In the book, Around The World In 80 Cocktails, author Chad Parkhill writes, “Travel has always been a part of the cocktail’s DNA.” And the negroni, born in Italy, is proof of this. We are in the middle of Negroni Week (September 13-19) and mixologists in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are serving these Campari-based aperitifs after maturing them in barrels and clay pots.
As people return to bars, mixologists have turned inventive and are trying aged cocktails. As with whiskey or other spirits, ageing a cocktail helps to harmonise the different ingredients and create a more mellow, cohesive and deeper taste. Four months ago, Copitas in Four Season’s Bengaluru introduced barrel-aged negronis; last month, Sette Marra at St Regis in Mumbai launched barrel- and claypot-aged negronis; two weeks ago, Pass Code Only (PCO) in New Delhi put them on their menu.
Ageing a negroni, a century-old drink, involves mixing the three base ingredients—dry gin, red vermouth and Campari—in equal parts and letting them mature, between five days to two months, in a barrel or clay pot. The duration varies, depending on the mixologist and material of the receptacle used for maturing. It is then served on the rocks with an orange peel. The result is a bitter-sweet drink with hints of oak and vanilla if it was kept in a barrel, and earthy subdued tones of clay—like a kulhad—if it was matured in a clay pot. Ageing, some say, makes a smoother and more palatable version of the negroni. While drinking, it’s best to take your time over a negroni; wait for the smokey notes of the oakwood barrel to unfurl, making the experience truly special.
In Bengaluru, Copitas’ barrel-aged negronis have sold out this week and they are working on clay pot-aged negronis, which have to be booked two days in advance. Mumbai’s Sette Mara runs full on weekends with a cocktail that looks like a fantasy in a glass sitting on every table. Bar manager Kailash KK says, “Our guests are luminaries who want a classy drink, not a cosmopolitan, mojito or caipiroska—that age group is now moving towards brunches.” And with it, he says, they’re increasing choosing to drink negronis. Sette Mara wants to go a step further and play around with gins, given the diverse variety available now.
In Delhi, the speakeasy-style cocktail bar PCO has replaced gin with tequila. “It adds a bit of punch,” says Ishrat Kaur, bar manager of PCO, adding that tequila cocktails are slowing gaining ground with customers, prompting them to try new combinations.
Novelty is key to draw the crowd, especially since these are no longer the same bars one walked into pre-pandemic. At a time when people are hesitant to go out again, mixologists have had to innovate with methods and ingredients to create cocktails that will pique the interest of clients. Ageing cocktails is one way to do so.
In the days before the lockdown, both St Regis and PCO served barrel-aged negronis for a limited time, but these didn’t make it to the regular cocktail menu. Kailash of Sette Mara at St Regis says customers had responded so well to the aged negronis that they put it on the menu. In future, they plan to customise the experience: Guests can book an entire barrel which will be labelled with their names.
Not everyone is a fan of aged negronis. Neil Alexander, the corporate beverage manager of Windmills in Bengaluru, made a batch of barrel-aged negronis ten years ago. Disappointed with the results, he didn’t serve it to the guests. He says barrel-ageing strips away the essence of the negroni. “I am sorry to say this; for me, barrel-ageing negroni is a sin.” Alexander explains that a negroni is supposed to be a sharp cocktail. Mix gin, Campari and vermouth in equal ratios of 30 ml and stir them with ice for 30 seconds. Then strain into a rock glass, place a large chunk of ice and slide in an orange wedge. The whole process requires skill and technique. He elaborates, “You don’t have to squeeze the orange peel to extract the oil. The idea is to put in the orange wedge and bite into it after you are done with the drink for a citrus burst.”
Proponents of aged cocktails, though, say the process makes more unusual cocktails palatable to Indian drinkers who are just getting used to new flavours and spirits. Kaur of PCO explains that customers want more “spirit-forward drinks” but the prominence of the bitter flavour of a classic Negroni doesn’t appeal to everyone. “Ageing makes it smoother which has earned it more fans. A classic negroni is not something that everyone understands, because consumer behaviour, in general, tilts towards sweeter drinks. I think barrel-ageing is here to stay for a few years,” she says.
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