Drinking negronis at select local bars this week is an easy way to support charitable causes ranging from childhood cancer research to global medical missions: Participants in Imbibe Magazine's annual Negroni Week pledge to contribute a portion of the proceeds from every Negroni sold to a charity of their choosing. Ten Charleston bars have joined the program, which boasts 1223 participants worldwide.
But for local drinkers, the event also provides an opportunity to check in on the batch cocktail trend. Kegged cocktails have become ubiquitous in upscale bars in the two years since the topic merited an introductory session at Tales of the Cocktail, an annual New Orleans gathering of craft bartenders. Esquire reservedly declared 2013 "the year of the kegged cocktail," allowing that cocktails on draft might have an even bigger 2014.
Not everyone is cheering the rise of premixed drinks, although they have staunch defenders on both sides of the bar. Sipping Negronis at Indaco and Warehouse clearly demonstrates why the practice is so polarizing.
There are two primary reasons to mix up large quantities of cocktails: Speed and consistency. When 27 people want a Negroni, it's far easier to open a tap than reach for bottles of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. And if what goes into the barrel is mixed to the head bartender's specifications, he or she doesn't have to worry about an overeager server stepping behind the bar and jumbling the standard house recipe.
But the consistency that batch cocktail fans tout becomes a problem when the jumbo drink's measurements are slightly off. That's the case at Indaco, where the Negroni is swamped with too much sweet vermouth. It's a sticky, mild mess of a cocktail that's supposed to showcase bitterness. To the Indaco bartender's credit, he offered to adjust my drink, bringing its components into the correct proportion. Kegged cocktail detractors say that's the kind of craft endangered by mass production.
Indaco, though, is likely to keep its Negronis flowing. As the bartender pointed out, having draft Negronis at an Italian-themed restaurant is a novelty that guests enjoy.
Although Negronis are a common choice for draft systems, the cocktails which perform best when batched are cocktails with an extra ingredient that needs time to marinate. Although craft cocktail makers are fond of freshly-squeezed juices and chopped-up herbs, freshness isn't always desirable. Just as a casserole tastes better the second day, a drink can benefit from the mellowing and mingling of flavors, a process which can't be rushed.
That's the principle behind Warehouse's sage Negroni, served from a tabletop wooden barrel. The sage brings sophisticated notes of lemon and burnt autumn leaf smoke to an already well-made drink, which - as the bartender reminded me - benefitted the Palmetto Medical Initiative.
Other bars participating in Negroni week include Bay Street Biergarten, Egan & Sons, La Tabella, Mac's Place, Sermets Downtown, Social Restaurant + Wine Bar, The Green Goat and The Macintosh. To learn more, visit negroniweek.com.