Coachella Valley, Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County—you sure seem to want to go out!
That is, you seem to want to come to Palm Springs to go out.
While I am still heading up the cocktail program at the Cole Hotel (mostly remotely), I was recently offered a position at Seymour’s, the bar where my Palm Springs adventure began. As a result, I’ve been on a recent human-energy bungee-cord ride. I’ve been going from sending out mimosas and handing out towels in the afternoon to being at a full-on late-night busy cocktail bar right out of the gate. Phew! It’s a blast.
It’s also a lot. In the last 15 months, my brain has gotten used to social distancing, and my psyche is used to service from afar. There is no vaccine for that. Everyone is chatty; everyone is storming the bar—and I’m honestly not used to it. I’m sure this will pass.
The most important gain I’ve made in the last year was finding some balance in my health, physical and mental. I hope my friends in the industry stay healthy, too, but I already see broken relationships piling up in my social circle. A lot of friends want to pack up and run … anywhere. It’s not just the pandemic that’s caused a psychic strain; it’s been the reopening, too. We went from “shelter in place” to “olly olly oxen free” seemingly overnight.
The staffing shortage in town is making things even crazier—but before anyone blames lazy loafs for collecting unemployment instead of working, two things: One, I don’t know a single service-industry person who isn’t working at least one job. There are simply too many opportunities here in Palm Springs, and anyone sitting at home was probably never very useful in the first place. Two, this has been an issue for years in this area. I got here in 2016, and there’s always been a shortage as new places opened, and more and more tourists flocked in. Additionally, a lot of servers here are working full time—but they’re serving meals, ordered on apps, out of their cars, something they prefer because they have neither a boss nor a set schedule.
Since it doesn’t look like this bartender is going to be able to get away anytime soon, it might be time to revisit my Desert Island List of Cocktails … or at least the drink that’s first on that list—which has to be the Negroni.
Yes, the daiquiri and the Sazerac are also favorites, but there is something so … calming about the Negroni. It’s analgesic or something. I even feel good making them for people. It’s three ingredients, equal parts—gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. Now, you could substitute the Campari for Aperol, but it’s not as good. I call that a “bubblegum Negroni.” You could change the Campari for green Chartreuse and add some orange bitters, and you have a bijou, which is fine, I guess, but it doesn’t have any bite. Even the mighty boulevardier, with rye whiskey instead of gin, can’t quite hold a candle, in my opinion, but it’s the best of the cousins.
I have never written about the history of the Negroni in this column, probably because it’s such a mess that it would take a book to sort it out. Difford’s Guide does a fair (but messy) job, and the late Gaz Regan (known for stirring them with his finger) has written about the subject extensively, if you want a deeper dive. The story I have always heard is that in 1919, at Caffé Giacosa in Florence, a certain count by the name of Negroni asked the bartender to substitute the soda water in his Americano (Campari and vermouth with soda) for gin, for a little extra “giddy up.” The classic was born, and all the patrons wanted to order the “count’s drink.”
I have always found it unlikely that anyone of royalty ever invented a cocktail (maybe except for the Prince of Wales cocktail/punch), and this is no exception. It seems far more likely that someone named the drink after the flamboyant count to curry favor and tips; I have seen drinks named that way for far lesser big-wigs. As usual with cocktails, the combination of the ingredients in the recipe were around well before the “official” story and seem to have an origin in the “Milano-Torino” or the “Camparinete.” Milan was famous for its bitters, specifically Campari, and Torino for its vermouths. The Milano-Torino might have had soda water added to it, or not, depending on the bar, but the base was equal parts vermouth and bitter. The Camparinete had gin and might have had soda water. The Negroni might even have had soda water in it at some point, but thankfully, it does not anymore. The boulevardier might have been created first, so this drink, like many others, might have jumped the pond for a facelift and a new name.
The thing is … we just don’t know. Does it really matter, though? The important thing is that you use equal parts … or don’t, but definitely make sure it’s on the rocks. Use gin, never vodka, and don’t get me started on mezcal Negronis. Always orange, never lemon—hell, you can even add an orange squeeze if you fancy it. Stir it with your finger, or your partner’s, or even with the orange twist. Use a faceted glass, if you have one, and admire the beauty.
This drink was a gift from the cocktail gods—and ordering one will make the grumpiest bartender smile.
Kevin Carlow can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.