If the martini is the little black dress of drinks, the Negroni is a sequined strapless gown — not for everyone, but for those who can pull it off, a sexy stunner. Sticky, sweet, bitter, beautiful, this cocktail traditionally made from gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth beguiles bartenders as it seems so simple, yet suggests so many variations (the drink itself is a twist on the Americano).
So it’s little surprise that the drink gets its own week (June 1-7), and that a Central Coast competition was held in its honor, with the winner chosen from 14 bartenders from Oxnard to SLO scoring a trip to New Orleans for the Tales of the Cocktail festival. The Good Lion, host bar for the event sponsored by liquor giants Lucas Bols (Damrak Gin and Bols Genever) and Infinium Spirits (Carpano Antica), was a-buzz all afternoon on June 4 with nervous mixologists and their family, friends, and fans.
The judges were three hotshots from LA: Aidan Demarest, owner of Liquid Assets, who is currently working on Little Toni’s in North Hollywood; Genie Gore, from Melrose Umbrella Company; and Anna Knudsen from Sassafras, who was recently chosen as one of Zagat’s 30 under 30 in Los Angeles. “Yes, murder your competition,” Knudsen said prior to the contest, “but do it with kindness. We’re going to blow all the other states out of the water because we’ve got heart.”
That heart dreamed up all sorts of variations on the drink, from shandys to flips (that is, beer-based to egg-white-whipped). People surprised with ice shot glasses, CO2 to make a Negroni soda, mini-flame throwers to heat up everything from apricots to cinnamon sticks. Competitors from Finch & Fork, the Four Seasons Biltmore, Good Lion, The Lark, Sama Sama, Seven Bar & Kitchen, and The Wine Cask in Santa Barbara; from the Goodland Hotel/Outpost in Goleta; Luna Red in SLO; and Twenty 88 in Camarillo all gave the Negroni their best shot, full of shots of everything from barrel-aged Genever to homemade shrubs to Grand Poppy aperitif, to add some California essence.
When the emcee for the event, Glen Holden, craft spirit specialist for Young’s Market Company, announced the two runners-up and winner, he began, “I had no idea how much creativity there was in this room,” and judge Demarest added, “You guys killed it.” The third place finisher was Sean Pantazi from the recently opened Landsby Hotel in Solvang, who offered what he called simplicity, despite making his a flip, but only the egg white, Aperol, and Campari part, claiming, “I’m against shaking gin.” The second place finisher was Tyler Hansen from SOhO who developed exotic and rich flavors by infusing Damrak gin with blackberry, passion fruit, and a few coffee beans, and then garnishing his drink with a passion flower, too.
The winner, Dominique Gonzola, the only woman contestant, went even further with garnishes, for she added pineapple sage, strawberries, and nasturtium to her concoction, plus, as Demarest pointed out, “And she brought doilies.” Gonzola, who runs the bar at the Granada Hotel and Bistro in SLO, mixed up a wealth of liquor including a strawberry-infused Campari and her own bitters soda to give the drink some fun fizz. Now she’ll be heading off to Tales of the Cocktail, hoping to take a Negroni championship crown back to the Central Coast.