August 12th, 2009

The Negroni and other safety drinks


The number of bars in Boston that make serious cocktails is increasing despite the Great Recession (right, Lord Hobo and Trina’s Starlight Lounge?), which makes our livers quiver with excitement. But the truth remains that the vast majority of bars out there aren’t up on this classical mixology thing. That’s the case even for some of the establishments we love, as well as for places whose enticing cocktail menus belie their lack of bartending talent.

Take Aquitaine in the South End. Nice-looking brasserie with an intimate little bar at the entrance. I was thrilled to see they had the Scofflaw — the Chartreuse version! — on their menu, so I ordered one. The bartender free-poured it (not something you want to do with a drink containing green Chartreuse), added a mere dash of lemon juice (one of the drink’s primary ingredients), and proceeded to … stir the mixture. Oh my.

When you find yourself craving a cocktail in a mixologically challenged establishment, you need to have in the back of your mind a safety drink or two. You know, a simple mixture that even the most minimally stocked bar or dimmest bartender can make (or be instructed to make). This is an easy decision for a lot of people — hello, gin and tonic! Little chance for error there. But, inexplicably, I’ve never liked gin (or vodka) and tonic. Not even a little bit. So here’s what I order:

Negroni. All bars have gin and sweet vermouth, and most have Campari, so this is an old reliable. Plus, ordering one immediately gives you an aura of mystery, because the Negroni is still considered exotic in most bars. I was once at Red Line in Harvard Square watching the cute, young things behind the stick crank out Oatmeal Cookie shots. I had to walk one of them through a Negroni, but she managed. I enjoyed my drink and bought another for the DJ. (MC Slim JB, I know you disagree with me on this one, but I have had surprisingly good luck getting a decent Negroni in all sorts of places.)

Gimlet. I rediscovered these when I had to make one while studying for the BarSmarts class. A good London dry gin, a splash of Rose’s Lime, and a lime wedge — it’s a surpisingly kick-ass drink! And any flunkie can throw it together … on the rocks, anyway. Oh, and ordering one makes you feel like you’re in a Raymond Chandler novel.

Lowball. I only like a splash of soda in my whiskey, so I order one of these instead of a highball. Before I could reliably find Maker’s Mark behind any bar, I’d order a “Jack Daniels on the rocks with a splash of soda and a twist.” Especially at hinterland weddings and those occasions when I find myself at a bar in Weirs Beach, NH, during Bike Week, this is my go-to drink.

CC Manhattan. Yes, Canadian Club. Rocks (always safer than straight up). Twist or cherry depending on my mood or lack of will to specify. A pretty satisfying drink, and you can order it absolutely anywhere. I especially like asking for these in bars near touristy summer spots where everyone’s drinking Bahama Mamas. It’s kind of like wearing wingtips on the beach.

I love to know what other people’s safety drinks are, so feel free to weigh in.

Permalink | Filed under Cocktails, Gin, Vermouth, Whiskey | Tags: , , , ,

31 Responses to “The Negroni and other safety drinks”

  1. john

    my safety ‘cocktail’ usually ends up being whiskey or a dark beer, especially after seeing one notable central square establishment stir my drink with a spare dinner knife.

    did you see robert simonson’s experience with a speed-poured negroni?

  2. MIss Amari

    I have to agree on the Negroni front, its a favourite of mine, and generally safe even if the Campari or sweet vermouth are getting a bit old having sat on the back bar for years. I generally find walking someone through a Martini easy enough, although I wouldn’t risk it somewhere remotely busy.
    Otherwise, I’ll stick to a Gin and Tonic (although once when I asked for a squeeze of lime I got lime cordial so I’m never trying that again), or a Dark and Stormy.

  3. ljclark

    I guess it would help if more bartenders actually *drank* Negronis and the like. Then they wouldn’t be so sloppy about making them. Wow, I guess you *can* screw up a G&T.

  4. sushiesque

    The key is to be very ready to rattle off “equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, please” when the bartender or waitstaff replies “We don’t have that.” (Do they think Negroni is a brand of beer?)

    Back when this was my only safety drink because it was the only mixed drink I liked, I designed business-card-sized recipe cards for this purpose, but I never actually used them:

  5. ljclark

    Wow, sushiesque, I think I’ll print a few of those beauties out and keep them in my purse.

  6. Tina S

    I’ve done the Negroni as a safety a few times with mixed results. Worst case, I love Campari and that will get me through sipping even the worst-mixed versions. Have had equally good and bad experience with the Manhattan… (you know you’re in trouble when you have to spell that one out). Though not technically a good “safety” drink, once I guided a bartender at 28 degrees through an Old Cuban, and it came out (surprisingly) really nicely. Others that I’ve kept in my back pocket: Dark ‘n Stormy (seconded), vodka gimlet (seconded), Tom Collins, Champagne cocktail, Jack + Coke. Always happy to order the occasional Caipirinha or margarita if they’re standards on the menu. Of course, there’s always Scotch, neat as a great fallback if I spot a bottle I like behind the bar.

  7. Ryan

    I usually go with gimlets or ask if the bartender has a drink he/she likes making if I trust the establishment enough, but here’s a horror story involving screwing up G&T’s; A bartender friend of mine was training a new hire who served but never worked behind the bar before. I watched the rookie take a customer’s order then turn to my friend and ask audibly, “gin and tonic… does that get ice?” AAAAHHHHHHHH!

  8. Jonathan

    Safetywise – I typically go for a Sidecar – so long as they don’t use “Sour Mix” – otherwise I think the best call is to get a glass of champagne/alternative sparkling wine — that having been said I have found some places serving pineau des charentes – which is a killer aperitif

  9. David

    My safety drinks depend on the bar and the extent to which I can trust the vermouth to be reasonably fresh and the soda etc from the gun to be actually fizzy. In worst-case scenarios, if not whatever beer looks good or a lightly iced whiskey, I’ll take a gin on ice with a lime, lemon, or olive. It’s almost impossible for even the worst bartender at the worst bar to mess up (unless they give you the fruit with the hepatitis on it). It works well when I don’t want the volume of a beer or the sweetness of a whiskey. If I see or sense that the soda may have enough fizz, I’ll take a Campari and soda, or if they have it, Fernet Branca and soda.

  10. ljclark

    Campari & soda, check. Margarita, check. Sparkling wine, check. Fernet & soda … never thought of that! Although I’ve found that if a bar stocks Fernet, chances are there’s a halfway decent bartender on the premises to begin with. Oooh, another safety drink I have occasionally ordered: Myer’s rum and pineapple juice on ice. The beauty of it is that the juice is usually fresh because a lot of bars use those little single-serving cans.

  11. David

    ljclark: Good call on the pineapple. I think your analysis re Fernet-equals-halfway-decent-bar is mostly correct. I’ve found that at least in San Francisco, nearly every cocktail-challenged/busted place, serious no-hipster dive, carries Fernet. It’s a thing out there I guess. If I’m feeling bold, I’ll ask for a dash of Campari in my Fernet and soda, for extra wicked deliciousness… Shoot, I’ll even order one of those in the precious cocktail lounges of New York, but that brings me off topic here.

  12. Snhowe

    My advice is simple: When in doubt, don’t order a drink. Order a beer. In a bottle.

    Also, never order the scampi at I-Hop. You’re just going to be miserable.

  13. Nishla

    After a few disasters with drinks I thought were safety drinks, I now stick to beer or wine. I’m shocked by how many bartenders don’t seem to understand English. One “negroni” came with citrus pulp, and one with dry vermouth (AFTER my friend gave instructions). More recently, my husband and I were at a wedding, where they had some pretty good whiskeys. I asked for “two parts whiskey, one part sweet vermouth” (usually they approximate, which is fine) and got a giant free-pour of whiskey and a capful of vermouth. I warned Keith that the bartender was pretty clueless so he went one easier–“equal parts gin and dry vermouth.” He got a giant free-pour of gin and a capful of vermouth 🙂

  14. MC Slim JB

    I have drunk enough misbegotten Negronis now to fairly accurately predict the outcome based on the bartender’s initial reaction when I place my order:

    1) The Not-a-Ripple: Success! This bartender knows how to make the drink without thinking, likely has tasted a good one, may bristle a little if I try to explain or specify further; after all, what kind of jackass doesn’t know how to make a proper Negroni? It will be properly bedecked with an orange twist (not a wedge or half-wheel of orange or lemon or lime).

    2) The Furrowed Brow of Consternation: Also good news! This bartender has no idea of how to make a Negroni, and so will ask me how and make it to my exact 1:1:1 specification. Usually an excellent drink.

    3) The Pause and Half-Nod: Uh-oh. This bartender has a vague idea of how to make the drink, but not really. Even if I specify “1:1:1”, it’s going into his/her mental categorization as “martini-like”, meaning it will be 95% gin with a drizzle of the other two key ingredients, plus maybe some seltzer, OJ, and an entire orange wheel. It will be faintly pink and thoroughly dreadful. With extremely bad luck, it will contain vodka and/or cherry juice (as happened to me recently).

    Unfortunately, over 50% of bartenders in untested establishments fall into Category 3. Safety drink? Ha! More like Lottery Drink! (But it is sweet when I get a proper one.)

  15. MC Slim JB

    Oh, and my safety drink at dubious wedding-reception bars and the like is Jack, bourbon, or Canadian whisky and soda, especially if the red wine reminds me of flying coach, domestic.

  16. Jill

    You guys are brave. Sometimes I am scared to be the lady who wants a crazy thing, so I go Powers. And a High Life. And a seltzer.

  17. sushiesque

    MC Slim JB, I’ve experienced a variety of Scenario No.3 that included a lime wheel (mental categorization: “cosmo-like”).

  18. Nishla

    Oh! I forgot to mention that even going for straight bourbon sometimes doesn’t work! We were at a bar in NY that was clearly not a place to order anything requiring mixing, so a friend asked for an American whiskey/bourbon. The bartender looked confused, then said, “we have B&B?”

    By the way, I love the picture that goes with this post.

  19. ljclark

    Snhowe and Jill, you two oughta get together. At T.C.’s Lounge, maybe. Jeez, the Negroni ignorance out there is staggering, isn’t it? Nishla, please, you’re making this stuff up!

  20. Patrick

    Whenever I attend a “ziti, chicken and broccoli” function in the burbs, my safety drink is Bacardi and coke.

  21. john gertsen

    If I spy a bottle of Angostura Bitters, it’s probably gonna be a pink gin for me.

  22. Stone

    A pink gin for me too – a real drink that’s almost impossible to screw up.

  23. DougP

    I, too, have suffered the misfortune of being served a “Negroni” in Martini-like proportions (even after specifying “equal”). I guess a shot of gin with splashes of Campari & Vermouth isn’t an awful thing, but it’s no Negroni …

  24. Scott

    Well, living in a town in northern Finland means that I’ve adjusted my expectations of the local barkeep’s skills accordingly. That said, I never expected that ordering a ‘safe’ drink of a dry martini would result in a glass full of Martini dry vermouth. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

    //currently in search of a safety drink

  25. Arnold

    I think that might be convention and not skill on the part of the barkeep (though obviously I can’t comment on whether he/she’s got game or not…).

    A colleague at work here in Cambridge who is from the Iberian peninsula ordered a martini when we went out for drinks.

    Luckily we talked about her expectation before the bartender started making the drink because she meant only chilled Martini Vermouth (sweet in this case) and not a beverage with gin or vodka.

  26. Shane Curcuru

    Hope it’s not after last call yet… Just discovered how interesting the comment threads are here on drinkboston!

    I vote for the gimlet, since it seems like the least likely to get messed up. I suppose the lime juice can be a bad mix.

    I may be showing my lack of taste in finding “good” bars here, but how many times have people ordered a normal gin drink “with a twist of lime” and gotten a lime wedge? In restaurants, it’s nearly universal that they mess this one up; a fair number of bars – where I’m standing RIGHT THERE – get it wrong too. I must not be going to the right places, huh?

  27. ljclark

    It’s never last call at drinkboston, Shane! Do you mean that you’re asking for just the skin of a lime to be twisted over a drink? It’s true that, unlike a twist of lemon, only in the rarest cases will a twist of lime actually consist of only the lime peel, rather than a wedge. I’m guessing that’s because very few drinks call for a lime twist, and also because limes are notoriously inconsistent in size, juiciness and oiliness of the peel. In other words, the skin on a lot of the limes you find in bars would not be worth twisting into a drink.

  28. laura

    i go with a side car or gin & tonic or a beer

  29. Randy

    Water’s always safe. Or a ti punch.

  30. fionadaisy

    Campari and Soda, almost always. Or an Old Fashioned because it tastes pretty good even if it’s not perfect.

  31. chris

    I never fall back on drinks with soda or tonic – in the kind of place where a safety drink is required, they will only have a gun. Sickly sweet, syrupy gack is no way to treat gin and ice. If I can’t get something decent, it’s either beer (bottled or one or the high-turnaround tap ones) or a scotch, rocks.

    Or back away slowly, turn, and run like hell.

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