Negroni ClubWe talk to the founder of Negroni Club UK.
Published: 13th September 2021
Gin, whisky, rum, beer, cocktails. You name it, there’s most likely a number of dedicated clubs and groups who all love their drink of choice. And if it’s one thing that can bring people together, it’s alcohol. Social media, including Facebook and Instagram and video apps like Zoom and Skype, have made it easier than ever to have a digital social life, get involved with clubs and groups and share a common passion with other like minded people. In our new editorial series dedicated to gin clubs, we’ll be meeting the people and clubs from across the world that in one way or another celebrate and share their love of juniper based spirit – Gin!
In this feature, we meet the founder and organiser of Negroni Club. Based in the UK, the club started off as a once a week event at a bar where people could come and discover the Negroni cocktail, which quickly attracted the attention of gin drinkers and cocktail enthusiasts. Over time, the event evolved from a once a week meet-up to regular online events featuring brands and producers along with an ever growing number of Negroni aficionados.
We caught up with the founder Sara Jane Eichler to learn more about the inspiration behind Negroni Club, what the club is about, her favourite Negroni along with some fascinating insight behind her 30 plus years living and working in the world of spirits and hospitality.
What’s your name and what’s your background?
My name is Sara Jane Eichler but most people know me as Sara or SJ for short. My working life has been hospitality and the on-trade, particularly pubs. As a kid, I grew up in houses that were always a buzz with people as my dad managed a number of bands before he went on to run the ‘Hope & Anchor’ in Islington, London, which was a popular pub and historic music venue. My dad ran the venue for 10 years from 1975 to 1985 and during this time we lived in the flat above the venue.
I was just 9 years old when dad took over as the Landlord in 1975 and 19 when we left in 1985. This was my first experience of the world of hospitality, pubs and live music and definitely made an impact on my life. I would come home from school and hang around with the staff and regulars. I got to see people having a good time. Chatting and socialising, enjoying live music. Sometimes I would sneak downstairs in an evening and watch the bands from the back staircase next to the stage. As a teenager, it was a great place to grow up; the pub always felt alive, there was always something going on. The Stranglers even recorded their album Live at the Hope & Anchor in 1977.
When I left school, I tried to cross over to a 9-5 office job but hated it and went back to bars, working for Lesley Lewis at her place in Clerkenwell before she took the reins of the legendary French House in Soho. Lesley taught me the bar is a stage and the customers your audience. After Lesley left to take over the French, my Dad took on the 3Kings in Clerkenwell so I moved into the pub at the age of 20 and spent 6 fun filled years their until my brother moved in and I left the family fold for a while and went on to be a Manager with Mitchells & Butlers for 18 years.
In 2010, we took over the lease of a pub in Aldgate and created ‘The Oliver Conquest’; my dream of what a pub should be. The relaxed atmosphere any good pub has but a bar that was well stocked with quality spirits and drinks. I had always had more of an interest in spirits and wine, rather than beer. My Grandfather had alway worked in the off-trade selling wines and spirits so had a huge amount of knowledge and massive tomb like collection of books on wines and spirits of the world. He would always tell me of his travels and the delicious drinks that accompanied them.
When we first opened The Oliver Conquest, which affectionately became known as the OC, it was a bit of a nightmare; they had started to tear down the ten acre NatWest site opposite, and I could never have imagined how horrific the dust and dirt would be and how much it would effect trade. That combined with the pubs previous reputation as a late night karaoke bar frequented by, shall I say less than desirable clientele, meant we had to completely change everything about it, including the name Pickwicks to The Oliver Conquest.
As gin had been my tipple of choice for most of my adult life, I wanted to make sure The Oliver Conquest had a quality selection of gins behind the bar so we had a pretty decent collection when we opened the doors. I also started to follow The Gin Blog, Gin Monkey and Summer Fruit Cup on Twitter and London brands such as Sipsmith and Sacred had started to gain popularity.
By the end of 2011, we had over 50 different gin brands on the back bar and a proper gin menu and garnish guide, and a hell of a lot of people telling me I was bonkers, but the collection and interest just kept building. We also opened the upstairs bar as Aperitivo, offering a selection of vermouths and amaros by the glass as well as a cocktail menu with a big focus on Negronis. We had always had a choice of 3 Negronis on the bar but with the launch of Negroni week in 2013, interest in the cocktail was becoming increasingly more popular here in the UK so we expanded the menu and started to offer a mix and match Negroni. It started as a chalk board teaser in 2013 with a basic selection of vermouths, all of our gins and Campari.
By 2014, the main bar menu featured around 300 gins as well as launching our own gin, made in collaboration with Olivier at Gin Foundry, eventually creating a menu that featured over 400 gins, 30 different vermouths and a variety of Negroni and cocktail variations. We grew a bit of a cult following and picked up some awards including Think Gin Best Independent Gin Bar Awards for 2017 and 2018.
Running your own bar is an amazing experience and I love hospitality, seeing happy customers and creating experiences for customers old and new but by January 2019 I needed a change of pace so we decided the time was right to hand the bar back to the Landlords, who re-opened it as part of their managed house group. It was almost nine years of gin as a religion and during that time I think the team and myself managed to convert a few disciples and of course this has led to my equally obsessive love of vermouth and amaro.
Can you tell us what Negroni Club is all about?
It’s a club for Negroni fans to socialise, learn, experiment and have fun. Whether someone is new to the Negroni or is a total Negroni aficionado, Negroni Club welcomes one and all. The club provides a good starting point for drinkers looking to find their perfect combination of gin, vermouth and bitters as well as learning more about the history behind the cocktail. There’s ticketed online tasting events and free zoom meet-ups, where we’ll chat about what we’ve got in our glass that evening and of course, when it’s allowed, meet-ups in person for those of us who are in the London area. We also invite vermouth and gin makers and spirits brands to join us for ticketed events as well. So throughout the year, there’s an opportunity to take part in events and sample some cracking Negronis and drinks from some excellent producers.
How can people join Negroni Club and get involved?
Anyone can get involved, by following us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and we also have a website launching this summer. Tag us in your Negroni posts using @negroniclubuk or join our online events. Our members include consumers, bloggers, industry and more but everyone is very friendly and everyone is welcome to join. It’s a great chance to dip your toe into the Negroni cocktail, which can at first seem like a challenging drink as most members of Negroni Club can testify, but there’s a Negroni for everyone and I hope Negroni Club can help you discover it.
For any gin brands, vermouth or bitter brands who would like to be involved Negroni Club, we’re always excited to try new Negroni combinations so any brands who would like to be involved can contact me directly through the Negroni Club social media channels.
What inspired you to start Negroni Club?
Negroni club as an actual entity came about from a few different things. I had started Negroni Tuesdays in 2017 to build trade on a Tuesday night at the OC and we started getting a loyal following, a mixture of OC regulars and people that had been introduced to the pub through gin and cocktail events hosted with Olivier and Emile at Gin Foundry. I think calling it a club came from Mary Hawes and Anthony Brimacombe’s mission to make Jenny McLaren fall in love with what at the time she thought a pretty rotten concoction.
I’m pleased to say she is now one of the Negroni’s biggest cheerleaders and even has a very special glass named after her. When I left the OC in January 2019 we made a pact to keep meeting up every 3rd Tuesday of every even month and spent a year visiting bars that had substantial Negroni or vermouth offerings such as Vermenturia, Gin & Beer, Ladies & Gents, Polpo and the wonderful Subplot 57. I also formalised the club by setting up Instagram and Facebook accounts to share our finds and keep in contact with everyone, and it’s sort of exploded from that.
Can you provide some examples of recent Negroni Club events?
2019 ended with a fantastic Christmas party held in a friend’s Cafe in Clerkenwell then in February 2020 we thought we had found a new home with Paul at Hide letting us have their back room bar to hold our events, the first being a tasting session with Jenny at Hidden Curiosities, showing off 3 delicious Negronis using her gins, Campari and 3 different vermouths. Then the first lock down happened, which in a way worked really well for us as it meant that we could be joined by people from all over the country on zoom rather than just being a London thing that meant lots of planning for those that weren’t local. We started with themes, like discussing and creating ‘Desert Island Negroni’, ‘Pink Negroni’ and ‘White Negroni’. We teamed up with brands like Sacred Gin and Kintyre Gin and have even done a couple of Charity events ourselves. In 2021, we’ve worked with the wonderful folks at Audemus Spirits and we teamed up with Asterley Bros in April and 137 Distillery in June. We’ll be hosting the first Negroni Room at Junipalooza 2021 and raising a few Negronis across the Negroni Club social media channels for Negroni Week 2021 in September.
Why do you think the Negroni has had such lasting appeal?
I think the lasting appeal of the Negroni is its ease; its easy to make and easy to drink. Yeh, you can make it complicated but nothing quite beats the beauty of a classic equal parts Negroni using a hearty Juniper forward gin, a great vermouth such as Cocchi Di Torino and Campari; simple and delicious. Also with the amount of different gins, vermouths and bitters now on the market, exploring all the different combinations has now become a never ending journey of delicious exploration and enjoyment.
How would you describe the Negroni for someone who’s never tried it?
It’s a hard question as it can be a drink that some people try once and they’re put off. Yet I know lots of people who tried it, didn’t like it first time but have invested some time experimenting and now love it. In the first instance, “an obnoxious grandparent” looks sweet but has a lot of history, complexities and can be bitter but is also fun, full of life and merriment. Like a fine meal, the Negroni will play on your palate and your nose… it’s a cocktail that takes your senses on a wonderful journey.
What do you think makes a good Negroni?
I think the vermouth is probably the most important element to making a great Negroni. It’s the one ingredient that can ruin the drink if it’s not been stored properly. Vermouth should be treated like wine and shouldn’t be left on the shelf to oxidise. Once opened, either use it all (pre-bottle batch the Negroni) or use a Vacu-vin and store it in the fridge, usually the lower the ABV of the vermouth the shorter the life, but I would say most will start to lose their character after 3 to 4 weeks. Apart from that, luckily I would say I’ve only had a few bad Negronis and I wouldn’t order one from anywhere that didn’t keep the vermouth in the fridge.
Do you have any tips on making a great Negroni at home?
If you are exploring Negronis at home, then I would always suggest starting of by mixing 5ml of each ingredient and a droplet of water and build from that base. You are making it for your taste and discovering an equal parts classic combo just for you is joyous, but you may then want to tweak it by adding more of one (or two) of the components if it’s just not working.
If you are going straight in with a full 25ml plus per part, then don’t forget to stir it down over ice. When you dilute the mixture, the flavours will start to really come alive and bind together to create harmony and balance.
When choosing a vermouth to suit a certain gin, check the botanical line up to see if they will complement and harmonise with each other. For instance, if matching a sweeter gin, try a drier vermouth. If the vermouth is big, sweet and voluptuous, then perhaps go for a big savoury juniper forward gin.
What’s your ultimate Negroni?
My ultimate is probably Tarquins Seadog Gin, Cocchi Americano and Campari but I could easily swap the vermouth to Sacred Spiced English and the Campari to Victory Bitters. The gin could swap to Darnley’s Navy Strength Spiced or Pickering’s Navy Strength. I also love a salty White Negroni with Isle of Harris gin or Hidden Curiosities Aranami with Suze and Contratto Bianco or Nordesia Blanco.