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Stick to the Classics

Michael Flack

THERE’S ONLY ONE THING I like more than writing about personal finance, and that’s drinking a salubrious cocktail. When I realized I could combine both, this article almost wrote itself.

Two decades ago, I read the best cocktail book ever written, The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks by Dale DeGroff. He thought so highly of my bartending skills that he even inscribed my copy, though that’s a whole other article. One drink stood out, the Negroni, an aperitif, that may be the greatest cocktail ever built over ice. For those teetotalers who don’t know what I’m talking about, it consists of Campari, sweet vermouth and gin, garnished with an orange peel.

The bitterness of the Campari—tempered by the sweet vermouth and with the gin’s kick—stokes the appetite and sharpens the senses, making it the perfect before dinner drink. When I first made it for my wife in early December sometime in the mid-2000s, she referred to it as the “Christmas drink,” due to its Christmassy red hue.

For the next two weeks, every day when I came home from work, she’d demand “make me the Christmas drink” until a few days before Dec. 25, when she declared, “I’m done, it’s played.” Hey, “to every thing there is a season.” Sometimes, the season ends, though we still enjoy one every now and then.

The Negroni, according to DeGroff, “was created in the bar at the Hotel Baglioni in 1925 when Count Camillo Negroni decided the Americano was too tame a drink. He asked for the barman to spike his Americano with a splash of gin” and—voilà—the Negroni was born.

Since 1925, people have been drinking the Negroni. While the 1:1:1 ratio may have been adjusted at the margins—you may want to try a skosh more Campari—the drink stands as a testament to evolution and simplicity. It’s much like grandma’s lasagna, Ted Williams’s eyesight and New York City pizza. Why mess with greatness?

Well, people do. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a number of bartenders have tried to “improve” on this epitome of perfection.

A year ago, I ordered a Negroni at one of Kansas City’s finer drinking establishments and was rewarded with a drink that just didn’t taste right. When I inquired, the server explained to me that “we don’t use Campari in our restaurant.” To that, I elucidated, “Then, what you served me wasn’t a Negroni.”

When I subsequently explained this tale of woe to a bartender at Kansas City’s second finest drinking establishment, she heartily agreed. But she then served me a Negroni that didn’t have the required Christmassy hue. I was subsequently informed that it was made with blonde vermouth. “What is blonde vermouth?” you may ask. My response: As it’s not sweet vermouth, “Who cares?”

Just last month at the Belmond Hotel in Iguaçu Falls, Brazil, perhaps the best hotel in South America, I was offered a Negroni that—in addition to the essentials—contained Grand Marnier, Drambuie and grapefruit syrup. The server was nice enough to offer me a sample and, well, “No, Obrigado.” Unfortunately, I fear this won’t be the last time someone tries to improve on perfection.

Quite simply, the Negroni has evolved over the past 98 years to be the little bit of heaven that it is. I get that man is always trying to invent a better mousetrap, but can’t we focus our efforts on more important issues, such as merely expensive first class airline travel, mediocre New York Jets football and middle shelf bourbon?

What does this have to do with finance? Over the past 98 years, rational (and humble) investors have come to realize that, much like the Negroni, there are three basic securities: stocks, bonds and cash. And much like the Negroni, some financial bartenders try to “improve” on these classics.

Recently, a financial advisor offered me the opportunity to buy a fund that invested in Texas real estate property tax loans. The fund boasted a steady return that was a little behind the S&P 500, but with less risk. It all seemed very delectable, until I realized it was really just a bond fund, with an expense ratio north of 1%, which was in addition to the advisor’s 1% take. And then it all seemed, well, just a little less appetizing.

Before that, I was almost tempted to invest in securitized fine art via Masterworks. It seemed quite enticing until I realized that the fee structure was a little too opaque. I detailed its excessive bitterness in a prior article.

I mean, what’s next, investing in nickels for their melt value? Never mind. Someone has already attempted to arbitrage that “gold mine.”

When it comes to my finances, much like my cocktails, I prefer to stick with the classics, like a well-built Negroni, a Marlowian Gimlet or a Manhattan on the rocks. I think it’s better for my appetite, constitution and wallet.

The next time you’re in your favorite drinking establishment, after—of course—verifying the ingredients, order a Negroni. When you drink it, think about the simplicity of your spirits and your finances. An even better idea: Make one yourself.

The Humble Negroni

  • 1¼ oz. Campari
  • 1 oz. sweet vermouth
  • 1 oz. gin
  • Orange slice, for garnish

Directions: Combine the gin, sweet vermouth and Campari in an ice-filled old-fashioned glass. Thoroughly stir. Garnish with the orange slice.

Michael Flack blogs at AfterActionReport.info. He’s a former naval officer and 20-year veteran of the oil and gas industry. Now retired, Mike enjoys traveling, blogging and spreadsheets. Check out his earlier articles.

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