The Definitive Negroni Sbagliato Cocktial Recipe

The discovery of a new food or drink strikes something deep in the brain’s most primitive regions. A salamander emerging from the primordial ooze feels the same vital vibrations upon eating a new, especially plump insect as does the gourmand when first eating foie gras d’oie. There is a resonance in the true flavor discovery that re-connects us to our food, awakens us to our world, and expands the language of our spirit.
In this first posting to In the Cupboard — which will focus on the over-looked, under appreciated, and misunderstood sundries and techniques of the kitchen — I would like to talk about the Sbagliato, which I only just discovered, on a recent trip to Italy.

When Columbus discovered America he was said to preen and prance about in a very annoying, prissy, practiced way that only tights-clad and ruffled Italian discoverers seem to be able to preen and prance: Look at me everybody, I discovered an entire new world! I’ll even call it The New World! It’s mine. I discovered it.
Never mind that millions of people already lived there, that civilizations had risen and fallen and risen again successively at least since the Olmecs carved their first squat stone heads some two millennia earlier. Never mind chocolate (which gave Europe a new outlook on everything from social intercourse to sexual intercourse), corn (which saved the Italians from culinary turpitude and possible starvation) to Turkey (which gave the French century of gloating over the fabled truffled). Well, the discovery of the discovery of the Sbagliato is mine. Ho scoperto. E ‘il mio.

Without further ado: the Sbagliato Saga

Chapter I : Negronilithic Era

Here is the world’s first and only in-depth, category-killing, ultimate Sbagliato recipe. Sit on my knee, and listen, young apprentice. There is some ink to spill and some drinks to pour before we arrive at our final destination.

Sbagliato: bubbly, ruby red, herbaceous and bitter, beading condensation down the ice-cold sides of a rocks glass — one more reason to lament the brevity of the Oregon summer. The challenge here, on a rather hot, definitely languid Monday afternoon, will to abstain from drinking one or two before finishing this post.

The Sbagliato cocktail (it took me a few minutes of brainstorming my spelling options after returning from Tuscany, so I’ll document for posterity sake that it is definitely not spelled spaghettliotto (which is what occasionally slipped out when ordering it), not sbagliatto cocktail, not spagliotto (which I usually said when ordering it), not sbalgioto, not s’baglliottto, and not subactillio.  It is also not a spagliato cocktail, or spagliatto, spaglioto or spagliotto). Once you get over the hump of spelling Sbagliato, it’s all down hill.

FYI, the Americans call it a Negroni Sbagliato, which seemed lost on the Italians who have been mistaking it for decades. A Negroni Sbagliato cocktail recipe seems a bit obtuse. Would you like a fish filet of sole for dinner? I guess Americans like certainty in their food; honestly, “buffalo chicken wings?” Why do people say that? I honestly doubt it is likely to get some Griffin-like hairy flapping buffalo dish for dinner if you just say “buffalo wings.”

The Sbagliato cocktail begins with the Negroni cocktail, and is one of the very few, if not the only, example in history of a knock-off cocktail that rivals the original. Imagine, if you will, that the original episodes of Star Wars never indulged in Muppets or dwarfs in panda suits. The Sbagliato cocktail is the Empire Strikes Back, sans muppets, of the Negroni. Negroni sbagliato… Besides, it’s fun to watch Italians’ faces as they try to parse the juxtaposition of lousy Italian accent and suave, discerning drink order: “un sbagliato per favore,” you bumble, with no further elaboration.

To skip straight from following a standard Sbagliato recipe to making the best dang Sbagliato imaginable, it is necessary to first master the Negroni cocktail.

The classic Negroni consists of:
1 part gin
1 part sweet vermouth
1 part Campari
Combine all three ingredients in an Old Fashioned (rocks) glass over ice and garnish with a slice of orange.
The Negroni invented Florence in 1919 by the no-nonsense Count Camillo Negroni, who found himself in need of something stiffer than an Americano (made with Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and seltzer), and asked for gin with his Americano. One can only wonder why he wasn’t made a Marquis.

So, how do we improve on the Count’s excellent work?

The ultimate Negroni cocktail derives its superiority from three improvements:
1. improving the quality of the ingredients
2. tuning the amount of gin
3. serving it chilled and up

Gin: Use gin that is good, but not great. Use a good sturdy gin like Tanqueray or Beefeater or Bombay (not Sapphire — too strong). You don’t want the Karmic debt of mucking up great gin with a bunch of highly flavorful additives. Don’t raid your mom’s secret stash of Hendrick’s or Plymouth or Baffert’s or Magellan or Citadelle or Quintessential or G’Vine. You get no extra points for gin erudition, snobbiness, etc. Remember, we are going for a drink that a Count would drink, and as we all know, Counts are born cool and debonair without even trying.

Vermouth: Use good Sweet Vermouth. Here, sky is the limit. Sweet Vermouth is indispensable to every drinker, from the dilettante who prefers it straight, over ice, on a porch swing, to the serious drinker, who prefers it with bourbon and bitters, chilled an served up in a martini glass on a porch swing. We go through a 750ml bottle Sweet Vermouth (Vermouth Rosso) every month or so, but when we finally get around to putting up a porch swing we hope to improve on that quantity substantially. My favorite Sweet Vermouth these days is Andy Quady’s creation,Vya Sweet Vermouth. Andy is not only not Italian, he is not even a Count. But his Vermouth kicks. We sell it at The Meadow, where it serves as fodder for many a tirade on mixology. Carpano Antica Vermouth Rosso is another great option. Do not use Carpano’s Punt e Mes, as it will steamroller the Campari, the gin, and the surrounding countryside.

Campari: That’s it–Campari. I’ve dug around a bit in Italy, and if there is a better, more boutique type production of a Campari-style bitters I have yet to find it.

Tuning: Adding more gin gives the Vermouth and Campari room to move around in, revealing greater depth to their intense herbacious, citrus, spice notes. Like an experienced lover, the additional gin inspires our cocktail to impart its secrets with passion bridled by solicitousness.

Serving: Following Count Negroni’s lead, we whittle down even more the amount of dilutant in the drink, serving it up. The ultimate Negroni experiences only a brief tryst with water, during its gentle chilling. Diaphanous contrails of icewater swirl through the cocktail, imparting the silky mouthfeel of that godlike cocktail, the gin martini. This essential variation on the classic Negroni cocktail boasts the added advantage of a built in requirement that you drink it rapidly, and by extension, repeatedly.

The ultimate Negroni cocktail consists of:
2 to 3 parts good gin
1 part good sweet vermouth
1 part Campari
1 curlicue orange zest

Combine all three over ice cubes in a shaker. Stir gently. Do not shake, do not beat it to death, do not stir it like you’re trying to make whipped cream. Bartenders brutalize their gin, either because they think it looks showy, or because they are in a hurry, or maybe because they think exploding a perfectly good drink into shards of ice and bubbles makes them look especially virile. Stir gently, for about 10 seconds. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Twist with orange zest, so that some of that lovely volatile orange oil beads and glistens on the surface of the drink. Garnish with the pretty curlicue you have made with the orange zest.

Now, my quiet student, you are ready for the Sbagliato.

Chapter II: Enter the Sbagliato

Sbagliato translates literally as “mistaken.” So, armed with our firm grasp of the fullest potential of the Negroni, we screw everything up with the goal of landing a more easily quaffable drink, that we might drink greater quantities, extract more romance from our summertime, and exist in a more robustly hydrated state for a longer period of time, before falling off the porch swing.

Directions for making a Sbagliato. (If you have friends, you make Sbagliati, meaning more than one.)

Great mistakes are earned. To make a mistaken, take what you have learned here, and… go back. Go way back. Go back to your rocks glass full of ice. Go way, way back. Take the gin out, much as it might hurt to do so. Go so far back that nobody knows what the heck you are talking about. Back to the bubbly than originally inspired the Negroni (see the digression below).

Back in the 1860s, the Negroni was invented by a fellow by the name of Gaspare Campari, a maitre licoriste from Turin who remarried to a dame from Milan, and eventually settled there to become the happy proprietor of his very own Café Campari. In a show of grace and diplomacy (Milan and Turin have been known to tussle like cats tangled in guitar strings over the least trifle), Gaspare Campari combined Cinzano sweet vermouth, his own precious Campari bitters, and splash of seltzer, and served it to patrons of his café, calling it the “Milano-Torino.” The drink was later called the Americano in appreciation (here I am making things up) for all the wonderful gastronomic delights we had brought to their country, such as sugar (which gave them gelato), corn (which gave them polenta), and Coke (which gave many of them a preference for Coke over bitter liqueurs).

The Sbagliato is takes the best part of the seltzer water so dashingly abolished by Count Negroni so many years ago: the bubbles. The Sbaglioto invented by mistaking bubbly prosecco for club soda. Taking our adventure in Negroni-land to heart, but going back in time, we need only substitute out the gin for the prosecco, and add back the ice. And so, at last, we have the wherewithal to make our dreamy Sbagliato .

Good Prosecco: I use Adriano Adami’s Garbel Prosecco 13, which is moussy with a nice bubbly resilience in the mouth. Adami Garbel has wonderful delicate floral and tart fruit notes up front, and great sweeter fruits going down. All around, the Adami is a perfectly balanced Prosecco (and much better than many of the ones I was served in Italy in my Sbaglioto quest) for your Sbaglioto cocktail.

The Perfect Sbagliato Cocktail Recipe
4 parts Prosecco
1 part Sweet Vermouth
1 part Campari
1 curlicue orange zest

Pour Prosecco over ice in rocks glass, add Campari and Sweet Vermouth, and stir gently. Do not insult the Prosecco with abusively vigorous stirring. Garnish with the curlicue of orange zest. Like the Negroni and the Martini before it, you want your drink to have a body you can fall in love with. Garnish with a wheel of fresh orange that is first half-squeezed into the glass. Sip slowly from the rim, listening to the summer-song of ice cubes kissing, feeling the chilled liquid on you lips, letting your gaze dissolve and refract through the deeps, as if through the ruby bellybutton gem of a Moroccan harlot.


Digression on Sweet Vermouth: In 1757 in a back room of the family herbal shop where their mixologist pop Giovanni Cinzano had already built a reputation with brandies and liqueurs, brothers Giovanni Giacomo and Carlo Stefano Cinzano, giggling like madmen, combined dozens of aromatic plants from the Italian Alps, including marjoram, thyme, and musk yarrow to make something they thought might not kill people like so many other medicines of the time. The result was Vermouth Rosso, which was remarkably palatable given that the whole concept of Vermouth was dubious. Vermouth sprung from a desire to make really, really bad white wine more palatable. The Italians’ Vermouth mania (the epicenter of which was in Turin) was actually inspired by efforts north of the border in Germany’s Savoy to make their really, really bad wine more palatable by adding wormwood (Wermut), various varieties of which has been used for about 2000 years to make everything from medicine to drugs to liqueurs such as Absinthe.

Digression on Campari: Campari is, by law, required to be consumed exclusively on porch swings. As fun as it can be to drink over ice, it does benefit from the addition of bubbly, such as seltzer, or in Paris, Perrier. It is strong, a bit syrupy, and if the use of seltzer or Perrier conflicts with your moral stance on use of water, gin is also a kosher option. Some decades after the Turinos fell for vermouth, across the sweltering plains of Lombardy in Milan, Gaspare Campari experimented with quinine, about 50 to 60 bitter herbs, rhubarb, spices, ginseng, bergamot oil, orange peel, and above all, bark from Cascarilla trees to create a masterpiece in the tradition of bitter liqueurs. Gaspare had been an apprentice licoriste since he was knee high to a grasshopper (age 14), and must have been a prodigious drinker by the time he was old enough to give birth to the fullest fruit of his genius. It is possible Campari’s Bright red (the color comes form natural Carmine Cochineal in the original formulation which, I think, is still used in Italy), bitter, tangy, and obviously complex, it can be imbibed over ice, with soda, with orange juice, and in a variety of cocktails. Today only Luca Garavoglia, Chairman of the now very large Gruppo Campari company, knows the entire recipe, and only a small band of insider employees are allowed to make the base concentrate that is exported around to world.

Digression on Bitters: Campari is an amaro, or bitter liquor all its own. I nonetheless like to play with my negroni and spagliati from time to time and add a dash or four of a cocktail bitters for extra zing.  Orange bitters are a natural because they compliment Camari’s own orange underbelly, but grapefruit, lemon, mandarin, and other citrus bitters are also good.  Alternately, you can add aromatic bitters such as Amargo Chuncho, Boker’s, Angostura, Forbidden, Abbotts, or others to make the whole shebang sing in your mouth with more lusty botanical vibrato.


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