When Joaquín Simó invented the Kingston Negroni at New York’s Death & Co. in 2009, he did not set out to create a modern classic. But for the equal-parts combination of funky Jamaican rum, sweet vermouth and Campari, success was inevitable.
“When Phil Ward tried it for the first time, he gave it the highest praise possible,” recalls Simó, referencing Death & Co.’s head bartender at the time. “He said, ‘It doesn’t suck.’” With that feedback from the famously taciturn Ward, Simó felt no need to tinker with the recipe, which landed on the Death & Co. menu in 2010. By fall of that year, it had already traveled across the country, appearing on the cocktail menu at Rickhouse, an early influential San Francisco bar. In the years since, the drink has appeared on countless menus nationwide, bolstered by the simplicity of its build, the Negroni’s rising star and its key distinguishing ingredient: Smith & Cross Jamaican rum, an overproof, pot still expression unlike anything else on the market at the time.
“The Negroni is a celebration of Campari,” explains Simó, “but the Kingston Negroni was designed around the rum.” Indeed, part of the drink’s early appeal was its ability to recast rum in a new role. “It takes rum outside of the tropical realm, and gives people a way to understand it in a different context,” says Paul McGee of Chicago’s now-closed Lost Lake, who joined Simó, bar manager Orlando Franklin McCray of Brooklyn’s Nightmoves and Punch’s editorial team for a recent blind tasting of nine Kingston Negronis submitted by bartenders across the country.
The objective was not to identify a recipe that most closely resembled the original, but to sample a snapshot of the drink as it currently appears in the wild, homing in on those that still read as archetypal, while managing to bring something fresh to the template, whether it be a novel rum selection, ratio or garnish. “The fact that you can have this much variety speaks to how vast the categories have gotten,” noted Simó partway through the tasting. “We probably had seven to nine sweet vermouths at most [in 2009] and only a handful of Jamaican rums, especially [ones] that were aged,” he recalls. Today, the market not just for rum, but also bitter liqueurs and fortified wines, has exploded, making the Kingston Negroni as changeable as the Negroni itself.
First place in the tasting went to Anthony Schmidt of San Diego’s Consortium Holdings, which includes False Idol and J. & Tony’s Discount Cured Meats and Negroni Warehouse. His recipe sticks to the tried and true Smith & Cross as the base, blended with an ounce of Campari, three-quarters of an ounce of Carpano Antica sweet vermouth (the brand Simó originally used) and the unexpected addition of a quarter-ounce of oloroso sherry. Further setting it apart, Schmidt recommends stirring the drink with coffee beans directly in the mixing glass to impart another layer of flavor. Though the judges did not pick up the coffee or sherry notes specifically, the recipe was praised for its dynamic structure, which Simó described as having “a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Second place went to Austin Hartman, of the Paradise Lounge pop-up in New York. His recipe builds off of an ounce of Rum Fire—which Simó describes as “the air horn version of Jamaican rum,” bursting with notes of grilled plantains and overripe fruit—alongside an ounce of Carpano Antica, a half-ounce each of Campari and Cappelletti Aperitivo and a dash of orange bitters. It’s a drink that takes the recipe to its logical extreme by smacking you across the face with one of the most aromatic Jamaican rums on the market. But the judges had no issue with the selection. “It’s a Kingston Negroni,” said McCray. “The focal point should be rum.”