The Negroni: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated
But I love what we’re getting instead
Even though it's made of three alcoholic ingredients, gin, Campari and vermouth, the Negroni seems to be a popular cocktail to try to imitate in a nonalcoholic context. Seedlip founder Ben Branson debuted the bottled NOgroni in the U.K. a few years ago, and while it has yet to be sold here, I saw versions of No-groni and Faux-groni on restaurant menus across the U.S. during my research trip for Good Drinks. A quick Google search for "nonalcoholic Negroni" brings up...quite a lot.
Cocktail writer Camper English (check out his running tally of alcohol-free spirits) agrees that the Negroni is one of the most popular nonalcoholic cocktails and that, "as soon as Seedlip took off, we saw imitations of both Campari and Negronis shortly thereafter." Could that be because it's such a challenge? Or perhaps because the name is easy to manipulate? English has another theory: “I think that Campari was easier to make a nonalcoholic version of than we might expect, and given that its flavor dominates the Negroni, it doesn't rely on the other faux-alcoholic ingredients as heavily as say a G&T or Old Fashioned,” he told me. “Basically, liqueurs are easier to fake and, in the case of the Negroni, the liqueur dominates the flavor profile.” This feels right to me.
Last month, brothers Louie and Matt Catizone and Steven DeAngelo, owners of Italian-inspired spirits brand St. Agrestis, launched the Phony Negroni, their first alcohol-free product. Created as the nonalcoholic version of the acclaimed ready-to-drink St. Agrestis Negroni, it’s composed of dozens of botanicals including gentian, seven types of citrus, hibiscus, and the same wild Italian juniper that goes into DeAngelo’s Greenhook Ginsmiths gin, which shares production space with St. Agrestis in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
“Everything we do here is an attempt to balance bitter and sweet, and we wanted this to have a proper bitter backbone,” Louie told me when I toured the distillery a few weeks ago. The bitterness is there, thanks to gentian and “a number of other bittering agents,” but, as FloFab writes, it’s still “a trifle sweet.” Pleasant! But sweet. Writer Brad Thomas Parsons put this product, with its semi-sparkling frizzante carbonation, in the bitter soda category, and I think that’s appropriate. "This is the closest American expression of a classic Italian bitter soda," said Punch editor-in-chief Talia Baiocchi in Parsons’ piece. So, it’s not really a nonalcoholic Negroni in my opinion, but it is an excellent bitter soda, well worth the $60 per case, and I love that we’re seeing more bitter sodas being produced in the States.
Louie says that he’s considering developing other nonalcoholic Italian-inspired beverages, and I’m here for it! Find a little more from my conversation with the Catizone brothers below.
They think of their process like brewing tea: “We thought, ‘Tea doesn't have alcohol. Tea is herbs and water and, in some cases, sugar. Let's think about making this Phony Negroni as though we were making tea.’”
Each botanical is treated uniquely: “Every single herb that we work with has a different level of permeability, considering density, oil content, and other factors, and that permeability is going to impact the flavors being removed from it. Certain things, like juniper, want heat. Others don’t. So, we have tanks that we can heat up and use to extract flavor at different temperatures, and we also have this one-of-a-kind copper pot still built in Bavaria with an eighteenth century perfume technique in mind, and we also have a way to do solid, or dry, extraction.”
At the end of the day, most of it is New York City water: “Just about everything is water-based. This has good old NYC H2O, cane sugar and allulose for sweetener, and ascorbic and citric acid to help with acidity and preservation. It's funny, someone the other day said, ‘Water's super shelf-stable.’ And I was like, ‘In what world?’ If you leave a glass of water out in this factory, a very clean environment, for 24 hours and then test the bacteria levels, it will be loaded with bacteria.”
Speaking of stability: “When you have alcohol as a stabilizer—a protector against bacteria—it's terrifying to not have it! We sent many, many samples [of the Phony Negroni] out for study, and we have a really low pH, so it's a very stable product. It's not pasteurized, just stable. And we made ready-to-drinks so that [a consumer] only opens it once; we don’t have to be worried about the risks involved in a bottle sitting on a back bar for three months.”