I am a relative newcomer to the world of fancy dranks. Up until about three years ago, I considered a good cocktail to be a girly and syrupy cosmopolitan or lemon drop. I had no problem swilling a now-undrinkable combination of budget vodka and Minute Maid lemonade. It got the job done. Even last week I couldn't refrain from buying a bottle of Fuzzy Navel Boone's Farm "wine product," so it's not exactly as if I'm working with some incredibly refined palate here.
I look back on my years of indiscriminate drinking with fondness, but I've put a great deal of effort into trying to drink like someone well above my station. I've researched Prohibition-era cocktails, tried different kinds of spirits, and generally just gotten drunk off the good stuff. After enjoying a few relatively accessible cocktails, like an aviation or French 75, I moved on to the more complicated stuff. I choked down Manhattans and realized that I preferred G&Ts. But no cocktail proved as challenging as the negroni.
Your traditional negroni is made with gin, vermouth rosso and Campari. The Campari adds an aggressive and characteristic bitterness, something that isn't exactly friendly to someone who spent most of her formative years drinking lemonade and vodka out of a Solo cup. I had my first negroni at Cedars Social, and immediately wondered how anyone could appreciate a cocktail that was so insanely bitter that the flavors lingered long after I'd tried to cleanse my palate.
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When I went to the newly renamed Front Room Tavern at Hotel Lumen, I was in the middle of a terrible, no-good, very bad day. The kind that justifies drinking before noon, when you don't even feel guilty about your inability to cope with life without some kind of chemical assistance. I'd come in to have lunch and an early drink, but I certainly hadn't planned on spending $13 on a drink that I didn't even like. When I saw "chocolate covered cherry" on the menu, I was stunned to see it followed by the word "negroni."
I was further shocked to see that the Chocolate Covered Cherry Negroni at Front Room Tavern got its namesake flavors from the very ingredient that was intended to make it even more bitter: chocolate-and-cherry-infused bitters from Fee Brothers. The bar man actually uses two different types of bitters, one inspired by a traditional bitter Aztec drink made with cacao beans and peppers. This whole goddamn drink is one bitter flavor on top of another, more bitter flavor. Yet it somehow manages to be a nuanced entry point for drinkers still working out exactly what they like.
Make no mistake: This drink is still bitter as hell. The chocolate and cherry flavors are subtle, more noticeable on the finish than up front. The addition of genever, a juniper-flavored Dutch spirit, though, enhances the botanical flavors in the gin to make this drink much more well rounded. Many negronis are sharp, and this one is maybe too drinkable, something that will make you search like a crazy person for your keys even though you left them with the valet.
I may have been the only person in Front Room Tavern getting a little drunk before the lunch rush, but there is no shame in a cocktail of this caliber at any time of the day. When I left, I overheard a jet-lagged businessman in a rumpled suit order "the negroni" in an indistinguishable accent. It sounded like maybe he was having one of those days, too.