What's behind the renaissance of the 97-year-old cocktail.

By John Kell
June 10, 2016

If you haven’t already tried a Negroni cocktail this week, you are missing out on a big trend in the bar scene. The 97-year-old cocktail is enjoying a renaissance of sorts as Americans discover “classic” drinks, including “sibling” beverages like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned.

In the case of the Negroni, some savvy marketing is in play. This week, over 6,000 bars globally are participating in a charity/marketing event known as “Negroni Week.” Most alcoholic beverage categories celebrate a “national” holiday one day a year, including holidays for beer, tequila and gin. But the Negroni is a bit greedier with our palates, with a fundraising effort running through June 12 this year.

What is the Negroni? It is a cocktail that is an equal mix of apéritif Campari, gin and sweet vermouth. Italian bitters and an orange twist are also often added to the drink.

The cocktail’s increasingly popularity has led to a big sales boost for the spirits that are the base of the drink. U.S. case volume of Campari, which was stuck at roughly 50,000 nine-liter cases for decades, accelerated to around 100,000 annually in the past five years. The corporate owner of the brand, also called Campari, says the beverage’s sales jumped 14% in June 2015 and grew 17% the prior June. But Campari is becoming popular throughout the entire year – not just for the marketing push around “Negroni Week.” Sales were up in the double digits last year in the U.S., while overall, the company’s total spirits portfolio posted a more modest 3.7% increase.

Called the "Kingston Negroni," this version of the drink is available at New York's Pouring Ribbons and used rum instead of gin.
Courtesy of M Booth

Though the Negroni was first conceptualized in Florence in 1919, the world can thank Americans for its introduction. The inventor – Count Camillo Negroni – came up with the drink in response to a watered-down alcoholic beverage that was being ordered by American tourists in Italy. He deemed their favored cocktail (which contained soda water) as wimpy, and thus wanted to come up with a cocktail that packed a more bitter punch.

Until recently, it was mostly bartenders and cocktail aficionados that were willing to try the bitter-tasting Negroni. But Italian-based Campari, which also owns the Wild Turkey bourbon and SKYY vodka brands, realized it had a natural advantage when it came to the Negroni.

“We realized it’s a unique drink because there are very few cocktails that requires a specific brand of spirit in them,” Dave Karraker, vice president of marketing for Campari, told Fortune. He adds that other popular drinks, including the Manhattan, a martini or margarita, can use any spirit brand as a base. But the Negroni requires Campari – a specific spirit. And that’s a key marketing opportunity.

Those promotions go beyond convincing thousands of bars and restaurants to promote the drink. There’s a Negroni playlist on Pandora p , and Negroni gum drops, ice cream, and frozen variations of the drink. “Bitter is definitely a taste that Americans are loving these days and Campari fits the bill for that palate,” says Pamela Wiznitzer, a New York-based bartender/mixologist.

 

The Summer Negroni, created by Julie Reiner, uses strawberry-infused Campari.
Virginia Rollison Virginia Rollison

Karraker gives some credit to Starbucks sbux , saying the company’s bitter coffee blends have helped evolve Americans’ taste buds to embrace that flavor. He says today, bartenders can add bitter-flavored cocktails on pretty much any menu in U.S. and they would find an audience interested in the drink. Trendy cocktail bars and the influential mixologists that come up with the drink menus for those restaurants are also a driving force that propelled the Negroni and other historic cocktails.

“Adult consumers have been gravitating toward the timeless drinks of their grandparents, such as the gin martini,” said Kelley McDonough, director of public relations for the Distilled Spirits Council. “The biggest difference is that mixologists are adding their own special flair to these classic recipes, giving their customers a new experience.”

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