Day 5: Nebo

Day five and Negroni fatigue was setting in. Even the weird-spin versions were still high-sugar, big on syruppy cordials and fortified wine. I was flagging. I needed a drink that could remind me why I was doing this in the first place.

Kudos to Nebo's Jenna, who mixed my favorite variation all week. It came just in time.

It starts with a house-infused Carpano Antica vermouth, which sat three days with basil, orange peel, and lemon peel. (The basil was more of a subtle herbaliness than what you have in mind.)

Then they add the Campari - real, honest-to-God Campari, because after all they were the ones sponsoring Negroni Week. Jenna informed me that all Campari sales, Negroni or otherwise, counted for charitable purposes; and that, in her view, ditching the red bitters was cheating. She had a point.

Ingredient No. 3 is G'Vine's Floraison gin, which has grape-flower as its primary botanical - so primary that if there were any others, I couldn't tell you what they were. Very light, slightly sweet, and delicate. The success of this Negroni owes much to the success of this gin, and each is in its subtlety. Non-gin-drinkers might even appreciate G'Vine - it hasn't got the heavy evergreen taste that turns some people off.

They also add a bit of Bénédictine, and garnish the concoction with a double-skewered lemon peel and a maraschino cherry. Served down and on the rocks, as it ought to be.

So. Damn. Good.

This Negroni - I don't recall it having a kitschy name, which is fine since it was pretty clearly a Negroni - has a lower sugar content than most of the others. The folks at Nebo also deliberately eschew the bitter-on-bitter tactic - Campari was undoubtedly less than 33% of this drink.

But enough about what the cocktail isn't, let's talk about what it is.

Fresh, light, and invigorating, it hits your system like water, but crosses your tongue like all the reasons you ever liked a Negroni decided to visit you at once. The nose is precisely what it should be: gin-dryness, Campari's distinctive aroma, and the whole pervaded with the essence of citrus - in this case, of lemon. (I'm told the local Campari rep calls this the "Citrus Burst Negroni.")

The body of the sip is like chilled mineral water - all the work is in the details. A wave of Campari-bitterness covers the tongue on the swallow, tinged with the citrus infusion and the Christmas spices of the Bénédictine. Slowly, but noticeably, the aftertaste evolves - resolves, even - through a citrus crest to an appetite-whetting bitter finish. Each sip begets another. I could hardly put it down long enough for a photograph. 

Remember, a Negroni should be refreshing. It should put more back into you than it takes out. If it feels like work, you're doing it wrong. A+ work at the Nebo bar.

And apparently, my timing was doubly good - they had just recently set up the outdoor-dining tables, so the bar was practically deserted. That left me plenty of time to chat with the bar staff, sample the G'Vine gin straight, and swap blog information with Jenna, who maintains one of her own.

My Negroni, as well as all Campari sales during that week at Nebo, served to benefit the Italian Home for Children in Jamaica Plain. The Italian Home started as an orphanage after a 1918 flu epidemic left a lot of Boston's children parentless; today they specialize in programs for children with learning disabilities and behavioral or mental health issues.

If you missed out on Negroni Week, you can approximate the experience by giving them money at this link while having a drink at Nebo.


Day 4: Noir


Now that I have some distance between myself and the event, I can see just how carefully timed Negroni Week was. At least here in Boston, it fell at the very beginning of the summer going-out season, when hitting the town felt like a fresh and novel idea, but it was still possible to get a seat at a bar. Well done there: most of these places are a lot more crowded now than they were two weeks ago

I don't think there were ever more than four occupied barstools the night I was at Noir. Because I am an Explorer, I gave their local "Noirgroni" variant a go. (I know, I know, that's a taxonomy of beer-drinkers, but most of the categories translate to the spirits crowd.)

The Noirgroni is a terrible portmanteau and an enjoyable cocktail. It was a combination of Old Overholt rye, Carpano Bianco, and a gentian liqueur called Avèze (like the spirit, the website is French). The whole is then topped with orange bitters and served how you like. If you ask either myself or the bartender, you should like it on the rocks.

I recall the some mention of artichoke, but I didn't see any Cynar go into the cocktail and the Avèze people have enough love for gentian that I doubt they'd pollute it with another plant. I might simply be mistaken - certainly, the absence of artichoke liqueur would go a long way toward explaining why I liked this drink.

Light, strangely vegetal, and so refreshing I could have kissed it. (I settled for drinking it.) Those who are intimately familiar with Noir's menu may see similarities to their Dark Horse cocktail; those who are not might call it a spin on the Boulevardier, the Negroni's whiskey-based cousin.

Saying it's a Negroni variant is a bit of a stretch. The two cocktails have no ingredients in common, unless we count two rather different kinds of vermouth as the same. The only flavor they both hit is the orange nose. Everything else is completely dissimilar.

This is the peculiar pitfall of Negroni Week. How do you strike a balance between innovation, which any bar participating in this promotion is likely to be known for, at least locally; and keeping the drink, somehow, recognizably a Negroni? Under-innovate, and you've disappointed your customers. Over-innovate, and you've accomplished the High Mixology version of an Appletini: a drink that bears no relation to its name.

Add to that the fact that there are a thousand bars doing this at once, each trying to come up with something no one else has thought of, a clever variation on a drink we've spent a hundred years deliberately not messing with. Some of these will be brilliant. Some will fail spectacularly. Some of them will be delicious in their own right, but not true members of the Negroni family. Noir's entry is the last.

The official promotion has ended, but that's no reason for me to stop promoting. Proceeds from Noirgroni sales went to the Farm School in Athol, which teaches agriculture to everyone from children in grade school to adults who want to become farmers. All of their programs are insanely cheap - kids in the federal lunch program pay as little as nothing to participate. The difference is made up in their food sales and your donations. (Fun fact: even after Negroni Week, you can still give money to charity. Who knew?)

Negroni Week Day 1: backbar

I'm undertaking a little project for Negroni Week. For six out of these seven days, I'll be hitting a Boston-area bar that I haven't been to before, where I'll have a Negroni for a worthy cause. (The exception being Wednesday, when I'll be making Negronis for a worthy cause.) First stop: backbar.

backbar [lowercase lettering theirs] is Somerville's entry in two major bar categories: the Speakeasy and the I-Clearly-Should-Have-Come-Here-Sooner.

While it's well-hidden, it isn't the dark, secretive atmosphere that a lot of neo-speakeasies have. There's a massive skylight over the bar, for one thing, and the furnishings make it feel more like you're drinking in your artist friend's living room than worshipping at the Temple of High Mixology.

In short, there's a good reason this place has gotten noticed. But enough about that, on to the cocktails.

backbar has several Negroni specials on the menu this week, of which the Negroni Milk Punch is the one you see above. They have a rotating milk punch special on the menu, so for those who like milk punches, this is the place to come.

For those who don't know what a milk punch is, and have visions of some heavy dairy-Campari concoction, fear not. There are milk punches that consist of milk, liquor, ice, and grated nutmeg, available at some holdover bars in New Orleans, of all places, but backbar belongs to the other school of milk-punch-making.

In this school, the milk is deliberately curdled, usually by the addition of lemon or something similar, and the milk solids are strained out. This leaves just the liquids, with their suspended proteins and whatnot. The flavor of pure milk liquid is, like maraschino liqueur, Chartreuse, and a host of other lovely ingredients, basically impossible to describe to someone who's never tried it.

What it does for a cocktail is similar to an egg, in that it tends to mute other ingredients and quietly slip in its own flavor at the back. It is dissimilar in that it doesn't thicken the drink, being mostly water. In point of fact, backbar adds orange juice to this one for body.

For those keeping score, that means we have a standard Negroni (Campari, Punt e Mes, and Ford's gin), with milk liquid and a splash of orange juice added in. The bartender then took an orange peel to the rim of the glass for an aromatic finish.

The resulting palate was mostly milk-muted Campari, with little sweet, bitter, and herbal amendments by the other ingredients, and a big burst of orange oil on the nose. A great way to begin an evening, but you'll probably miss the subtleties if you're a few drinks in.

Finally, I'm sure you're all wondering where the money from backbar's Negronis goes this week. The answer? Wine to Water, an organization that rebuilds wells, provides sanitary filtration systems, and generally aims to increase access to potable water. According to their website, they've done so for a quarter of a million people since 2004. And their preferred fundraising technique is selling wine.

One day down, six to go. Check back in tomorrow - and don't forget to join us on Wednesday, when I'll be behind the bar, making Negronis to raise money for AccesSportAmerica!