What Is the Cardinale Cocktail?

Among the many bittersweet boughs of the Negroni family tree, you’ll uncover certified classics like the Sbagliato and Boulevardier alongside modern twists like the Mezcal Negroni and the White Negroni. But within this tangle of branches, obscured by the bold-faced marquee names, you’ll also find the Cardinale, an Italian-born combo of gin, Campari and dry vermouth that has yet to take flight.

Created in 1950 by Giovanni Raimondo at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome, the original Cardinale had a slightly different makeup. First served to a visiting cardinal summoned to Rome by Pope Pius XII for the Jubilee, this original version was a somewhat lighter, aperitivo-style drink made with approximately one ounce of gin, a half-ounce of dry Moselle wine and one-third ounce Campari, which lent the drink its signature red color in honor of the distinctive hue of the cardinal’s attire. The drink was garnished with a long, aromatic, clove-studded orange peel.

While Raimondo’s drink is the one we know today, writer and historian David Wondrich points out that the 1950 Cardinale was likely inspired by earlier versions that traveled under the same moniker. There is, for example, a Campari Cardinal listed in a 1926 edition of the brand’s own book, Cocktails, by Piero Grandi. The recipe calls for sweet vermouth rather than dry, making a drink that is essentially a Negroni served up. Another Cardinale, using the now familiar dry vermouth, appears in the 1947 Cocktails Portfolio by Amedeo Gandglio, which Italian bartender Paolo Ponzo discovered and brought to Wondrich’s attention.

Shortly after its appearance on the Excelsior menu, however, the Cardinale benefited from a brief wave of popularity, driven in part by the hotel’s proximity to the U.S. Embassy, which helped draw an international clientele. An added boost came courtesy of an influx of celebrities working at nearby Cinecittà Studios, home to many American film productions in the post-war years. (Classics shot there include Roman Holiday, The Barefoot Contessa and Ben-Hur, along with more contemporary pictures like Wes Anderson’s 2004 film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, featuring a Campari-loving Bill Murray in the title role.)

Before long, dry vermouth replaced the Riesling-style wine in the recipe, perhaps due to some combination of availability and shelf life. The equal-parts version best known today was likely codified by the International Bartenders Association (IBA), but at the Excelsior Hotel, barman Luca Di Francia still serves the original Cardinale, made with wine and assorted garnishes, from a tableside cart.

Beyond the Excelsior and a handful of hotel bars in the north of Italy, a request for a Cardinale will likely be met with a shrug of disinterest and a variety of inconsistent serves. At the historic Camparino in Galleria bar in Milan, for example, the menu lists a Negroni del Cardinale made with Campari, rye and dry vermouth infused with elderflower, star anise and orange peels.  “Aside from the older regulars at the Excelsior Hotel, I think I’m the only one who asks for a classic Cardinale,” says Andrea Strafile, a Roman drinks writer who has documented a regional variation of the Cardinale, composed of Campari and bitter orangeade, found in central and southern Italy. But that, too, is fading even in its homeland.

“The Cardinale is absolutely not popular in Italy,” says Leonardo Leuci, owner of the Jerry Thomas Speakeasy in Rome and Del Professore Vermouth & Spirits. “Traveling around Italy it is possible to find it on some menus, but more from the bad habit of compiling the drink lists based on the old books of the ’70s and ’80s, rather than on the real popularity of the drink market.” He notes that in 12 years of running the Jerry Thomas Speakeasy, he has received only two requests for a Cardinale.

How can a drink that shares so much in common with one of the world’s most popular cocktails remain a dying breed? According to Leuci, the Negroni simply has a better publicist. “The Negroni story is nice and the drink is very good, but if there had not been this push [by Campari], today the Negroni would not be the most requested drink in the world, I’m sure,” he says. “The problem with the Cardinale is not the taste—it is possible to make an excellent Cardinale—there isn’t interesting storytelling to share. It’s just a dry Negroni.”

But the Cardinale retains a small coterie of dedicated followers. Strafile, for one, prefers it to a classic Negroni. “It’s so poetic. It’s a dance,” he says. “The color is so much more beautiful than a Negroni and the taste is more complex.” Even so, in Italy and North America, the drink remains overshadowed by its more famous relative. The highest-profile, though still underrated, example of a Cardinale in the wild is the version featured on the Negroni Sessions menu at Caffe Dante in New York’s Greenwich Village. Their house spec calls for one ounce of Dorothy Parker American gin from New York Distilling Company stirred with three-quarters of an ounce each of Contratto Bitter and Lo-Fi dry vermouth from California. “It’s my favorite Negroni variation to this day,” says James DeFoor, a bartender at Hawksmoor New York who used to work at Dante.

Even at Cardinale, an Italian restaurant in Calgary, Alberta, general manager Graham Teare notes the difficulty of selling the namesake cocktail. “Our name helps for sure, but the Cardinale is definitely a hand-sell as many people aren’t familiar with it,” he says. “I think a big factor holding back its popularity is merely the fact that people aren’t aware of it.”

But for those who are acquainted with it, the Cardinale acts as a source of inspiration. Such was the case for Garret Richard, a bartender at Brooklyn’s Sunken Harbor Club, who turned to the Cardinale when crafting his Beachcomber Negroni (rum, Campari, dry vermouth and citrus cordial) for the now-closed Existing Conditions. “The Cardinale is a bit more austere than its cousin the Negroni. The fruit notes of the sweet vermouth are replaced with the more herbaceous layers of a dry vermouth,” says Richard. “The Cardinale sits squarely between the Negroni and Martini, not a bad neighborhood to reside in.”

Richard remains optimistic, hoping that it’s just a matter of time before more bartenders start spreading the good word. “The Cardinale remains obscure, but it doesn’t need to be,” he says. “We live at a time where dry vermouth is a rich and vast category and if drinkers are willing to experiment with different varieties, the Cardinale may have a bright future.”

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