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The Negroni may have been invented in Florence on the whim of a casanova count, but it’s been perfected in Rome at Jerry Thomas Speakeasy, a hole-in-the-wall Roman speakeasy and one of the top bars in the world
One part gin, one part vermouth and one part bitters. The Negroni could very well be Italy’s holy trinity in an Old Fashioned glass, with a dash of greatest back story ever told. Leonardo Meuci, one of the partners at Rome’s The Jerry Thomas Project, would know best. For more than 20 years, Meuci’s imbibed the history of the Negroni, as part of his two-decade experience in mixology and hospitality, and he considers Luca Picchi’s book “Negroni Cocktail: An Italian Legend” to have what could be considered the best answers to the Negroni tale.
From legend to legacy: the first Negroni
Legend has it that sometime around 1919-20, on a lazy afternoon in Florence, local patrician Count Cammillo Negroni walked into Caffe Rivoire and asked barman Fosco Scarselli to change up his usual afternoon special, the Americano (club soda, Campari and sweet vermouth), to something that suited him better—something with a twist.
Nope, Negroni and Scarselli didn’t crowd over the counter to concoct something out of the ordinary. Scarselli just mixed together gin, bitters and vermouth to a cocktail that suited Negroni’s tastes, literally. In fact, the Negroni was less a planned concoction and more a lifestyle. And a lifestyle it became.
A guide from the 1800s
Meuci would know. He and his partners started Jerry Thomas in 2010 as an after-hours place to talk about and mix artisanal cocktails from recipes by their favourite bartender Jerry Thomas. Jerry who? Jerry Thomas, a mid-19th century American bartender who penned bar-counter bibles How to Mix Drinks (1862) and The Bar-Tender’s Guide (1887), and inspired generations of bartenders for more than a century. Eventually the hangout evolved into a members’ speakeasy, with a cult following that has led Jerry Thomas to be considered one of the world’s pre-eminent bars.
The elusive door with an ever changing password
Finding Jerry Thomas Speakeasy from the Hotel Indigo Rome — St George is a bit like mixing a great drink: simple ingredients that must be applied with precision. The recipe for getting there is a four-minute walk, taking a succession of side-street turns from the moment you exit the hotel: right-left-right-left.
Located halfway down vicolo Cellini, a nondescript side street, is a green door with a small bronze bearing the inscription “Prof. Jerry Thomas”. It seems like a knock is all that is required to enter, but gaining access isn’t that easy. Guests must call in advance, and provide a password. Once inside, the cash-only bar is impeccably styled and anachronistic to days of yore, both ersatz time piece and 21st century classic.
The space is small and dark, a low-lit room large enough to host 30 or so guests who cluster around period piece furniture, bar counter and vintage leather couches. Bottles, bottles and more bottles line the walls in a display of the very best vintage and contemporary spirits including their own internationally acclaimed artisanal gin, vermouth, bitters, liquors and more (which can also be found across the street in the eponymous Emporio).
What makes Jerry Thomas different from the rest of mixology masterpiece bars that have sprung up around the globe? Quite simply that it is still a friends’ hangout, and those same friends still want to perfect classic cocktails.
“I think we are moving towards simplicity—a return to the cocktail as a classic combination of two or three ingredients with less fanfare and more concept,” says Meuci. He sees a pivot away from the recent “Baroque style” of mixology (garnished glasses, innovative infusions and stylish food accompaniment) to a more reticent artistry where the concoction itself is the focus without the flourish, echoing recent trends in haute cuisine.
Attempt to crack the code
Here’s how to join the Jerry Thomas Speakeasy: Call the phone number and instructions will follow. The password is easily found by solving a riddle on Jerry Thomas website or on its app.
Jerry Thomas Project, Vicolo Cellini, 30, 06 9684 5937