The History: Fifteen years ago, while at a bar in New York City, I had to explain what the Negroni was. Now, there’s a Negroni Week celebrated worldwide, and many bars offer their own variations on the classic Italian drink. The Negroni was created in Florence, Italy, in 1919 by bartender Fosco Scarselli at Caffè Casoni. The tale goes that on the morning after a tiring night of dancing, Count Camillo Negroni, asked Scarselli to up the oomph in his Americano (soda water, sweet vermouth and Campari—no relation to the common espresso drink) by subbing the soda water for gin. Thus, a legend was first sipped.
The Update: The story of this cocktail, on the menu at new pizzeria Coltiva (Lower Queen Anne, 350 First Ave. W; 206.492.5885), is best explained with a little history. Coltiva bar manager Kelly Chapman and Justin Rosgen—the two were coworkers at Marine Hardware; Rosgen helped open Coltiva and now works at new Ballard spot Samara—collaborated on this Negroni incarnation. Their play on the Negroni features Los Angeles–based distillery Greenbar’s intriguing Fruitlab hibiscus liqueur, which has a tart, flowery, berry-like flavor. They brought in Contratto vermouth bianco (like dry vermouths, biancos have a white wine base and lean lighter and slightly sweeter, while having botanical tinges). The vermouth and liqueur combine to cover the Negroni’s sweet vermouth component. You’ll still find Campari’s bittersweet, citrusy joy here, but instead of gin, the bartenders have gone with smoky mezcal.
The Final Taste: “Bruciato” means scorched or burnt in Italian, and is an apt moniker for this cocktail. You’ll find lovely layers of smokiness from first sniff through the last sip, thanks to the mezcal, along with numerous layers that unfold herbal, fruit and friendly bitter notes. Match it with bites of Coltiva’s thin, authentic Italian-style pizza. The smokiness pairs well with the slight char that every great pizza should have.
Coltiva provides the perfect atmosphere in which to enjoy this drink. It’s cozy, with big windows and tall ceilings, and has the feel of a family-owned neighborhood Italian café, which makes sense, as owner Garrett McAleese (a former Seattleite who owns Kells Irish Pub in Portland and still has a fondness for Lower Queen Anne) sources the food ingredients from Italy and from his own Oregon farm. Locals crowd around the small tables and the candle-bedecked bar along the wall to enjoy the experience—including the drinks.
You might find a bottle of the Fruitlab hibiscus liqueur in your local liquor store, but the best way to pick it up is via the distillery’s website. While another mezcal can work here, the Del Maguey de San Luis Del Rio is an organic, small-batch variety that’s readily available—and delicious.
1 ounce Del Maguey Vida de San Luis Del Rio mezcal
1 1/2 ounces Campari
1/2 ounce Greenbar Fruitlab hibiscus liqueur
1/4 ounce Contratto vermouth bianco
One large ice cube, or a number of fairly big ice cubes
Fill a cocktail shaker or mixing glass halfway full with cracked ice. Add the mezcal, Campari, hibiscus liqueur and vermouth. Stir.
Add one very large ice cube or a few fairly large ice cubes to an old fashioned style glass or one that’s comparable. Strain the drink into the glass. Garnish with an orange peel.