3/4 parts Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1/2 part Cynar
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

To quote my brother: “this might be the best damn cocktail on the planet”, and it is tough to argue with that. The Little Italy takes all that’s good about the Manhattan and raises it. It’s a touch sweeter. A touch more herbal. And a touch more bitter.

It is spectacular.

But what if this is a bit too dark and earthy? What if you want to lighten things up a bit? Well, let’s just look to our friends in New Orleans for a little help…

The Vieux Carre

While the Little Italy is dark and sultry, the Vieux Carre is smooth and sophisticated. Some of the bourbon is replaced with cognac making for an accessible and easy taste — just like the Big Easy itself. The sophistication is provided by a double dose of bitters and a splash of Benedictine that provides an almost honey-like finish:

  • 1 part Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Cognac
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
  • 1 dash Peychaud Bitters
  • 1 splash (tsp) Benedictine liqueur
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

The Vieux Carre is smooth and tasty, but it is a little fussy for me. We seem to have strayed from the simple salt-of-the-earth roots provided by our beloved Manhattan. And I find myself longing for the bittersweet presented by the Little Italy. So let’s get back to basics.

The Boulvardie

The Vieux Carre introduced us to the delightful symmetry of three equal parts. The Boulvardie continues with that theme, but replaces the pretentious cognac with the rambunctiously bittersweet Campari. Dispensing with the other accouterments makes for a delightfully simple, vibrant cocktail:

  • 1 part Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 part Campari
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with an orange twist

Yes! This is delicious. One wonders how the heck Campari  pairs with bourbon, but it works.  I very much enjoy a Boulvardie when I want a change of pace although the drink does have some uneasiness to it.  It’s a bit of an in-betweener.  If I want a whiskey drink then give me a Little Italy. If I want brightly bittersweet then give me a Negroni!

The Negroni

Oh. My. God. There is absolutely nothing like it. Nothing. I still remember my first sip. I heard angels sing. I remember my brother’s first sip. He heard angels sing. The Negroni takes The Boulvardie and replaces the oakey bourbon with crisp, lightly  medicinal, gin:

  • 1 part Beefeaters Gin
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 part Campari
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with an orange wedge

The Campari is the star of this drink, so you will either love it or hate it. And I’m a lover. A Negroni starts sweet and clean and brightly citrus. It has a pleasant herbal medicinal quality  and a sturdy bitter finish. But like its star ingredient it is polarizing. Those of us that love it consider ourselves blessed.

But what if you aren’t a lover? And what if all of the above drinks are just a bit too much: too bourbony, or too medicinal, or too bitter. What if you want something full of flavor, but showing some restraint. Well, we have a drink for that too…

The Old Fashion

The Old Fashion takes a Manhattan and removes the vermouth, replacing it with a touch of water, a sugar cube and some muddled orange. While still boozey the Old Fashion stays pleasant and easy drinking. And the following recipe makes it even more accessible by using Canadian whisky:

  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • splash of water
  • 1 orange wedge
  • 2 shots Canadian Whisky
  • Muddle the sugar cube, bitters, water and orange wedge in an old fashion glass. Add whiskey and a little ice. Stir well, add more ice and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

A traditional Old Fashion does not muddle the orange wedge, but I like the extra citrus flavor this provides. The bitters and sugar provide the nose and sweetness of a Manhattan without the extra herbalness of vermouth. Using Canadian whisky further mellows the drink making it very easy drinking.

And with that, we are at the end of our tour. I’ll finish with a few notes on the drink recipes.

A Note On The Recipes

I am not holding up the above recipes as definitive. They are just the ones I use. You should consider them as a starting point. As to the ingredients:

  • Bulleit Bourbon. Many of the above cocktails are traditionally made with American rye whiskey, but many of us don’t stock rye in our liquor cabinets. Bulleit is a nicely flavorful bourbon that works terrific in these drinks. And Costco carries it!
  • Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. Carpano Antica is a bold, flavorful vermouth that makes for a spectacular Manhattan because it brings so much to the table. There are lots of vermouths out there. Please try them all. You might want to see my vermouth tasting blog
  • Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth. The worlds most popular sweet vermouth, and my favorite in a Negroni and other cocktails where the vermouth is in a supporting roll. Makes for nicely balanced drinks.
  • Cynar. One of the more common Italian Amari, Cynar is bittersweet and pleasantly vegetal. I recommend you try some others (see my Amari tasting blog).
  • Campari. Another Italian Amari, but different in that it is highly citrus. Wonderfully bittersweet, Campari is polarizing and, alas, not for everybody.
  • Beefeaters gin. I prefer basic London dry gin in my Negronis. No flowery or boutique gins please.
  • Canadian whisky. Canadian whisky is a blended whisky usually containing some amount of neutral spirits. This makes for a whisky that is less bold than American bourbon and more approachable for some.
  • Luxardo Maraschino Cherries. The original and very pricey. But these are spectacular, and you don’t go through them very fast. Consider this one of life’s luxuries that you should indulge yourself in.
  • Benedictine. An herbal liqueur that adds medicinal sweetness to a cocktail. Also fantastic when mixed 50/50 with brandy.

 

 

Vermouth Roundup: A Sweet Vermouth Tasting Review

So many sweet vermouths, so little time!

Until a few years ago my sweet vermouth universe consisted of Gallo and Martini & Rossi. And there really ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. Some of my best Manhattans have been with Gallo and Jim Beam sitting under a pine tree while camping, and M & R is terrific in a Negroni.

But variety is the spice of life, and during the last few years I (along with my brother) have enjoyed trying out different sweet vermouths. The good news is none of them are really bad. Yes, some are more flavorful and sophisticated than others, but the worst you can say about the lower rung vermouths is that they lack depth and character — which for some people is just what they want.

The following are my tasting impressions of over a dozen vermouths. Now tasting vermouths in one sitting is a challenge. You really need to taste them neat, in a Negroni and in a Manhattan. That’s a lot of drinks.  So these tasting notes are based on my experiences over the last few years, plus some dedicated tasting sessions mixed in.

Also, none of these were done blind, although I think I could identify many of these Vermouths when tasted neat. In a mixed drink is another matter. Yes there are at times significant differences, but could I tell a Manhattan made from Gallo from one made with Ponti? Probably not. But between one made with Carpano Antica and Gallo — hell yes.

The Manhattans used for tasting were typically made with:

  • Two parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • One part vermouth
  • Three dashes Angostura bitters

The Negronis:

  • One part Campari
  • One part  London dry gin (often Beefeaters or Trader Joe’s Rear Admiral Joseph’s)
  • One part sweet vermouth

Bulleit Bourbon is a nicely flavorful bourbon with a relatively high concentration of rye that can overpower some of the more mild mannered vermouths. For some of these I also tried them in a Manhattan made with Canadian whiskey — which has a more neutral flavor than American bourbons. That’s called out in some of the tasting notes.

In the Negroni more subtle differences could stand out. In a Manhattan I really can’t tell the difference between M & R and Cinzano — but in a Negroni I can.

OK, enough rambling. Here are my impressions…

1. Gallo  ($2.99 750ml Safeway, not pictured)

I grew up with Gallo. It’s the vermouth you can find when you can find no other — at least here in California. And it’s cheap.

Neat

Very sweet and lightly herbal. No bitterness. Approachable, but this is not a vermouth to drink on its own. No depth. No complexity. No bitterness.

Negroni

Harmless and inoffensive. Yes there are better choices, but at least Gallo doesn’t ruin the drink!

Manhattan

Serviceable in a pinch, especially for those that like a sweeter Manhattan with a tame whiskey (like Canadian). With a bolder whiskey the vermouth is lost.

Best For

Those on a budget. Or if you can’t find any other vermouth.  Or you are not a fan of bitter and like a basic sweet Manhattan.

2. Ponti  ($3.99 1ltr Trader Joe’s)

One of two sweet vermouths carried by Trader Joe’s in our area.

Neat

Sweet and marginally more herbal than Gallo. No bitterness. This will offend no one, and excite no one. It’s pretty much a slightly better version of Gallo.

Negroni

Works in a pinch. If you’re picking up your liquor at TJ’s then it is fine.

Manhattan

Like Gallo, it is serviceable. No problems — but no fireworks either.

Best For

You’re shopping a TJ’s and you need some vermouth. A better alternative to Gallo.

Update: Trader Joe’s in our area has stopped carrying Ponti as of summer 2016.

3. D’Aquino Rosso  ($3.99 1ltr Trader Joe’s, not pictured)

The other sweet vermouth carried at our Trader Joe’s.

Neat

Very sweet and pleasant. No bitterness. There is nothing wrong with this vermouth, but Ponti has a bit more flavor. In any case, you probably aren’t buying this stuff to drink on the rocks.

Negroni

Serviceable.

Manhattan

Serviceable.

Best For

You’re shopping a TJ’s and you need some vermouth and they are out of Ponti.

Update: As of 2016 this product appears to have a new label: Sole Vermouth Rosso. This is what Trader Joe’s now carries in our area. Sole is imported by D’Aquino and tastes the same as D’Aquino Rosso, so I think it’s the same product.

4. Martini & Rossi Rosso ($7.99 750ml Safeway)

The world’s most popular sweet vermouth. Tasty and reliable, this vermouth is a straight shooter. No bar should be without a bottle of M & R.

Neat

Moderately herbal and jammy. Very slight bitter finish. This is the quintessential all-arounder sweet vermouth, but not a great choice for drinking on the rocks.

Negroni

My favorite. Yes, I said it. Plain old M & R is my favorite vermouth for a Negroni where it provides a solid foundation without competing with the Campari. I don’t like flowery gin nor overly bold vermouth messing up my Negroni!  M & R hits the right balance for me.

Manhattans

Perfectly good in a Manhattan. Nothing you would rave about, but totally acceptable.

Best For

Best bang for the buck sweet vermouth. Every bar should have a bottle. And makes a terrific, balanced Negroni!

5. Cinzano Rosso ($7.99 750ml BevMo)

The other moderately priced contender, from the makers of Campari.

Neat

Initial cola taste and nicely herbal with a slightly more bitter finish than M & R. Cinzano has just enough personality to be tasty on the rocks or with soda.

Negroni

Quite good in a Negroni, but pushes it slightly off balance. I prefer M & R.

Manhattan

Just fine, just like M & R.

Best For

Everyday on the rocks. That touch of extra character and bitterness over the M & R makes this a better choice for drinking on the rocks or with a splash of soda (hence the near empty bottle in the photo).

6. Vya Vermouth Aperitif ($ 12.99 375ml BevMo)

A relative newcomer from California.

Neat

Initial slight cola flavor followed by an herbal finish of somewhat mysterious makeup — maybe coconut? I find Vya interesting, but not necessarily tasty.

Negroni

Not my favorite. Adds a subtle distinctive flavor that I don’t necessarily appreciate. This is a case where I’d rather have Gallo in my Negroni than a “better” vermouth.

Manhattan

The Bulleit dominated anything distinctive in this vermouth, so in a Manhattan it was serviceable but not special.  Wanting to give it a second chance I tried it with some Canadian and found it did better with a lighter bodied whiskey (if you like its taste).

Best For

Try it neat. If you like it then it would be good on the rocks or in a Manhattan with a lighter bodied whiskey. But for me, I will look elsewhere.

7. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino ($13.00 375ml BevMo)

Top shelf we are here! One of the more popular high end vermouths.

Neat

Luscious and delightfully herbal with notes of cocoa and citrus. Little bitter finish, but enough herbal depth to still be complex and interesting. This is a delicious vermouth that can easily be appreciated on the rocks — even by non-vermouth lovers.

Negroni

Good, but nothing special. The delicate flavors that are so tasty neat are somewhat lost in the Negroni and the lack of bitterness doesn’t help either.  I wouldn’t use this vermouth in a Negroni — not that it is bad, but it can be put to better use in a…

Manhattan

Spectacular! This warm, flavorful vermouth makes for a balanced Manhattan with depth. Really, really good. I mean — really good.

Best For

Sipping on the rocks and in a Manhattan. A great choice if you like a vermouth with depth, but low in bitterness. A perfect choice for Canadian Manhattans.

8. Carpano Antica Formula ($31.99 1ltr BevMo)

This is the vermouth that is currently all the rage, and is generally considered the best sweet vermouth out there. Pricey, but top notch.

Neat

Bold herbal profile with hints of vanilla and licorice. Strong, pleasant bitter finish. This is a big, complex vermouth with lots going on. Might be a little bold for some.

Negroni

While the Cocchi was a little tame in a Negroni, the Carpano is a little unbalanced. The vanilla pokes through the citrus base of the Negroni in a distracting way. It’s not bad, but not my favorite. Again, a Negroni is not the place to use this vermouth. Instead…

Manhattan

Now you’re talking! The forwardness that hurts in a Negroni shines in a Manhattan as long as you have a bold whiskey to stand up to it. It is fantastic in the Bulleit Manhattan: bold, deep and complex. But pair it with a lighter bodied whiskey and the balance is lost. Canadian lovers should reach for Cocchi.

Best For

On the rocks if you like the bold flavors and in a Manhattan when mixed with a suitable whiskey.

9. Carpano Punt E Mes ($26.99 750ml BevMo, not pictured)

Carpano Antica’s rambunctious little brother.

Neat

Pow! Wham! Zowie! This is a flavorful vermouth with a big bitter bite. Delicious on the rocks or with soda if you enjoy herbaciousness with a strong bitter finish — and I do!

Negroni

I’m not sure what you call Gin, Campari and Punt E Mes …. but I wouldn’t call it a Negroni. Not that it’s bad, but the Punt E Mes is like a bull in the china closet fighting the Campari to be top dog (how’s that for a mixed metaphor).

Manhattan

Haven’t tried it yet, but I predict it would be quite good — maybe at 1/2 dose.

Best For

On the rocks, or with soda.

10. Cinzano 1757 ($29.99 1ltr, Zanatto’s Market, not pictured)

Cinzano’s attempt at a premium vermouth.

Neat

A little less sweet than normal Cinzano with a bit more herbaceousness and a sturdy bitter finish. Herbal notes are more floral and less complex than Carpano Antica — and the bitterness seems a bit forced. This is a fine vermouth, but if you are in this price range and want a bold vermouth then Carpano Antica is a better choice.

Negroni

Works fine in a Negroni, but isn’t really any better than M & R. Maybe adds a touch more bitterness — but not worth the premium.

Manhattan

Meh. Does not add the depth and complexity of Carpano Antica nor the deliciousness of Cocchi. If you’re going to spend for a premium vermouth for your Manhattans then I would not spend it on 1757.

Best For

In a Negroni if you want to look fancy. But I won’t be buying any more of this vermouth.

11. Noilly Prat Rouge ($12.00 750ml, Safeway, not pictured)

French sweet vermouth. Our local Safeway started carrying it so I decided to give it a try.

Neat

Sweet, light bodied. Low herbal. No bitterness. Touches of clove and prune. Reminds me a bit of Gallo, but a tad more pleasant.

Negroni

OK, but nothing special. Definitely inferior to good old M & R.

Manhattan

Pedestrian. Did not stand up to the Bulleit. As with other light vermouths might work well for those that prefer a lighter Manhattan made with Canadian.

Best For

Those that like a basic, light bodied Manhattan. Me? I’ll pass.

12. LeJon ($3.97 750ml, CVS, not pictured)

I was in CVS buying a birthday card and, of course, wandered down the liquor aisle. I recognized this label from my youth. It was $1.99 on sale — so I had to pick up a bottle.

Neat

A bit winey and not very vermouthy. No bitterness. Not very herbal. Rather unpleasant.

Negroni

First attempt resulted in no detection of vermouth whatsoever. So I tried doubling the portion, and the Negroni became barely drinkable. But why bother.

Manhattan

I haven’t tried yet. Not sure I’m going to.

Best For

Uh….nothing comes to mind. If you want a cheap vermouth then both Gallo and Ponti are clearly better. This is the only vermouth on this list that I would consider truly bad.

13. Sole Rosso ($3.49 1ltr, Trader Joe’s, not pictured)

Recently our local Trader Joe’s stopped carrying Ponti and D’Aquino, and now carries only this brand. Sole Rosso is labeled as being imported by D’Aquino and it tastes just like the D’Aquino Rosso described above (#3), so I suspect it is the same product. See the D’Aquino tasting notes.

14. Rivata Sweet Vermouth ($6.29 750ml Total Wine & More)

We just got a Total Wine & More in our area and they carry this as a mid tier vermouth. (BTW, Total Wine & More destroys BevMo in terms of prices — bye, bye BevMo).

Neat

Sweet with a touch of cherry cola. Low bitterness. First sip on the rocks is tasty, but then it wears out its welcome.

Negroni

Similar to Cinzano in that it adds a slightly different note to the drink. Acceptable.

Manhattan

Not bad! The hints of cherry cola worked pretty well with Bulleit. Not spectacular, but not bad either.

Best For

You’re shopping at Total Wines and you want an inexpensive change of pace. But really you should reach for M & R or Cinzano instead.

15. Dolin (11.99 750ml Total Wine 7 More)

A French vermouth that confirms my impression of French vermouths: while Italian vermouths strive to make a statement, French vermouths are more reserved and prefer to rest in the background of a cocktail.

Neat

Light and mild, Dolin is not too sweet, not too medicinal, low bitterness. Dolin is nicely restrained which makes it very good on the rocks with a twist of lemon.

Manhattan

If you’re a bourbon Manhattan drinker then Dolin seems pretty run-of-the-mill to me. Bold whiskey benefit from a more substantial vermouth backbone.

On the other hand, if you’re a Canadian (or brandy) Manhattan drinker, then Dolin hits the spot. Pleasant, restrained, tasty, it makes for a nicely balanced Canadian Manhattan — although I would still put Cocchi ahead.

 Negroni

A pass for me. Dolin is a bit tame for a Negroni.  Viva l’Italia!

Best For

Canadian Manhattans with a French slant, and on the rocks with a twist.

Summary and Recommendations

  • Best for a Bulleit Manhattan: Carpano Antica Formula
  • Best for a Canadian or Brandy Manhattan: Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
  • Best for a Negroni: Martini and Rossi Rosso
  • Best on the rocks: Punt E Mes
  • Best on the rocks everyday: Cinzano Rosso
  • Best on the cheap: Ponti Sole Rosso (Trader Joe’s)
  • Best everyday/all-around: Martini and Rossi

And the fun doesn’t stop here.  If you want to go beyond the world of Vermouth see my review of some popular Italian Amari. And for some great cocktails made with sweet vermouth see From the Manhattan to the Negroni: A Tour of the World’s Finest Cocktails

The Negroni Cocktail

“I like my cocktails like I like my women — a little bit bitter”

My Negroni loving brother.

A couple years ago I was reading one of my favorite cycling websites and came across an article titled The Negroni Report. Turns out that Richard Pestes, the proprietor of Pez Cycling News, is a lover of cycling, Italy, and the Negroni. Intrigued by his description of the cocktail I bought some Campari and oranges and that weekend made me my first Negroni.

And that first sip was bliss. Pure heaven. I kid you not. I was hooked.

Excited I ran outside and held the glass to my wife. “You gotta try this!”. She took a sip. Made a face. “Tastes like cough syrup”.

The next evening our good friends Scott and Betsy were over. Betsy is a fellow Manhattan lover. I was excited to share my joy with her. Negroni in hand I offered her a drink. She took a sip. Made a face. “Wow. Bitter”.

What the hell?

Thanksgiving comes around, the whole family is at my sister’s in Arizona. My brother is there. We hit the liquor store for Campari and some decent vermouth. I mix him a Negroni. He takes a sip. He need not say anything. I see it in his face. He’s hooked.

And that’s how it goes with the Negroni. It is polarizing. Those of us that love it can’t imagine how anybody could resist it. Those that don’t….well, they don’t.

I’m just happy I’m a lover.

The Negroni is a classic aperitif. Meant to cleans your palette and sharpen your appetite it is traditionally consumed before a meal. But believe me, if you love ’em they are good any time. The Negroni is bittersweet and boozy with a citrus/herbal pop. And if you initially find it a bit too bitter don’t give up. Try again in 6 months. And then 6 months after that. For some it is an acquired taste — but once that taste is acquired you will never let it go.

Like the Manhattan the Negroni is rising in popularity as folks start to turn their backs on appletinis and embrace bolder cocktails with more character. That said, ordering one in a bar is still a bit of a crap shoot and can result in a blank stare. Fortunately it’s an easy recipe to recite to your bartender.

The Negroni

  • 1 part Campari
  • 1 part Beefeater’s GinIMGP7705
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth

Orange for garnish.

Place ingredients with ice in a shaker or large glass and stir gently but briskly for 60 seconds.

Strain over the rocks and garnish with an orange wedge or twist

As with most beloved cocktails, a Negroni lover will have their favorite recipe. So it’s worth looking at the ingredients in a bit more detail.

The Campari

Yes, you must use Campari. There is no substitute. Some prefer to cut the Campari with 50% Aperol, Campari’s tepid cousin. I don’t. I like my Negroni’s bold and brash.

The Gin

I have to be honest. I am not a big gin drinker. My preference for the Negroni is a basic London dry gin. I don’t want flowery overtones messing with my Negroni! The gin is there to support the drink, not make a statement in its own right. So the simpler the better as far as I’m concerned. Beefeater’s is solid and basic. Some also like Gordon’s for similar reasons. But if you have a favorite gin, then by all means give it a try!

The Vermouth

My brother and I have tried eight different sweet vermouth’s in Negronis. We have enjoyed them all. I spec M&R here because it is my every day go to sweet vermouth. I also like Cinzano which is a bit brighter and slightly more bitter than M&R. Some folks swear by Carpano Antica, but I find the vanilla overtones that work so well in a Manhattan are distracting in a Negroni. Others like the extra bitterness of Punt e Mes, but I find the resulting drink, while tasty, not exactly a Negroni.  That said — please experiment! Lots to try

The Garnish

The traditional garnish in the old country is a fat wedge of orange. Here in the states an orange twist is also common — just make sure it is a nice big twist. The extra citrus really compliments the drink.

Shop at Trader Joe’s?

Me too! In our neck of woods the cheapest Campari is at TJ’s. And their Rear Admiral Gin and Ponti sweet vermouth make a darn good Negroni for a darn good price.

Nothing beats a Negroni at Christmas