Cocktail of the Month: El Capo

The Negroni is my go-to cocktail. As a person who abhors overly sweet drinks, the Negroni (a mixture of Campari, gin and red vermouth) is the polar opposite of a sugary tipple like a pina colada. I just love its herbaceous bitter, tangy taste. Campari, an Italian bitter aperitif , an infusion of herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water. It is characterized by its dark red color.

While those with a sweet tooth sometimes complain about the medicinal taste of the bitters, there’s something about the way the sharp orange of the Campari, melds with the botanicals of the gin with the vermouth bringing the two together in sweet harmony.

A classic cocktail, dating back to the early 1900s in Italy, variations of this cocktail abound. In Peru, I have tasted the zamboni a takeoff with pisco substituted for the gin. The spicy edge of the pisco made this satisfying variation. At New York’s Saxon & Parole I tried the Champagne Negroni, which was the traditional recipe topped with champagne. It gave the drink a lighter texture and bubbly edge similar to the standard Campari and soda. And just to be cute, it was served in old-fashioned soda bottles.

During my last visit to Bandolero, Georgetown’s temple to Mexican spirits, I was intrigued by the El-Capo, a Negroni-style drink on their menu. In their South-of-the-border rendition, mezcal was substituted for the gin in the timeless recipe.

I had to ponder a moment. the idea of tequila in a Negroni, did not sound appealing at all to me, I imagined that the piquant flavor the agave would clash with the powerful Campari. Then I gave some deep thought of the possibility of mescal, a spirit I learned to love after spending a month the Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca last year.

While both are Mexican spirits distilled from the agave plant, mezcal differs because the agave is roasted in an oven before the distillation process. The cooking of the agave, must like the process of making Scotch, departs a complex smoky flavor to the spirit. This could be interesting, I thought.

Bartender Matt McHale, a mescal enthusiast, described the El Capo as one of his two favorites cocktail at the bar. (The first being the award-winning Jesus Malverde, another tipple made from mezcal) He described the El Capo, which translates from Spanish into the captain, as a “Smoky Negroni.”

McHale was eager to satisfy my curiosity. I watched as he carefully crafted the drink, and stirring it, the way a proper Negroni should be made. The results did not disappoint, the smoky edge of the mescal stood out strong but was tempered buy the herbal bouquet of the Campari. The mixture exulted in an earthy, woody taste. A dash of Laphroaig Scotch gives this drink an extra punch of smokiness.

While Campari can be overpowering in many drinks, the El Capo is a very balanced cocktail. “The Campari is there,” says McHale, “But it’s not the whole drink.”

While Bandolero has quite an extensive list of tequilas and mezcals, McHale adds that it is great place to get a well-crafted cocktail, with any spirit. “We have a little something for everyone,” he says. So whether you decide to sail with “the captain,” or imbibe on the original Negroni, both are superb options at Bandalero.

El Capo

1.5 ounces
.5 Campari1 oz Carpano Antica
Splash of Laphroaig Scotch
Pour ingredients into a glass or shaker, stir, serve in an old fashioned glass.

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