If the Negroni is the stern task master, the drill sergeant, the impeccable authority figure, then the Contessa is the trickster, the court jester, the insubordinate yet charmingly affable sidekick. On paper, they look quite similar, and they are, but only as far as one begat the other, but the other, in this case the Contessa, is kinda nothing like a Negroni at all.
OK, maybe they are the same thing, or maybe the Contessa is just a Negroni with training wheels. Both are made with gin, Italian bitter liqueur, and vermouth, but where the Negroni uses the razor sharp, laser focused, crisply bitter Campari, the Contessa counters with the delightfully orange, gently balanced, sweetly bitter Aperol in a way that’s almost like it should be wrapped in pieces of cellophane and piled up in the small cut glass bowl on the coffee table in Grandma’s front room, the one that’s only used when company comes, and where the kids are always impeccably behaved because they like the candy and won’t get any if they act up and are sent outside to play.
The Contessa, which some say was created by Courtney Bissonnette and John Gertsen, and others say was created by Ryan McGrale and Gertsen, and still others attribute solely to Gertsen, is the tall glass of Tang you drink for breakfast because the astronauts drink Tang on the way to the moon, the chalky orange vitamins you steal from the big bottle with the Flintstones on the front, the chewey orange slices you get in a small white bag from the candy counter at the drug store, and the grown up version of every orangy treat beloved by every six year old. It’s a cocktail for your inner child, because young you wouldn’t like a Negroni.
While the Contessa can call to mind orange candy and stuff, it isn’t any of those things exactly. It’s bitter. Aperol does have an appealing orange flavor, but it’s still a bitter liqueur, albeit one that leans to the fruit side as a bitter like Cynar leans to the herbal side. That’s the appeal of Aperol, it’s the innocent bitter, the one you pour for someone who wants to taste a bitter liqueur for the first time. The Contessa is like that, too, which is why it comes with a privately nostalgic appeal. It was designed to be a Negroni for those who don’t like, or haven’t tried, a Negroni.
Originally created as part of a cocktail flight called the Flight of Heraldry around 2006 or so in Boston, the Contessa is supposed to be a more elegant and approachable version of the Negroni, and so called because Signor Negroni himself was a count. It’s also meant as a showpiece for Aperol, which, at the time, was relatively unknown outside Italy. That’s not the case anymore, Aperol is readily available because of drinks like the Contessa, which makes it not only a reminiscent drink, but an important one. We’ll stick mostly to spec, with Aperol and Cinzano dry vermouth, but our choice of gin is Aria, which we feel works just as well, if not better, than the Beefeater Gertsen prefers. Regardless, we serve ours on the rocks, just as we do with a Negroni, but serve it up if you like. Just remember to garnish with the orange peel, and, as far as we’re concerned, leave the training wheels on, or get a tricycle and paint flames on it, like a hot rod. Everyone knows flames make things go faster, and you gotta go fast in outer space.
Stir with ice and serve up, or on the rocks. Garnish with an orange twist.
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