Interview with Melissa Watson

Melissa Watson - Negroni Week

I met Melissa, a self professed "cocktail nerd" from the San Francisco Bay Area, back in 2015 when she purchased a custom decanter from Love & Victory, engraved with the word "Negroni." It was a birthday present to herself, professing love for her favorite cocktail. I loved it when that order came through. 

Through Instagram, we've stayed in touch. She works at Bitters + Bottles, an awe inspiring shop in South San Francisco selling spirits and cocktail supplies, and her home bar produces jaw dropping envy — especially for the plethora of gin and bitter spirits housed there. From them, she produces tons of Negroni variations. In a day and age of beautiful cocktail photos that can be as much about looks as taste, her approach is real and refreshing — I love following along as she mixes herself a cocktail in relative darkness at home in the evening, talking about flavor profiles and tweaking as she goes. As I'm writing this, I'm thinking of her posts last night, trying to mix a Negroni inspired martini. By later in the night, she was sharing variation #3 of the drink, perfecting the balance between gin, Campari, and Mister Bitters Negroni inspired bitters. Or her working her way through a Ginvent Calendar during the holidays. She was thoughtful and DEDICATED!!

And in honor of Negroni Week, for which Campari and Imbibe Magazine asked me to sell Negroni Decanters for charity (get one here!) I talked to the woman who I call the "Negroni Queen" about life and her favorite cocktail. Thanks, Melissa!


Negroni Week - Love & Victory

Q: First off, you are the queen of Negronis! We decided to do this interview for Negroni week, because you love them so much, and we “met” first, because you bought yourself one of our decanters engraved with Negroni. Now we’re selling them for Negroni Week! If the proceeds weren’t all going to charity, I’d give you cut :) So what is it about a Negroni that floats your boat so much? Do you remember your first Negroni?

A: That’s incredibly flattering, both the title and the fact that there are now other Negroni decanters out there! I can’t remember my first Negroni but I do remember my first Campari experience. When my husband and I moved to Zurich for a year back in 2008, there was a bottle in our apartment. I tried a splash in some orange juice and to be honest, I could barely stomach it. But by the time we left, I couldn’t live without it! I came back from Zurich itching to dig deeper into cocktails, and the craft cocktail bar scene had exploded while we were away. As I started exploring, the Negroni became the first drink I’d order when visiting a bar or restaurant for the first time. I learned that I could  tell what to expect from the rest of the evening based on how the bartender mixed that classic cocktail. I’m still amused by how many different ways there are to interpret a simple drink of three equal parts.

Q: Are you a 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 lady? Up or on the rocks?

Equal parts, please. Served on the rocks on a warm day in Italy is the ultimate, of course. At home, I mostly just build them in a glass on one big ice cube and add an orange slice, but out and about I’m actually not too picky (well… don’t shake my Negroni, that’s all I ask). I like to see a little personality from the bar or bartender come through in their Negroni, and part of that comes from ordering simply and leaving the choices up to them. Sometimes it shows up on a big, sexy, clear piece of ice, sometimes they ask if I’m up for a little experimenting and I end up with a wacky egg white variation, and sometimes (though it happens less and less now) they say, “We don’t have that,” thinking I asked for a Peroni beer. Ha! Those are the people you don’t want making your Negroni anyway.

Q: Are there some variations on a Negroni that you love as well?

Oh, I love them all: Americano, Sbagliato, Boulevardier, and so on. And I love playing around with variations at home. One of the first things I think about when I try a new spirit or liqueur is which component it would take the place of in a Negroni variation. Basically if it’s bittersweet, I love it. Variations are fun and there’s plenty of room for them. When I posted a photo to Instagram of a Negroni I made with Don Cicchio & Figli’s Cinque Aperitivo, which is similar to Campari but a little softer and a little lower ABV, I made the variation clear but still someone sassed me saying “No Campari, No Negroni!” and I was probably more offended than I should let the internet get me. Don’t you dare question my devotion to the classic! I once took a four-hour train ride from Zurich to Milan just to visit the Galleria Campari museum, have a Negroni at the historic Camparino bar, and then turn around and take the train back. 

Q: I know that you have great taste both in cocktails and design and that you were/are a graphic designer. Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

My degree is in design and I spent a few years after college working in print. After I made my own wedding invitations, I started doing the same for other people. Weddings led to general events and general events led to cocktail events. I have to admit though, I’m probably too talkative to ever go back to full-time graphic design now, but it is still a big part of who I am and it guides and informs almost everything I do. 

Living in Zurich really brought out my passion for travel - I’m fascinated by the intersection between culture and cocktails. I’ve become what you might call an expert cocktail tourist - I get texts from friends on vacation in various cities around the world, asking for advice on which bar they should go to and what they should drink there. Here at home, I’ve started creating custom home bars for new cocktail enthusiasts - helping them learn what they love, how to mix their favorites, and keeping them stocked with tasty ingredients. Whatever I’m working on, it’s all about remembering that cocktails are meant to be fun and convivial. 

Q: Now you work at Bitters + Bottles in South San Francisco, yes? Can you tell me a little bit about the store and what you all do? From what you bring home and mix up, it looks like a dream to me.

Yes, I’m so happy to be a part of it! Bitters + Bottles is a one-stop shopping destination for everything you need to make great cocktails at home: lovingly curated spirits, mixers, bitters, bar tools, glassware, and books plus a troupe of friendly cocktail nerds to guide you. They even offer a subscription service to bring all of that expertise to your doorstep and help you build your home bar in the process. Every month you get five recipes, the ingredients to make those drinks, and a little education so you understand the flavors and balance behind the recipes and end up being able to tinker with them once you’ve mastered the classic. Sometimes people get intimidated at cocktail bars because they haven’t yet discovered what they like or there are too many ingredients they don’t recognize or the bartender is standoffish. B+B keeps things incredibly approachable and we always have a lot of fun. Come see me or get in touch, I’ll show you the way and you’ll be surprised that it ever seemed scary. 

Q: What are the stalwarts of your (enviable) home bar? Some newer favorites?

I often joke that I don’t have a drinking problem, I have a shopping problem. I love sampling new flavors and trying new things, so sometimes it’s hard to resist bringing home yet another gin, amaro, or vermouth because they’re all so different! I think I have something like 24 gins right now. Luckily, I love fixing drinks for friends at my house, so it’s a great excuse to keep my home bar well-stocked. Mixing a cocktail is such an easy way to make a guest feel special and it’s fun to see how fancy they feel. You can’t help but feel at least a little glamorous lounging on my chaise sipping something special from a vintage cocktail coupe my great-great grandmother found in an abandoned trunk at a train station (true story!). 

My other current must-haves: A good whiskey for Manhattans (High West Yippee Ki-yay is rocking my world currently). 100% agave blanco tequila to mix with Shrub & Co.’s grapefruit and soda water (ArteNOM is one I always come back to). I always have Plantation’s pineapple rum on hand for daiquiris, and as many Miracle Mile bitters flavors as I can get my hands on. Lately I’ve been obsessed with Bigallet’s China-China which is a French bittersweet liqueur, Jack Rudy’s cocktail cherries, Small Hand Food’s passionfruit syrup, Lo-Fi Aperitifs line but particularly their Gentian Amaro, and everything Venus Spirits (a distillery in Santa Cruz) makes.