On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy is joined by Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Portland, Ore.’s Pacific Standard to dive into the Negroni. The two discuss the proper way to make the modern classic, and how Morgenther’s barrel-aged-Negroni became a national phenomenon. Tune in to learn more.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Negroni Recipe
- 1 ounce Beefeater gin
- 1 ounce Cinzano Rosso
- 1 ounce Campari
- Orange twist or wedge for garnish
- Add all ingredients to a chilled rocks glass with ice.
- Stir until chilled.
- Garnish with an orange twist or wedge.
Check Out the Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: All right. Well, we are going to get into it. We’re going to dive in now. We’ve had our decaffeinated cafe au lait with or without single pot still whiskey, but we can’t leave them waiting any longer because you know what?
Jeffrey Morgenthaler: Right.
T: It’s the Negroni. They’ve been waiting for it. They’ve been asking for it. People have been previewing it. They’ve mentioned it in previous episodes, but today we have the guest. It’s Jeffrey Morgenthaler. Jeffrey, thank you so much for joining us.
J: Thanks for having me. What’s up?
T: How’s it going, man? No pressure, by the way. Didn’t want to put the pressure on you there from the get-go, but, as I alluded to there, this is a much-anticipated episode of “Cocktail College.” And I’m going to say this. We’re with the perfect gentleman for it.
T: Yeah. I hope so.
J: All right, all right, all right.
T: Give me some confidence. I’ll say this from the get-go, I do know, though. I do know this is a cocktail that you have a longstanding relationship with and even explored in many different ways that we will get into today.
J: Oh yes.
T: But first of all, this is one of the most iconic cocktails in history. So why do you think it’s so beloved from a cultural and drinker standpoint?
J: It’s crazy how it went away or nobody… When I started bartending, nobody knew what a Negroni was and now it’s like, nobody doesn’t know what a Negroni is.
J: And then that happened in a relatively short amount of time, I think. Everyone thinks of it as this classic that’s been around forever, but it really, as far as I can tell, went away for a very, very long time. And I think that’s super curious because all of the other classics that we drink, right, like Manhattans and Martinis and Old Fashioneds — even if people didn’t drink those or didn’t even really, a hundred percent know what was in a Manhattan, everybody had heard of it, right.
J: 15, 20 years ago, I would say that most drinkers hadn’t even heard of a Negroni. I’d been bartending… 15 years ago, I’d been bartending for over a decade and Negroni felt almost new to me.
J: Does that make sense?
T: One hundred percent.
J: 15 years ago I had heard of it. Three years prior, maybe.
T: Yeah. And you were in the field. Do you know what I mean? In the industry.
J: Right. Yeah.
T: I’ll be honest. I’m going to out myself as a bit of a philistine here from a drinking perspective, but people’s palates evolve. But I do distinctly recall the first time I tasted a Negroni. I was working at the Zetter Hotel, the Bistro Bruno Loubet in London, and I was doing a shift across the road at the Zetter Townhouse, which you may or may not be familiar with, but it was a pretty decent bar back in the day. I was working in the kitchen there. There was a little bit of trading going on between the kitchen and the bar staff, and a chef-
J: Oh, no.
T: You know how it goes, that old chestnut.
J: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
T: And so a fellow chef who liked to think of himself as a bit of a culture vulture, you know what I mean?
T: He asks for a Negroni from the bar staff and he gives me a taste of this cocktail. And I am like, “You got to be f*cking kidding me. There’s no way you like this. You’re just drinking this because it has a cool name. It’s European and you want to come across as cool. This is too bitter.” And, like I said, palates evolve over time. But I do think that touches upon something within this story, which is, is the Negroni’s rise in modern times or rebirth, like you talk about, is that related to the fact that we are more used to bitter flavors and bitter ingredients, whether it’s within food or drinks have become more prominent and accepted?
J: Oh, in the past 20 years? Absolutely.
T: Right? Like the old kale salads.
J: Yeah, exactly. And even now to arugula, or you know as you say, rocket.
J: 20 years ago, 25 years ago, nobody knew what that was. And now it seems like a boring… When you see it on your menu, you’re like, “Meh.”
T: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
J: Now it’s so commonplace.
T: Yeah. That was the way you could make a very average restaurant menu just seem fancy, like goat cheese and arugula.
J: Dried cranberries, and maybe some hazelnuts, and you got yourself a salad. A late-’90s, early 2000s salad.
T: Hey, don’t forget your balsamic reduction.
J: Yeah, and your balsamic vinaigrette. Yeah. Totally.
The History of the Negroni
T: But it surely is interesting, but you alluded to it before. This is a historic cocktail. It’s one that has a tale. It’s also debated, but can you outline that for us? And then maybe once you’ve told us the widely recognized version of it, can you give us some of your own interpretations there and how you believe things went down?
J: God, it’s so… I don’t know how this never gets talked about, but the Negroni mythology is that Count Camillo Negroni walked into his local one day and ordered an Americano, which was an existing drink, which is just sweet vermouth, Campari and soda water. And he, apparently, quote-unquote, needed something stronger and asked for an Americano with gin in place of the soda water. And everybody just accepts that as fact, except for anybody that I know that’s ever tended bar for more than five minutes. Nothing about that story smacks of truth. That’s just not how drinks work. Nobody thinks of substituting a soda for a spirit. You know what I mean?
J: It would be like saying, “The Manhattan was invented because somebody wanted a Jack and Coke, but with sweet vermouth instead of Coke.” It just doesn’t… It doesn’t make sense, right? Nobody thinks about drinks like that. Personally, I’ve just always felt like that story is horsesh*t.
T: Yeah. Yeah. I’m with you on that one.
J: Can you buy into this?
T: I don’t buy into it, either. I think it’s got a great name and also they just land upon the proportions.
J: They just land upon the proportions, right?
T: Do we know how much the count himself was drinking gin before that? Can’t imagine it was big in Italy at the time, but I might be wrong there. I don’t know.
J: Well, it was big in the United States where he was going over and dressing up and playing cowboy, appropriately, on a regular basis. Gin was super popular and one of the most popular drinks at the time was a Martini, which, at the time, the recipe for Martini was gin, sweet vermouth, and bitters, right?
J: Wouldn’t it follow… Wouldn’t it track more closely that this guy returned from one of his trips to his bar in Italy and said, “I had the most wonderful new drink when I was in the United States. It’s gin, sweet vermouth, and bitters.” And the Italian bartender said, “Well, I have gin. I have sweet vermouth and then, the only thing on my backbar that says bitters on it is this red bottle of Campari.”
T: I’m into this. Okay.
J: That makes a lot more sense to me than an Americano with gin in place of soda water.
T: A hundred percent.
T: Is this theory that you’re putting out there today also widely spread too? Or are you breaking ground here, Jeffrey?
J: I have no idea. I’ve talked about this late night with other bartenders over the years and we’ve all agreed that that makes more sense from a “bartender-ly” perspective.
T: I’ll tell you one reason I love that you bring this up because there is an aspect of the Negroni that I feel more passionate about than I should, but…
J: Oh. Tell me.
T: It tracks with your version of the story rather than the popular one, at least in my mind. This is described or often found in, maybe, online recipe databases. This is supposedly one of the world’s great gin cocktails. And my opinion is, this is not a gin cocktail. It’s a Campari cocktail.
J: Talk more about that. I like this idea.
T: I just feel like you can go… Okay. Maybe the ABV of the gin that you’re using is going to have a drastic impact on the final version of the drink. But I feel like you can go fairly wild with your gin selection. You can go Beefeater to Aviation and the Negronis are really not going to taste that dissimilar.
J: 100 percent agree.
T: But the moment you opt for anything other than Campari, you’re basically eating fries with knockoff-brand ketchup.
J: Yeah. Yeah.
T: And no one wants that.
T: What’s it called? Hunt’s or something? What is that one?
J: Yeah, yeah. Hunt’s.
T: Yeah. Show me you’re in a bad restaurant without actually telling me.
J: Just chunky ketchup. I totally agree. And it’s funny because I think of the drink in the same way, that it really is a Campari cocktail and not a gin cocktail because, quite frankly, if we want to be really contentious, we could say that you could put vodka in that and it wouldn’t make a massive difference either, right.
T: I’m with you there. I really wouldn’t… I don’t think… The gin is there for the booze.
J: Yeah, exactly. It’s exactly what I did with the Amaretto Sour, right. It’s not a whiskey cocktail. It’s an amaretto cocktail that you just use a little bit of something else to strengthen, right. Because Campari on its own is not very strong, but adding some 94 proof gin gives it a lot more backbone, right.
T: Yeah. And it needs it too. Those two ingredients I think they need it. The Milano-Torino, a decent drink, but I prefer an Americano or Negroni. I’m also going to further muddy my name among the ranks of drinking philistines here. I have another theory about Negronis that I’ve put out there before, so it’s out there.
J: I can’t wait to hear this.
T: I love how passionate people are about this cocktail. And maybe this is the reason why we haven’t covered it to this day, apart from not being able to find the perfect person. However, I think the gulf between the best Negroni you will ever have in your life and a bad Negroni-
T: Is relatively small.
J: And I think that’s why this drink has become so popular because anybody can make it. Anybody can make it anywhere. As long as you have the three ingredients, and you’re right, it doesn’t really matter what gin, it doesn’t even really matter what vermouth.
J: There’s differences. I can’t stand Negroni made with Antica Formula because it just tastes like a f*cking Tootsie Roll to me, but-
T: Hey, by the way, can I come in here too? I am so with you on that. I like Antica Formula as a product, but I think that it can hijack cocktails.
J: Oh, yeah. It’s just chocolate bomb, which is… I think it is great in a Manhattan, but in a Negroni, it’s just like, “Ugh. Get this thing out of my mouth.” But you’re right. And I also think that while we’re just piling on the hot takes, I also don’t think you really have to measure a Negroni super closely. I think we’ve all done this. We’ve all come home after a long night and we happened to have a freezer with some ice and we’ve got a glass and we’ve got the three ingredients and we’ll just glug a shot of everything out of the neck of the bottle without measuring.
J: And I really think this is where Gary Regan’s finger stir comes from. We’ll glug them out of the bottle, throw some ice in, give it a finger stir and it’s a pretty good Negroni. Even if you don’t have an orange at home. Whoever has oranges at home? I don’t, but you can slap that drink together. You can make it in an airport bar. You could probably make it in a sports bar if the sports bar has a dusty bottle of Campari and some old vermouth in the back.
J: You can make it anywhere with anything and it’s always going to be… And you’re right. The gulf between bad and great is really narrow.
T: Yeah, yeah. 100 percent. And I would argue that I’ve had very interesting riffs, which we’ll get into, but I don’t ever recall having a life-changing classically made Negroni.
J: Right, right, right, right, right. You want to pry the bartender aside and be like, “What did you do?” And the bartenders can be like, “Well, I used an ounce and a quarter of London Dry Gin.” And you’re like “How did I never think of that?” That’s never going to happen, right.
T: Well, do you remember there was that era? And I think it might have been because there was a fairly influential bar that… These were the specs or that someone purported, this is the way to do it. Didn’t they go one, three-quarter or three-quarter instead? They changed the proportions.
J: Yeah. It changed the proportions. It’s also too small. Don’t serve us a Negroni that’s only 2 and a half ounces big.
T: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. When we’re only getting, what, 1 ounce of booze? Proper booze.
J: Yeah. That’s not really why we’re here, not for your adjusted take.
T: No, but I’m with you there, especially on that take, which is that, yeah, equal parts works and I love the magic of the fact that it does work because we are talking about ingredients with multiple botanicals and ingredients.
T: Across the board, the fact that those three ingredients work together is pretty f*cking mind-blowing, but do we need to really dial in on the proportions and get geeky and be like, “Actually”-
T: The count was wrong. You want to tweak it by quarter-ounce or-
J: Right, right, right, right.
T: Yeah. Or I think it’s just more… Just speaks to the bartending community and evolution over time and says more about what we want to say about ourselves, right, that we care about these things and we’re always striving for perfection. No drink has ever been perfected.
J: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yes.
T: So that’s it. We’ve taken down Negroni. It’s going to be a short one today. That’s it. We’re done.
J: All right. Well, thanks for having me. It was an honor to be here.
T: I think the fact that we can have all these different conversations about different aspects of this drink does speak to why it is so beloved and what we were mentioning at the top there, when we’re a little bit more on track, apologies for that. But here’s a question I ask every episode and I’m keen for your thoughts because I don’t know whether you’re going to go deep or whether it’s going to be a very simple answer, but when you’re looking at this cocktail, if someone’s making it for you or you’re making it for yourself, what do you want from that first sip? To our point earlier, do you actually want to be tasting the gin or is it, basically, just balance?
The Ingredients Used in the Negroni
J: Balance, but honestly, back to your point, back to the earlier discussion about how the recipe really isn’t all that important and the ingredients are, I think the first thing that I want is for it to be cold.
J: I think that’s because I know what it’s going to taste like, right. We all know what it’s going to taste like even if you used some sort of wonky gin or did your ounce and a quarter, three- quarter move or whatever. If it’s not ice cold, then that just sets the tone for the rest of the drink.
T: And we do like to, at this point, also look into the different ingredients. I’m not really sure how much there is to say about Campari that we haven’t already covered, but to your point about temperature, ideally, are you keeping this in the fridge for your Negroni in an ideal situation?
J: If it was something that I was making regularly at home, I would probably put all three ingredients, keep them in the fridge, or even pre-batch it and put it in a… I don’t know. Will it freeze?
T: I would assume so. Yeah.
J: Yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever put a pre-batched undiluted Negroni in the freezer, but, yeah, I would consider putting the stuff in the fridge and then just pouring it into a glass with some ice and giving it a little chopstick stir and being on my merry way.
T: Yeah. And also, it’s really not a drink that you want over-dilution from, is it?
J: No. Definitely not. And also it is hard to over-dilute that drink because the flavors are so strong, but yeah. Cold. And there are other substitutes besides Campari. Luxardo makes some decent… But if you really want the original and the best, I think you’ve got to go with Campari, and, sure, keep it in the fridge if you want it super cold.
T: Yeah, no. It is true there are alternatives out there. I think. What’s another one, Melati? Cappelletti?
J: Yeah. Cappelletti.
J: There’s a bunch of them.
T: Yeah, yeah. They’re decent, but. Yeah.
J: I think I even had bartender’s house-made versions, which I think is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.
J: I always love when bartenders take, not just Campari, but any ingredient where they’re like, “This has been made for 250 years by this company that’s been doing it on a global scale for a quarter of a millennium, but it can’t compare to my thing.”
T: “My five years of experience behind the bar.”
J: Yeah, exactly. In Seattle, Wash., I make a better version than anybody in Milan.
T: That’s so Seattle.
T: It goes back to my earlier point there. 57 f*cking varieties of different tomato ketchup.
T: Don’t be making your own ketchup and putting it on my burger in your restaurant. I want the real deal.
J: Yeah. Hopefully, all that’s gone. That’s a very 2008 way of eating and drinking. It’s house-made Campari and house-made ketchup.
T: Yeah. We need to go through these eras, though, to appreciate what we had and set some limits for ourselves.
J: Yeah, totally.
T: I’m going to play devil’s advocate here for a second because we dismissed gin off the bat and that’s my personal opinion, but I don’t think that’s fair also for people listening here, too, that, maybe, do want to do more of an exploration on that? So I am very keen to hear your thoughts when it comes to this. If you are looking to dial in on that ingredient, are you going classic London Dry, or what’s most important? Is it, maybe, ABV? What are you looking for for the perfect component there?
J: Yeah. I’m going classic London Dry and I’m going at least 92, 94 proof.
J: I really don’t want Aviation, which I know is, being from Portland, you’re not supposed to say that, but it’s the one gin that I don’t want in a Negroni.
J: I want those bright herbaceous notes. I don’t want f*cking sarsaparilla or whatever in my Negroni.
T: Ryan Reynolds’ cheesy mocktail in my-
J: Bracing, muscular, tight, junipery, citrusy gin. I usually go Beefeater or Tanqueray.
J: You know?
T: How are you feeling about the Beefeater thing? Are we over that yet?
J: Oh, what’s the latest scandal? I don’t pay attention to stuff.
T: They shaved a couple of points of ABV off their gin during the pandemic and they thought some folks wouldn’t notice, and then people were up in arms.
J: Yeah. Whatever.
T: Toby… Quick sidebar here. Your buddy, Toby Cecchini, I believe. He’s got a couple of cases in the basement at Long Island Bar. I don’t know whether he thinks they’re going to be worth something one day or he’s stocking up for the doomsday. I don’t know, but.
J: You can always just put a couple of drops of grain alcohol in there and bring that right back up to 44, or 45, or 47.
T: There you go. There you go. No, I do. I like a Beefeater. I do like Beefeater in a Negroni. What about if we’re looking at some other, maybe modern American gins, or quote-unquote modern. Another one that stands out to me where if I’m like, “Okay. I want to add definitive character to this cocktail via this ingredient and not stray too far.” I’m thinking, maybe, a Junipero?
J: Yeah. Is that still around? Junipero?
T: Junipero? Is that-
T: Yeah, man. They’ve got some new packaging and it looks pretty great.
J: That’s awesome. Yeah. That’s a great gin. That’s a super-big gin. I haven’t had it in a very long time, but yeah. I would drink Junipero.
T: Is that how it’s pronounced by the way? I’ve been saying it wrong all these years.
J: Yeah. Well, I grew up in California, so you know that it’s-
T: Well, yeah. I know it’s Spanish-inspired and yeah, yeah. And yeah. All right.
J: I’m looking at Portobello Road.
T: That’s a murderer’s row right there.
J: Yeah. It’s making my mouth water at 9 o’clock in the morning, to be honest with you.
T: I think those are good ones, right. But I guess my question therefore is, if you’re trying to find some kind of gin influence, go for one that doesn’t stray too far away from London Dry, right?
J: Definitely. Definitely.
J: Carpano Antica Formula has been kicked out of bed, but Carpano Classico is good.
J: For Negroni. I always stick with the, and I’ve had them all, right. I’ve had Negronis made with crazy Spanish vermouths and crazy American vermouths and they’re all good, but I really like… My No. 1 is Cinzano.
J: And then, after that is probably Martini & Rossi. I just want… It’s like… What’s the saying in food? If it grows together, it goes together.
J: In food pairing.
J: I think that’s true with Italian herbal elements.
J: I want Italian herbal vermouth and Italian herbal liqueur, right. Or Italian bitter orange herbal liqueur.
T: Yeah. Yeah. I’m totally on board there. Didn’t Martini & Rossi also bring out some kind of slightly elevated… We had Dale DeGroff on recently who was speaking about a different one. I’m not referencing that, just in case anyone has listened to that and this now, but I believe… Wasn’t it three, four years ago they came out with a kind of elevated cocktail line of vermouths? I seem to recall they were pretty good.
J: They might have. Yeah. Like I said, I don’t pay a ton of attention. I do what I do from here and I don’t necessarily know all of the new… I used to be really up on the new products, but there’s a hundred new products every single day.
T: It’s hard to keep up.
J: Yeah. It’s hard to keep up and by the time a lot of that stuff makes it out here to Oregon, it’s already five years old.
T: Oh, it’s already over.
J: Yeah. It’s over.
T: You ever heard about this little thing called White Claw?
J: No, not yet. Is it good?
T: The good thing about it is there ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws. One thing I was going to say while we’re on the hot takes here.
J: I love a hot take.
T: Might as well just get them all out today because we’re not usually this cynical as a show. I do enjoy, from a drinking perspective, these crazy vermouths with a hundred million ingredients that we’re seeing emerge here in America, but also I would say you get a lot from Spain. I just don’t like them in cocktails at all.
J: Yeah. They can be tough. I tasted a few yesterday that were fantastic. And then I thought, “I can’t imagine putting this weird, funky, oxidized, herbaceous, dry vermouth into a Martini.” I was just like, “Absolutely not.”
T: Yeah. That’s a hundred percent the lens through which I’m viewing this take. It’s just like the Martini and some of these… I’m like, “Nah.” It’s just-
J: Which is great if you have room for all of these different options or if… And of course, vermouth on the rocks is delicious. But our bar is very small, this new bar, and so we can’t have 10 vermouths because there’s nowhere to put them.
T: Yeah. 100 percent. And from a drinker’s perspective as well. If I’m talking about Martinis again, there’s only so many I can drink and I’m not trying to impose limits on myself. I try, but there’s only so many, and so… How often are you reaching for that weird vermouth?
J: Right. We’re so busy already that I can’t really have my bartenders doing a 15-minute masterclass in vermouth where they pull everything out of the fridge and focus in on one guest and pour them a taste of all these different… That’s just an absolute failure of service in my head.
T: Yeah. But it is… I do want to make it clear here. This does sound fairly cynical overall, but I would argue that what we’re saying here is… This is such a robust cocktail and it goes back to the original. You can’t fault it. This thing is bulletproof and all of these ingredients, it’ll take them. Do you know what I mean? It will take the funky vermouth and it will say, “Yeah, yeah. We can roll with it.” That’s the beauty of the Negroni.
J: The tone of the conversation is, there’s no need to overthink it, right. You’re not going to unlock… It’s fun to play with different… Swapping in these different ingredients, but you’re not going to unlock the next big Negroni by using your Spanish vermouth or whatever. The drink is great no matter what you do to it, but you’re not missing out. I think a lot of times consumers and maybe even younger bartenders feel like there’s something they’re not doing right if they’re not unlocking these mystery variations.
J: And I don’t think that’s really necessary with this drink. It’s great on its own. Does that make sense?
T: No. 100 percent. I totally agree. If you want to look at it from a career perspective, maybe… If you’re a young bartender entering the trade now, and you look at these established classics, there might be something daunting about the fact that’s like, “Guys. These things are solid. You don’t need to mess with these. You can riff upon them. You can come up with drinks inspired by them, but you don’t need to go near these recipe-wise.” And maybe that’s slightly daunting because maybe it’s like, “Well, what am I getting into here?” And I think it depends on what you’re looking to do or how creative you are as a person. Maybe what you’re looking to get out of the profession itself or geek into. Do you get more fun out of the rush of service or are you trying to create 15 million drinks a day?
J: It really gets into a much larger philosophical question about bartending in general, doesn’t it?
T: And is that something that’s changed for yourself over the years?
J: No. I feel like I’ve been mostly the same. I really do like making the same thing over and over and over again a million times because that’s when we understand something and unlock it, do something special with it, right? The Barrel-Aged Negroni never would’ve happened if I had only made the Negroni a hundred times, but since I’d already made it 10,000 times, I was able to truly understand the drink and find something a little niche for it, something truly special and different.
T: And of course, that is one of the reasons why I said, “You know what? This iconic cocktail who we’re bringing on, it’s Morgenthaler. It’s the Barrel-Aged Negroni. And that speaks to what I was talking about earlier, which is, leave the recipe be. But not only did you take this drink to the next level by aging it in barrel, you unleashed 1 million bad cocktails on the world because everyone decided to f*cking age everything else in barrels.
J: I know.
T: Thank you very much.
J: Sorry. I know.
T: No, no.
J: You know when it hit for me? When I knew that I had made it, I went to the Bellagio years ago, the casino in Vegas.
T: I’m familiar.
J: They have a really fancy bar there, and went to the bar for an after-dinner drink with a friend of mine and sat down and a bartender came over. He was in a bow tie and a vest and the whole… It’s very elegant in there and he’s like, “What can I get you guys?” It’s after dinner, and I was like, “I would love a Negroni.” And he said, “Would you like a regular Negroni or our Barrel-Aged Negroni?” And she’s kicking me under the bar stool and I’m giving her the look like, “Don’t. Just don’t f*cking say anything.” Right. Just zip it. And I’m like, “Well, let’s get one of each. Let’s try them out.” So then, I get up and go to the bathroom and the bathrooms in Vegas bars are always two blocks away, right. So I’m gone for a while and I come back and she has told… She’s just buzzed enough after dinner that she says to the bartender, “He, my friend, invented the Barrel-Aged Negroni.” And you know what the bartender said to her?
T: What’s that?
J: He said, “No, he didn’t.” I was like, “Oh, that’s how you know it’s a real thing.” Nobody would ever believe that the person sitting at the bar was the guy who came up with that stupid idea. It’s like, “Oh, this is just a thing that’s been around for a thousand years.”
T: That’s so insane. Can I share a personal Barrel-Aged Negroni anecdote with you as well?
J: Yeah, please.
T: Apart from my own f*cking terrible pandemic experiments that are just in the back of my fridge… Well, I guess, we’ll get into that. But I was at a World’s Top 50 Bar in Madrid. And I was going through the cocktails. “Okay. First of all, I’d like to try your Martini and then we’ll go through some other proprietary stuff.” And then I’m like, “Oh, I’m going out for dinner after this. So one more before dinner. What do you have that’s special?” And they were like, “Boy, do we have something special for you today.” And he goes, “Let me go get something.” Five minutes later, I’m like, “Where has the guy gone?”
J: This must be really special.
T: And he comes out and he’s got this almost jewel-encrusted, silver hip flask. It’s in the larger version of the kind of thing, the ramekin that you have crushed ice and have your sidecar in. He’s like, “This cocktail right here took three months to prepare and just a couple of minutes to serve.” And he poured half of the thing into a glass of ice. And I was like, “This is a Barrel-Aged Negroni. Just so that we’re all on the same page here.” And he was like, “Yes.” And it was like the most majestic thing in the world. And this was summer 2019. We’re not talking a long, long time ago. I don’t know. I don’t mean to throw shade, sorry, but I’m just like, “This thing has status cachet around the world.”
J: It’s crazy.
T: So how did you come up with it? And also, what is the key to perfecting that drink itself? Because that variation on the drink… Because, like I said, I made one over the pandemic and it was terrible.
J: Yeah. You got to have good barrels, right, and I think the key to it was, we always used whiskey barrels and I think imparting that whiskey flavor, though… Because I’ve had Barrel-Aged Negronis that were in these mass-produced, tiny-
T: That was me.
J: Yeah. And those barrels are gross. They don’t taste good.
T: They’re so charred. They’re so green.
J: Oh, they’re so green. They’re so yucky. We would either get smaller whiskey barrels from Tuttletown or we would make them ourselves. We had a guy who was a regular, who was a barrel importer in wine country here and he would give us French oak barrels, 20-liter French oak barrels.
J: We would put them in with whiskey and then age them in there, so it really… Now you’re starting to talk about imparting beautiful oak notes and vanilla and the whiskey note, the whole thing. You’re oxidizing the vermouth slightly. But you just can’t throw wood at something and think that that is going to make it good. Not all wood tastes delicious.
T: No, no. And especially not when you’re buying it online from a dodgy website.
T: And it’s new and they’re like, “What you need to do with this barrel is, for the first five days or something, you need to keep it filled with water.” And then when you rinse it out, it’s just char. So yeah. There you go.
J: That’s interesting. Yeah, yeah.
T: Yeah. But the barrel-
J: I’m so honored and grateful that that drink really took off in the way that it did. I know it’s become something of a joke now, which is what happens to drinks eventually.
T: But that’s how you know you made it, actually, properly.
J: Yeah, totally.
T: You know what I mean?
T: Not being taken too seriously forever.
T: Not that I’m doing anything against this because I should point out that the barrel-aged iteration of this drink is absolutely wonderful in the right hands. It’s a phenomenal cocktail.
J: Well, I think that’s… Sorry. Excuse me. I think that’s why it became so popular. The one that we did at Clyde was gorgeous. It was absolutely stunning. And so, yeah. In the right hands, it’s an amazing drink and in the wrong hands, it’s a total f*cking joke.
T: And it’s just understanding the tools that you’re working with there. It makes sense as well, the whiskey aspect of those barrels because we know Boulevardier is a cocktail. It’s absolutely delicious.
T: So we know the formula works. So let’s just add a little bit of that influence in there and, like you say, a bit more oxidation. I do believe that one I had in Spain… It was a good version of the drink, by the way. It wasn’t a bad one. I was just surprised by the fanfare, but I think there were some, probably amontillado barrels or something involved in it too. They were doing it right.
J: Sounds beautiful. Yeah. I’ve just always liked… Like we were saying, there isn’t much groundbreaking stuff that you’re going to do to this drink with the gin or the vermouth, or even the Campari. So it’s like, “What’s left?” Right. It’s the preparation that’s left and that’s why we did slushy Negronis. During the pandemic, I put out a recipe for Negroni sorbet, a sorbetto that you can do in an ice cream maker at home that’s more of a dessert than a cocktail. I did a whole tour with Campari in Germany years ago with Mauro Mahjoub, who literally wrote the book on Negronis, and we did our versions of Negronis all over Germany, and I did a blended one. I showed up in all these really fancy cocktail bars all over Germany with a stick blender and a bunch of orange juice and I made blended Negronis for all these unsuspecting guests who’d come to watch me do something very, very fancy, but it was summer. It was the perfect drink. And 80 percent of the people got it and 20 percent of the people thought that I was a f*cking idiot. And I think maybe they’re both right.
T: Speaking of which, did you come across this trend during the pandemic as well? Good friend of mine, a friend of the show, VinePair writer, Aaron Goldfarb, wrote about it for our site: the Togroni.
J: No, what’s that?
T: So there’s a guy, I believe he was in New England. I should have researched this or reminded myself of this before the show, but it just came into my mind when you were talking about those little variations there. He was buying airport miniatures or the travel-size bottles of each of the components. It was Carpano, for sure, Campari, and I forget what the gin was, and he was taping them together and then doing videos on his Instagram of, basically, just dumping them all together at once into the glass, and that’s the Tegroni.
T: You know?
How to Make Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Negroni
T: When the moon hits your eye. So let’s talk about the preparation briefly here, of the classic version. If you are, you know, a gun to your head, this is the last one that I’m making. I want it to be perfect. Can you outline that preparation for us from start to finish here, including your preferred ingredients that you’re calling for there and those specs.
J: I go at ounce of Beefeater, ounce of Campari, ounce of Cinzano, stirred over fresh ice, not a big cube because I think that’s a dumb way to drink a Negroni. I think that you want some delusion, you want it. Also, Dale DeGroff said about those big cubes, you want to have a little… I don’t know if this was the right word, but this is the word Dale used. A little tinkle in the glass.
T: I’m on board.
J: But you definitely want the sound of the ice cubes. I don’t know if having a tinkle in a glass is really the right term.
T: When Dale says it, he gets a pass. It sounds good.
J: But yeah. You want to hear the ice cubes clinking together. And you know what I like? At work, I always garnish our Negronis with an orange twist, but you know what I like? I like a wedge.
T: Oh, okay.
J: Because you know what you can do with the wedge? You can squeeze some of that orange juice in it.
J: And a Negroni with orange juice is not bad, ever.
T: We are very familiar with the fact that Campari plays well with orange juice. This has been established, right?
J: It’s literally made from oranges. It would be weird if it didn’t work with orange juice.
T: Yep. So yeah. Grows together.
J: Grows together, goes together.
T: Exactly. And for this one, you’re opting for, I’m assuming, a chilled glass. We’re going for perfection here. Do you have a preferred little rocks glass?
J: Keep your glass in the freezer where it belongs.
T: Me too. That’s good. Any other thoughts here on the Negroni itself or just anything you’d like to get off your chest? I guess, just any other takes while we’re at it before we head into the final section of the show.
J: What if I just launched into a tirade of beefs? A bunch of stuff that I wanted to get off my chest that had nothing to do with the Negroni.
T: We’re good for two or three. What have you got?
J: 25 minutes later, I’m like, “Here’s another thing. I don’t like paper straws. All right? There. I said it.”
T: Maybe I don’t want to drink my drink out of a piece of pasta. I don’t know.
J: Yeah. No.
T: The straws are weird.
J: The straws are terrible, but, apparently, you’re just a horrible human being if you… Do you want a story? You want a quick story?
J: Nothing to do with the Negroni.
T: Perfect. 95 percent of the rest of the episode.
J: Yeah. I was working this event at a bar. It was a party, a guest-bartending thing. I was setting up my station and I said to the bartender, “Hey, where are your straws so I can straw-taste the drinks?” And she said, “Oh, we don’t use plastic straws. We don’t even use paper straws. We’re super committed to being as zero waste as possible here. So we use these metal straws.” So she hands me a bunch of metal straws and she’s like, “When you’re done, just take it and put it in the sanitizer bucket down here, and then we’ll wash them in the dishwasher, and again, yeah, no straws because we’re trying to be zero waste.” I was like, “Okay. I don’t see any guns. What do you do for soda water here?” She was like, “Oh, we’ve got these tiny little bottles of soda water in the fridge.” And I was like, “Great. Okay.” So I grab one, it was hot and I drank it. And I was like, looking around, I go, “Where’s the… Sorry. Where’s the recycling bin?” And she was like, “Oh, yeah. They don’t have recycling here, so we just throw it in the trash.” Well, those 6 ounces of straws are really going to make a difference when you’re throwing 300 pounds of glass in the landfill every day.
Getting To Know Jeffrey Morgenthaler
T: We’re about to head into our final section of the show.
T: What’s the most expensive hamburger you’ve ever eaten?
J: Oh, sh*t. Here’s the thing about the most expensive hamburger anybody’s ever eaten. You don’t remember anything about it, but the price, right. You don’t-
J: It’s never the best burger you’ve ever had, ever. So I’m sure I’ve had some $28 to $30 hamburgers and I have no recollection of them because I’m sure they were all just fine.
T: Yeah. 100 percent. Like Negroni. The hamburger is the Negroni of the food world, I think.
J: Stop f*cking with it, right?
T: Exactly. Exactly.
T: Serve it with fries, not these potato chips. Anyway, we digress.
J: Serve with fries. Yeah.
T: I have feelings. We’ll share them at another time because now isn’t the time.
J: On your burger podcast?
T: Yeah. Absolutely. This is the section of the show, of course, where we get to know you more as a drinker and a bartender with our five weekly recurring questions. We’re going to kick it off here and we’re going to kick it off with question number one, which is, what style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your backbar?
J: The current backbar, it’s hard to say because that’s still in flux, but at Clyde Common, we had, I don’t know, 200 different American whiskeys and I’m sure this bar… It’s still the spirit that we get asked about the most, so I’m sure it’ll be American whiskey or tequila, but probably American whiskey.
T: Yeah. It’s a solid one and also, it’s a category that benefits from having a number of different styles within it too, right. I feel like that’s sometimes unfair, but amazing things are happening in that category right now. Question number two, which ingredient or tool do you believe to be the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
J: Ooh. A wine key. A really good wine key.
T: For bartenders.
J: Yeah, for sure.
T: Not that I’m questioning you. I’m prompting you. Tell me what bartenders are doing. Opening a lot of wine, I’m assuming. Just wondering if you’ve got any other hacks with it.
J: A lot of wine, a lot of beer bottles. I kind of use mine as a multi-tool when you can’t get a pour spout out properly.
J: You need to finagle it with the wine key. I also use the knife on the wine key to break down cardboard boxes, which is probably something that I’ve done most of in my career.
J: Over the past 26 years I have broken down cardboard boxes. Yeah. And you asked what the most undervalued and I think that’s one that’s most undervalued. I think a lot of people just go with the free one from the liquor store.
J: From the wine rep.
J: Invest. Yeah. Mine is a $35 wine key. It’s really, really expensive for wine keys because usually, like I said, they’re free and I never let it out of my sight when somebody wants to borrow it. I just stand there and wait for them to hand it back.
T: It’s like a lighter if you’re of that persuasion.
J: Yeah. Totally.
T: Or a Sharpie. Two things you never let go.
J: Exactly. That’s another undervalued tool. It’s a Sharpie.
T: Yeah. No one’s ever bought a lighter in their life. They just exist.
J: No, you just steal it.
T: You just steal. They’re just passed on. I’ve never finished a lighter. I’ve never bought one. They just float.
J: I don’t even know how much they cost. Are they a dollar or are they $10?
T: And that’s why you, sir, can’t run for office because it’s up there with a pint of milk and a loaf of bread, which is the thing you need to know as the down-to-earth person.
J: Yeah. I can’t relate to the common man who’s apparently buying a bunch of lighters.
T: Question number three. What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
J: Get some comfortable shoes.
T: Do you have a recommendation?
J: I’m a Dansko guy.
T: Dansko? This is one I’m not familiar with.
J: Oh, yeah. It’s a Danish clog. It’s a kitchen clog.
T: It’s the Danish… more similar to a Birkenstock or more similar to a Croc?
J: It’s got a tall heel. They’re really clunky. They’re super comfortable.
T: Are they wooden heel?
J: Heel back. Huh?
T: Are they wooden healed? Kind of?
J: Kind of. Yeah. They’re chunky and hard. They’re not necessarily made out of wood. I think they do have some versions that are made out of wood, but yeah. It’s really the best shoe that I’ve ever worn. I’ve been wearing them for 20-plus years now.
J: Exclusively. Yeah.
T: Question number four. If you could only visit one last bar in your life, past or present, real or fictional, what would it be?
J: Oh, wow. God. I’ve been to so many of the ones that… I’ve always wanted to cross off the list, right. I’ve been to the secret bar at Disneyland a bunch of times.
J: Yeah. Oh, boy. That’s a tough one. I guess I would probably… You know what I would like to do? Actually, here’s what I would like to do. Here’s the bar that I would like to visit one last time and I really want to go there because it doesn’t exist. I wish that I could go back to the bar that I started tending bar in.
T: That would be awesome. Tell us about that.
J: Yeah. It was a really old bar. It was a neighborhood bar. It was a wonderful bar. It was a beautiful bar. It’d been around since 1933 and the owner just ran it into the ground and then there was a fire and it just doesn’t exist anymore in any sort of real way. And I wish I could go back. I wish I could just time-machine and go back and sit at my own bar and just watch myself flopping around like a trout on a dock back there. He’s 24 years old just getting his ass kicked, just not doing anything right and I wish I could just kind of sneak in and grab a beer and sneak out. That would be cool.
T: And you go there, to the other side of yourself, you’re saying, “Son. Stick at it. One day you’re going to come up with a barrel-aged-”
J: No. I would be like, “Go change your major, get a business degree, get the f*ck out of here. Make some money.”
T: Very, very nice. Did we skip a question? “What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received in this industry?” Did we ask that?
J: Comfortable shoes.
T: Oh, comfortable shoes. All right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Scratch this. Continuity error. I just had a… I had a moment there where I was like, “Wait. You said you were giving yourself advice.” You were jumping back in. Very nice. Final question.
T: Final question today. “If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?”
J: Going to be my last, how? I’m in the front of a firing squad or just… How does this one end?
T: It’s open to interpretation. It’s your last drink on Earth. You may or may not be aware of it. I’m going to say you’re aware of it.
J: Oh. I would have my girlfriend make me a Manhattan because she always makes some delicious Manhattans. We rarely drink cocktails, but every once in a while, after a particularly hard day, if she’s in charge of making dinner, she’ll make a Manhattan. This has only happened a handful of times, but she’ll make a Manhattan.
J: And it’s always the best Manhattan I’ve ever had.
T: That’s all you can ask for.
J: And she’s not a bartender. She just makes it like a person, which is great. So much better.
T: She’s not going, “I like this Negroni, but I want you to dial back on the Campari just by a quarter-ounce.”
J: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Exactly. She’s not overthinking this Manhattan. She’s just grabbing whatever whiskey she has and some vermouth and some bitters and-
T: And she’s like, “Hey, I ran out of sweet vermouth, so I went with Coca-Cola. What do you know?”
J: Totally perfect. Perfect. And that’s when I tell her that’s, actually, how the Manhattan was invented.
T: Sure was. There you go. We like to bring it back full circle. Jeffrey Morgenthaler.
J: With sweet vermouth.
T: The first of many, I’m hoping. We’re going to have you back for a different one. We know that.
J: Bring me. Bring me on. I’m ready.
T: Tag me in, chief.
J: Right. Tag me in, coach.
T: Tag me in, coach. Let me say that again. Tag me in, coach. No, thanks again for joining us. It’s been a blast. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful one. Let’s go make some Negronis.
J: Sounds great.
J: Thanks, buddy.
Okay, that was a lot of info, but here’s the good news. Every single episode of VinePair’s Cocktail College is also published on VinePair.com as a transcript. So you can check it out there all over again.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.