Origin: Russell House Tavern, Harvard Square
Take On: Negroni
If you want to have a drink with the friendliest bartenders in America, visit Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square. Yes, I’m a little biased—I did work there for over a year. But I’m also an excellent judge of character. Especially when that person is feeding me drinks.
Last Sunday afternoon, sometime between too early and much too early, I took a seat at Russell House’s downstairs bar. It’s an enormous, roundabout white marble bar in the belly of an enormous, bustling two-story restaurant. It’s no easy setting for Russell’s bartenders, but Joe Slavinski works it like a champ. Between talking regional sports with a very sporty-looking New England family (kids included) and professing his love for chef Tom Borgia‘s current pork dish (five ways, on a bed of Anson Mills grits), Joe invited me to try his negroni variation with sherry and mezcal, the Distract and Confuse. Joe says he named the drink after a curious hangover tactic he learned from a local liquor rep.
“She and her friend will wake up, do their hair and makeup really nice, and just try to pretend like they’re not hungover,” Joe says. “They call it distract-and-confuse. It kind of sounds like smoke and mirrors to me, and my drink is a smoky drink, so, you know…”
Clever guy. God knows if distracting and confusing ever worked for the poor girls, but Joe’s drink definitely works for me. I’ve heard it told by other bartenders in the city that mezcal can be a little overpowering in a cocktail. It plays rough. The negroni’s Campari is just as bold, but its bitterness can’t really cut the smoke of the mezcal. Joe says he didn’t want to end up with a “smegroni” (like, a smoky negroni—get it?), and especially not one that’s also a bitter bomb, so he replaced the classic drink’s sweet vermouth with sherry, tuned down the Campari from the negroni’s traditional full ounce, and tossed in a few dashes of orange bitters for good measure. In Joe’s drink, just like at his bar, everyone plays nice.
“The sherry gives this nuttiness and grittiness that complements the mezcal really well,” Joe says. He keeps the gin in there, too, so that it tastes like you’re drinking a negroni inside of a more layered, slightly smokier negroni. A drink within a drink. Within a bar within a bar. Oh, God. How many of these have I had?
“It’s a pretty sweet color, too,” Joe gloats. And he’s right—deep down it has its rougher edges, but when served up the Distract and Confuse has a rosy, polished beauty to it. Reminds me of a couple ladies I know.
. . .
Distract and Confuse
adapted from Russell House Tavern
1 1/2 oz Plymouth Gin
3/4 oz Lustau San Emilio PX Sherry
1/2 oz Campari
1/2 oz Xicaru Silver Mezcal
Dash of Reagan’s No. 6 Orange Bitters
Add all ingredients to mixing glass, fill with ice and stir. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with an orange twist. Or just have Joe make you one, and tip generously.
Follow Joe Slavinsky (aka Joey Roach) on On the Bar! Just click.
And follow chef Tom Borgia on Instagram! right here.