Nick Morgan has a bone to pick with bartenders. He’s noticed a worrying trend to put so much ice in cocktails that it’s impossible to drink them. So for 2022, he has one request: ‘please, don’t over-ice my Negroni’.
Reflecting on the past 12 months (which we are all encouraged to do at this transitory time of year), I have had cause to wonder about a rather different pandemic that has blighted almost every lunch I ate out from that time in the spring of 2021 when we were first allowed to venture out of our houses. Blinking like a dormouse emerging from a lengthy hibernation, I scuttled into the heart of the city that was once London. From St John to the Savoy Grill, and from the French House to the Argentine Sucre, even in my club in Soho, no bartender seemed immune to this infection. And I soon discovered this wasn’t only a metropolitan crisis. Even the best Italian restaurant in Auld Reekie (that’s the tiny one opposite Haymarket Station if you’re interested) fell victim to the contagion.
Too much ice, sir?
Looking at this through the forensic lens that a trained epidemiologist might use, I can see that this particular plague was already with us several years before we retreated to our homes to escape the most recent one. I recall a truly sensational lunch in the Clove Club in 2017 when I mentioned to our very attentive server that there had possibly been too much ice in the Negronis. He reacted as if stung by the cruellest of barbs.
In case you are in any doubt I refer to that vile phenomena, the over-iced Negroni. By over-iced, by the way, I don’t mean just too cold or over-chilled. I mean when one’s Negroni is served in a rocks glass filled with so much ice that it becomes a physical impediment to consumption. So much ice that it protrudes from the glass like a wayward berg in the ocean, waiting to trap some hapless passenger liner. So much ice that merely raising the glass to your lips can risk removing an eye, or the embarrassment of an ice shard performing a lateral flow test up both nostrils. Do any bars or restaurants, I wonder, risk assess their Negronis? They certainly should. If there is a risk of a patron losing an organ or suffering life-changing injuries, then that is simply too much ice.
Enough of these so-called experts
In the same way that people can create a social media account and instantly become whisky experts, or heaven help us, ‘whisky influencers’, so they can also step behind the bar of a fashionable restaurant and overnight become gods, or even gurus, whose commandments are not to be challenged. It matters not how imbecilic the serving suggestions may be – blue cheese-stuffed olives in a Martini anyone?
But so much ice in a glass of Negroni? Just what are they thinking of? Certainly not the simple ergonomics of drinking, not the laws of physics that dictate what will happen to all that ice once the glass is lifted and angled towards the lips. They’re certainly not thinking of the customer, who for all the highfalutin pontifications that we hear from behind the bar, is actually the most important person in the room. If there is so much slow-thawing ice in the glass that it’s impossible to drain your drink before the appetisers appear along with a nice bottle of Burgundy, well, it’s just as bad as being served a short measure.
What does Wondrich think?
Perhaps unsurprisingly I thought I should take a look at some of the history of the Negroni and its relationship with ice. Given that cocktails are the victims of even more bad history than whisky (you might not have thought this possible, but it actually gets worse with every cocktail book that’s published) I first checked my contributor’s copy of the newly published, and rather definitive, Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, to read what Dave Wondrich had to say on the subject. As one might expect Wondrich, despite a few alarming ‘probablys’ and ‘possiblys’ tells a good story of the evolution of the drink, and particularly it’s halcyon days post Second World War.
But whilst Wondrich tells us that the drink is ‘usually served with ice’, he insists in his recipe that the drink is to be mixed in an ‘ice-filled’ Old Fashioned glass, as does, for the record, the late Gary Regan in The Joy of Mixology. Pre-filling a glass with ice, Difford’s Guide to Cocktails helpfully reminds us, makes the drink colder, and reduces dilution. At this point one might want to hunt for the ever-elusive expert on historic weights and measures to deliberate on exactly how much ice goes into an ‘ice-filled’ glass.
Style over substance
So, is it heresy to ask for less ice? Do we drink for pleasure, or do we really have to be subjugated to this modern tyranny, this overbearing sickness of style over substance?
Is it heresy to ask for what you want, rather than be intimidated into accepting what you are given (as sadly happens far too often in cocktail bars)? To ask for a drink that is still cool, but that can be comfortably enjoyed in the hand without risk of first degree facial lacerations and possible humiliation? To ask for a Negroni is to ask for a drink that speaks loudly of its unique individual parts, not flavours overwhelmed and hidden by ice. The Negroni is an unbeatable lunchtime aperitif (sorry sherry lovers), and it is intended to be drunk and enjoyed relatively quickly before food service commences.
The good old days
I have heard dissident whisperings in dark corners of London’s finest cocktail bars that in ‘the good old days’ Negronis were never served with as much ice as has become the accepted practice de jour. It could of course just be a British thing – we never were that good with ice in the past. Remember the classic pub Gin & Tonic in a wine glass with a solitary small lump of ice?
References to Negroni recipes in post-war British newspapers are far and few between, but you will find Hugh Johnson recommending serving his Negroni with crushed ice in The Sunday Times Magazine 1964; Jeremy Lee recommends ‘four or five’ cubes of ice in The Guardian in 1999. Until these ice-rich recent times I would have to suggest that ice-filled Old Fashioned glasses were a trans-Atlantic phantasmas.
Don’t over-ice my Negroni
Indeed, enthusiasts for using old (and increasingly expensive) ingredients in their Negronis (where the Campari, for example, will look and taste totally different from today’s version) tell me they would never dream of killing these complex flavours with ice. As anyone who’s ever enjoyed a free-pour Negroni chez drinks legend Charlie Maclean will know, there’s rarely any ice used in his serve (although that’s possibly because Charlie forgot to buy any – again). Just to repeat, the simple perfection of the Negroni is a perfection of flavour. That is what the drink is all about. Chilled gin, vermouth and Campari, a handful of ice cubes, but never a glass filled to the brim with over-large dangerously jagged chunks. It’s a new orthodoxy that the drink just doesn’t deserve.
So as we enter a new year with the hope of eventually being unburdened from the oppressions of one pandemic, let’s not allow ourselves to be oppressed by another as we all seek to enjoy the best that our hospitality industry can offer. Here I stand with my new-year Negroni manifesto: bar tenders shouldn’t be slaves to their ice machines, shouldn’t think that the fact that they can use fistfuls of ice means that they have to use fistfuls of ice, they should think about those appetising flavours, and they should think about the physical act of consuming a Negroni when they load each glass, and ask themselves how the drinking will be done in practice. Most controversially, does it need ice at all? Let’s make 2022 the year of long Negroni-fuelled luncheons, and dear bar people, just go easy on the ice.