I’m just going to come right out and say it: For the past month, I’ve shunned the thought of ordering a Negroni at a bar to avoid being labeled as a follower of meme culture. Though the classic Negroni (equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari) has been one of my go-to drinks for many years now, the bartender asking for my order and the regular next to me don’t know that. They’d probably think I’m hopping on the Emma D’Arcy bandwagon after the “House of the Dragon” star declared the Negroni Sbagliato as their drink of choice in a candid interview with co-star Olivia Cooke. (I wonder, had they proposed sangria or a Tom Collins, if the drink would have exploded as it did.)
“It is only popular because of the redundancy of her saying ‘a Negroni Sbagliato with Prosecco’ because it’s known that a Negroni Sbagliato has Prosecco. That is the drink!,” says Nate Haskell, bartender at OAK Long Bar + Kitchen in Boston.
Translating to “mistake” in Italian and born out of chance after a Milano bartender accidentally poured from a bottle of Prosecco instead of gin, the viral video has thrown all styles of the amber-hued cocktail into the spotlight. And that makes me want nothing to do with them (I haven’t even made one at home since).
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Let me explain what, exactly, unsettles me not just about the Sbagliato but about all fad cocktails. Though viral moments like these create opportunities for bars to capitalize on the drink du jour’s five minutes of fame, for the casual imbiber, it’s simply another fleeting moment in mass-media culture. The majority of Negroni newcomers don’t necessarily care about what they’re drinking, but rather why they’re drinking it — and that ‘why’ is to fit in (usually with aspirations of creating a viral social media post of their own). “It’s similar to not knowing who Tom Hanks is, seeing a clip of a film he was in, and then going on a social media crusade to make the rest of the world aware,” says Lou Charbonneau, beverage director of Boston’s Xenia Greek Hospitality. “We know — thanks for bringing attention to quality things we already like and have enjoyed for a long time.”
Just look back at the past couple years where the likes of the Cosmopolitan, Aperol Spritz, and Espresso Martini rose to the mainstream overnight (don’t even get me started on Dirty Shirleys). Sure, these internet crazes may lead some lucky imbibers to meet their new favorite drink, but for the most part, viral beverages go on to die long, slow deaths where modern orders are prefaced by, “I’m gonna be basic but…” or, “Let’s throw it back to 2019.” And for cocktail enthusiasts and mixologists who love the classics, that is a concern.
The reality is, fad drinks aren’t anything new, but how we mindlessly consume them is, and that’s what I’m ashamed of. The earliest drink trends date back to the turn of the 20th century, when Old Fashioneds were celebrated for their simplicity. In the 1920s, that evolved to gin Martinis. The ‘40s were about Daiquiris, the ‘50s had vodka Martinis, and so on. As social media came into play, these decade-long trends turned into mere month- or week-long sensations that end up buried in our grids, and therefore, our minds.
“Cocktail trends can act as a double-edged sword: On one hand, we are glad to see people stepping out of their comfort zones and ordering something new,” says Ricky Dolinsky, co-owner, chef and mixologist of Yo+Shoku and Paper Planes in NYC. “On the other hand, running off to try something because it was endorsed by a celebrity, or worse, simply because it was shown on social media, can act as tunnel vision for the ensuing patron.” He says it’s not uncommon for guests to come in and order the moment’s hottest cocktail without ever looking at the beverage list, though Dolinsky’s bars feature over 20 original house cocktails.
“I think it’s kind of funny to see a bunch of bright-eyed people order Negroni Sbagliatos for the first time, only to realize soon after that it’s a rather bitter cocktail that isn’t for everyone,” says Harrison Snow, beverage director and co-owner of Lullaby in NYC. “I’ve seen quite a few half-full Sbagliatos left on the bar.”
Those half-full Sbagliatos that are left to be poured down the drain are symbolic of modern society’s short attention span, as many imbibers briefly entertain novelty before trading it in for their usual order without ever understanding the origins, legends, craft, or even ingredients — besides Prosecco, duh — surrounding them. In this way, not only do such microtrends ruin beloved classics; they strip away bartender creativity.
But some bartenders recognize the missed learning opportunity for fashionable cocktails. “I would so much rather a guest sit down at my bar and ask me to guide them through a cocktail similar to something they’ve seen online, but fits their taste better,” says Emily Harding, bar manager at Civility Social House in Somerville, Mass. This way, she says, drinkers who are genuinely curious about what’s in their glass are able to come away with something they’ll actually enjoy and may even order again.
“If we were living in the early- to mid-2000s, cocktails that went viral would be a boon for the craft cocktail culture. It would bring awareness to the world of craft cocktails that the general public may not have known about previously,” says Sam Slaughter, author of “Are You Afraid of the Dark Rum?” “In 2022, I don’t think that’s needed. Those looking to cash in on or ‘be part of the cool group’ thanks to viral trends will just move on to the next drink.”
If only social media could spark a more everlasting trend. Abby Taylor, bar manager at Urban Hearth in Cambridge, Mass., believes such moments of virality obstruct the artistry behind cocktails, scratching a fleeting itch with little to no attention paid to the beverage’s history or composition. “I would love to see a return to the apothecary approach to cocktail creation,” she says. “Spending time on sourcing quality ingredients, growing your own herbs and fruits, or taking a deep dive into the medicinal qualities of the syrups and tonics you use could help shape a new trend.”
Until then, if you’re feeling as fed up with Sbagliatos — or whatever the next social sip we’re served — as I am, Slaughter reminds us: “They’re viral trends for a reason; they’ll go out of style sooner rather than later.”