As someone who often samples unique, complex, and original cocktails, it was time to take a step back from the elderflower liqueur, the donut garnishes, and sweetened drinks in order to revisit a classic: the Negroni.
At the base, this Italian drink is equal parts gin, Campari, and vermouth, and garnished with orange peel. Although there can be different takes on this aperitif, especially in a place as fond of a good cocktail as C-U. I visited five local places and found five different interpretations of a classic. I ordered each Negroni on the recommendation of the house and didn’t specify any ingredients or specifications (e.g., neat, brand of gin) unless explicitly asked.
It’s always nice to switch things up and cleanse your palate with something simple and classic, as was my thought when researching Negronis for this review. New year, new cocktails!
Barrelhouse 34 was pretty much the only “bar bar” I researched for this review. I wasn’t asked about a gin option, as their menu clearly stated it was made with Hendrick’s, but I was asked whether or not I wanted it on the rocks, which I did; it really is the best way to drink a Negroni. The Barrelhouse Negroni ($9) was pretty standard tasting. It came with the best orange peel garnish, which if you ask me is important, because isn’t sight 50% of taste? Barrelhouse is nice place to go grab a drink, especially so in the warmer months when you can enjoy the rooftop area, but we had just as good of a time during a cold afternoon by enjoying the drinks and playing rousing games of Connect 4.
34 E Main St
3 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily
Image: A Hamilton Walker’s Negroni served in a rocks glass is garnished with a large piece of orange peel. The glass sits on a white cocktail napkin on a white and gray marble bartop. Behind the bartop is a bar with a shelving unit featuring a large number of bottles of alcohol. Photo by Remington Rock.
Since I was reviewing cocktails, I had to go to Hamilton Walker’s, which is one of the prime places to go to when you want a good drink; the bartenders are knowledgeable and take the craft quite seriously. If you’ve ever read any of my cocktail reviews, I typically go for the more out-of-the-box beverage options, so I felt rather unsure ordering such a no-nonsense beverage, but the atmosphere is nice and I trust those bartenders.
Hamilton Walker’s Negroni ($10) was quite proper: stirred, on the rocks (though I was given the option of neat) and in an old fashioned glass. Even though I quite like bitter cocktails, this one was not overly so, and was a pleasant drink on a rainy night. It had just enough of a pleasant hint of orange, which was supplemented by the garnish.This Negroni impressed me enough to consider abandoning the flair on my next visit and ordering it again, if not only to appear more of an adult who knows about cocktails. I only wished I was drinking it while sitting on a sunny Italian piazza. Ah, I have grown pretentious already.
201 N Neil St
M-W 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Th + F 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Sat 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Next was Nando Milano. Being one of the nicest Italian restaurants in the area, I had high hopes for the Italian cocktail I was going to order. I went in with the foolish guise that I was just going to have a drink, perhaps an appetizer…but I ordered pasta (specifically the rigatoni alla beppe). It was some of the most delicious pasta I’ve ever had and I unregrettably ate it all. But that’s not why we’re here.
Listed under the classic cocktail section, Nando’s Negroni ($12) is comprised of Hendrick’s, Campari, and Carpano Antica vermouth. It was properly served on ice and in a rocks glass. Though if we’re being picky, it was garnished with an orange slice and not a peel — tsk, tsk.
The Nando Negroni was certainly heavier on the gin than those mentioned above, but I did not mind, considering I like gin. I had been searching for more of that flavor so I was happy with it, especially with just the right balance of Campari. I would order it again and would also like to try their Negroni Sbagliato (Woodford Reserve, Campari, ginger ale, $12). Plus, the complimentary limoncello I received after the meal wasn’t half bad, either.
Nando Milano has great service, a very cozy atmosphere, and delicious food. Sure, you could just go for a drink, but why not stay for a meal? It’s quite worth it if you are looking for an extra special dinner.
204 N Neil St
M-Th 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
F+Sa 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Su 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
I was looking forward to this visit, and, boy, did it not let me down. Perhaps my most favorite Negroni of the bunch, the NAYA Negroni ($10) was assembled properly on the rocks and was made up with Nikka Coffey gin. This particular Japanese gin had incredible flavors of citruses like yuzu as well as juniper, and it was even quite delicious on its own. In this cocktail the flavors combined quite beautifully with the Campari. It was bright and zesty and delicious. They have a nice house cocktail menu with a few options I was tempted to try, but considered I almost ordered from every category on the menu, I thought I’d save that for another visit.
Like Nando, NAYA is a place I recommend to drink and eat, as the food and atmosphere are incredible. With an instagram-worthy bar spread and an appealing menu, this would also be a place to treat yourself to a nice night out. It’s an upscale, intimate space you would never guess was located on Green Street. But don’t let the locale dissuade you, since it’s still located closer to the Neil Street side, so you won’t have to venture very far onto the U of I campus. To think a place as nice as this sits directly across the Red Lion makes you feel like you’re in a parallel universe, and I highly recommend it.
212 E Green St, Ste 104
M-Th 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
F+Sat 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
One of the newest cocktail lounges in Champaign is Punch!. This was my first visit, and I was quite delighted by the atmosphere; it’s a cozy and modern little hole-in-the-wall. It was also quite crowded, so it was a good thing we were going to sit at the bar, because there was no other option. Upon sitting down I noticed a small tablet and my friend and I both let out a simultaneous and disgusted “ugh.” I despise the new fad of tablets/gaming systems on restaurant tables; however, this was not a tablet for entertainment. In addition to the standard booklet menu beside it, the tablet was an electronic menu that allowed guests to view pictures of listings. Albeit handy to see what various cocktails looked like, especially the seasonal ones, it was rather odd to have both an electronic and traditional version of the menu.
I ordered the Negroni and was a little surprised when it was placed in front of me. The Punch! Negroni ($11) came in a small Nick & Nora glass and was served neat. Since it was in this type of cocktail glass, it seemed quite small. It was made up of Tanqueray #10 and Cocchi vermouth and properly garnished with an orange peel. It was rather sweeter than the Hamilton Walker’s version and much heavier on the Campari, so it was also much more bitter and lacked the taste of gin. I would have preferred it on ice, since the bitterness would have tamed with a colder temperature. However, I would certainly visit Punch! again to try a seasonal drink and sample more of their bites menu. We had the parmesan-paprika French fries, and they were so good that we left Punch! to go to the store and buy ingredients for our own DIY version.
217 N Neil St
M-Th 3 p.m. to midnight
F+Sa 3 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Su 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.