There's a stereotypical image most of us have of the American businessman circa 1960. He's the sole breadwinner of his family, his wife prepares him dinner every night before he gets home from work, he never has to deal with his children, and after dinner he has an Old Fashioned to unwind. Essentially, this man is Don Draper. He's a relic, but his cocktail is still popular, particularly among the sort-of-trying-to-be-ironic-but-not-really bearded lumbersexual set.
The drink is great. The Old Fashioned is both the oldest of cocktails and an anachronism at once. This history is neither here nor there. It's a fascinating beverage in its own right, and I've drunk my fair share. I perfected my recipe using Death & Co.'s Demerara Gum Syrup as the sweetener (what a wonderful concoction that stuff is). Sometimes I like to add some Jerry Thomas' bitters. It's a great template and there's a lot of room for play. It adapts itself well, producing fascinating drinks like the Elder Fashion (drop in some lavender bitters), the Benton's Old Fashioned, or the Oaxacan Old Fashioned (drop in some Xocolatl bitters).
But this article isn't about the OF. The point I'm trying to make in a round about way is that for a long time it has served as a sort of Comfort Cocktail. People still drink it, a lot, and my image of the OF drinker is my brother: a bearded lumbersexual who enjoys fine beer and even some pretty good wine but isn't very adventurous. (I once gave him a sip of the most exquisite espresso shot I've ever pulled and he was disgusted.) Sure, taste is taste. De Gustibus Non Disputandem. But I call bullshit, I'm going to dispute.
I want to understand the Comfort Cocktail. What attracts a person to one cocktail in particular, such that, whenever they want a cocktail, they fall back on that regular? The obvious answer is that that particular set of flavors appeals to their palette.
As if in the 21st century with behavioral economics and consulting companies dedicated to helping Lays choose the color of a potato chip bag to maximize the savoriness of the flavor within we'd settle for the obvious answer.
What makes a person like a set of flavors, or, on a macro scale, a cocktail in particular, is influenced heavily by their personality. Because of course it is. My brother thinks of himself as a masculine guy, a normal guy, not overly stylish, but not a complete dullard wearing a fanny pack. A dapper guy. The guy for whom style is distinctly different from fashion. A Don Draper. He doesn't care about the political ramifications of Mad Men (nor does he even like Mad Men), but that's who he sees himself as. The Classic American Man. What better drink for someone who sees themselves as classically American than the classic American cocktail?
My brother also actually enjoys the OF. No one regularly drinks something they don't like just because of what it projects. But the personality projection is certainly part of it for some people, and my brother is one of those people.
My mother is not. My mother's Comfort Cocktail is a moving target. For a long time her CC was a Margarita with Gran Marnier. For the past year or two it has been what I call a Springtime: essentially a Gimlet with a half measure of dry vermouth and some muddled cucumber. More recently it's been a Smuggler's Cove Mai Tai. But all of these cocktails have something in common: she likes very sweet, citrusy drinks. Especially lime-based drinks. This says as much about her personality as my brother's OF: she's utterly without pretension. She just likes things that taste good to her, and she has a very unadventurous palette. She likes things to be of high quality (though I can't convince her that her $5 bottle of dry vermouth is gutter wash) but completely approachable and necessitating no effort or adventure on the part of the drinker.
My father rarely drinks, but he does drink Glen Livet. He's stuck on Glen Livet. Why? For sure there's some projection in this drink choice. My father is a movie man. He watches an incredible amount of Hollywood films. Even his understanding of geopolitics is defined by Hollywood. He grew up watching them. And in every Hollywood film that features a strong lead character, what does he drink? Scotch. Scotch is the serious man's drink. The Martini is for the sophisticate, but Scotch is for the taciturn, honest, thoughtful man. So my dad settled on Scotch, and sampled far and wide until he found the Scotch most acceptable to his palette: a fruity one.
My other brother, for all intents and purposes, is a teetotaler. He cannot bring himself to like alcohol. His drinks of choice: $60 bourbon in coke. He rarely finishes it. He'd rather just drink the coke.
While I was exploring the cocktail space during this Annus Horribilis I found, actually fairly early on, my Comfort Cocktail: the Negroni. This concept of the Comfort Cocktail has been rolling around in my mind for some months now because I am obsessed with this one cocktail, and would drink two or three a night if it weren't so expensive. For a period, in fact, I did (until I saw my liquor expenditures).
No, seriously, I want to know why I am obsessed with this weird and simple and jarring concoction over 100 years old and virtually unchanged in that time.
The Big Five
The Negroni is, as if by definition, an acquired taste. The Campari is extremely bitter, almost medicinal. Most people seem to hate it.
The best description I've ever read for the Negroni came from r/cocktails. Someone said (I'm paraphrasing) "I've always thought the Negroni was like anal sex. Either you absolutely hate it the first time you try it and will never try it again, or you like it just enough to try it again, and eventually it's all you ever want."
I will never forget the first time I tried it. That's not something I can say for most drinks. I wanted to try the classics after I'd been experimenting with the Martini template. And so I found a list of the most iconic classic cocktails from a decent media outlet and #2, right behind the OF, was the Negroni, a cocktail I'd never heard of. So I had to try it. I went out and bought the Campari and some decent sweet vermouth and mixed myself a Negroni. Holy cow was that first sip something else. It's a peculiar drink, and very flavorful. It's bitter and sweet and crisp all at once. I was perplexed. I gave it to my brother (the OF drinker) to have a sip, and he was disgusted.
This difference in response is, to my mind, the quintessential difference spectrum of all personalities. They classify this as one of the Big Five Personality Traits, an inventory of five traits to describe personalities arrived at through rigorous observation and experimentation. This is in stark contrast with inventories like Myers-Briggs which were arrived at a priori by just one incredibly brilliant man. The Big Five are also known by an acronym: OCEAN: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.
It's fascinating to observe the way simple behaviors express deep truths about a person, and this one act, sipping a Negroni for the first time, exposed deep differences between my brother and I. I can't say I loved my first sip. But I've had a philosophy since college that, if something is beloved throughout history (be it Shakespeare or Citizen Kane), and my first reaction is less than pleasant, I should at least learn why it's a classic before deciding I don't like it. So when I sipped that first Negroni and had a less than pleasant reaction, I decided to withhold my judgement and drink the whole glass to at least give it a shot. My brother, after one sip, knew it wasn't for him.
This is Openness. And while the Big Five is indeed five traits, I can't help but think that we should orient our entire understanding of politics, personality, history, and economics around just this one trait.
An Adventurous Palette
I am, by far, the black sheep of the family. Not only have I had considerable difficulty in life, I am also utterly unlike everyone in my family. I am a liberal, they are all Trumplicans. I majored in philosophy. They all, to a person, majored in business. I like science and math, they do not. I like very nearly every music genre I've ever listened to, including experimental ones. They like hits.
I am obsessed with high culture, they are not.
Part of this philosophy of giving classic things a shot is tied up in this obsession. The way I see it, for anything there is, if there are experts in it, it means they've weeded out the wheat from the chaff. Or at least, even if it's a highly subjective subject, they've got some set of opinions that are worth heeding.
Why? This sounds like complete bullshit to most people. Critics are full of shit, elitist snobbish morons. But I don't buy that. The reason for this is obvious: critics recommend things most people don't like. The RT audience score is often diametrically opposed to the critic score.
Why is this? If the critic's job is to recommend to people things they would like, but consistently rate higher the things the general public finds boring, how are they doing a good job?
This has to do with exposure and acquired taste. The critic is obsessed with their subject, the public just wants a good time. The critic has spent so much time obsessing over the subject, watching countless movies, trying countless wines, listening to countless songs, that they get bored by the obvious. They look for the subtle. And subtlety is what speaks to eternity's heart. Subtlety is high culture.
The Liberal Libation
Why am I obsessed with the Negroni in particular? The answer to this is many-faceted, but to be fair to my bearded OF-drinking brother I'll start with the psychological projection.
The Negroni is a bartender's drink. It's a subtle and polarizing cocktail that, if you drink it, says you have an adventurous palette. It most certainly does not appeal to the prototypical American palette. It's an insider's cocktail. A cocktail that says "I know cocktails, I have taste, and this drink most people hate I love."
This is me. I have that instinct to hate the popular and love the underground. I have that hipster prejudice, that I liked the band before it was cool. I always have. It's a superiority complex. I actually feel superior to the hipsters by pulling the rug out from under them: I'm so sophisticated I choose not to give a shit whether a thing is popular in choosing to like it. I enjoy having hipster-transgressive pleasures: I love, for instance, Camilla Cabello, Dua Lipa, and Taylor Swift (seriously, Tay Tay is a lyrical genius and if you disagree you're not listening.) But I still have that instinct to prefer an unpopular thing because it's unpopular. And the Negroni fits this bill.
But I never leave my house. I'm a hermit. I work from home all day and never go out on the weekends and make Negronis for myself and drink them in my room while watching YouTube or programming. So how is this projection a part of my choice of Negroni?
I don't know, but it is. For damn sure it is. Perhaps I dream of the day I can go to a bar and demonstrate my insidery sophistication by ordering a Negroni. I'm being dismissive of the counterargument because I'm absolutely sure this is a factor in my choice of cocktail. Why? I don't know, I don't really give a shit. But it is.
But it's also not the only psychological factor at play here. I like playing intellectual dress up. When I was in college I enjoyed the conceptual play of smoking Lucky Strikes with a zippo lighter while wearing a leather jacket and jeans and putting my right foot up against the wall I was leaning on. I was playing James Dean. It was profoundly posery, but it actually wasn't for other people, unlike the aforementioned hipster factor. I did it because it felt good, and I'd do it alone or I'd do it with people around me, I didn't really care because I just liked it. I liked the feel of flipping open a tarnished brass zippo and lighting the same cigarette the American G.I.'s smoked while fighting in France in the Second World War. It felt like a transportation. It felt like experiencing, in some small way, something people I thought were cool felt.
I think this is a spiritual behavior. The passage of time and life and death of humanity is too big a concept to grapple with. To stand in a place is to stand in the same place many beings, living and dead, have stood. I live in Tampa Bay. Sometimes I wonder what has happened on the ground I stood far in the past. Sometimes I wonder if Tocobaga or Manasota or Safety Harbor culture ever camped out right here where I live. I wonder about Hernando de Soto and José Gaspar being right here. I even wonder about the cows that grazed here and the builders. What conversation stook place right in this spot that I'm writing now?
I experience this when I'm drinking a Negroni. To sip the Negroni is to experience the same neural connections, the same flavors, that countless fascinating people have experienced before. It's a way of connecting to the past, present, and future through some neuronal alignment.
It's also like a staycation in a glass. Negronis are quintessentially Italian. Have an espresso, have a Negroni, mix them together, then hop on your vespa and head down to the canal. Gesture with your fingers pinched.
I know this sounds trite, but I find immense pleasure in this psychological dress up. While reading Three Musketeers I found their constant references to Anjou Wine to be insistent enough I went and cracked open a bottle (not of Anjou, just a red, but is that stuff even any good anyway?). The point is, I love to get in the spirit of things. And a Negroni gets me in the spirit of travelling to a lovely city in Italy and taking in the atmosphere and enjoying some fine beverages, pretending I'm not just a work from home programmer.
This desire to see other things, experience other cultures, feel new things is Openness. It's Liberalness. Liberals like change, conservatives don't. Liberals are open to new things, conservatives like things to stay the same.
I'm not saying, at all, that no rightful conservative wants to go to Italy or another country (though I next to guarantee there's more liberals travelling than conservatives). What I'm saying is that Liberals don't just want to see other places, they want to live there. They want to be other people, see the world from new perspectives, experience new lives. Conservatives want to see the rest of the world from their own perspective. The liberal will talk about seeing the authentic Italy, the conservative will talk about seeing the Coliseum. They don't want, themselves, to change at all. The liberal travels to change themselves, the conservative travels to realize why they already like the way they are.
Learning to Love
What is an acquired taste? The Wikipedia page is pretty succinct:
An acquired taste is an appreciation for something unlikely to be enjoyed by a person who has not had substantial exposure to it.
Campari, the Father in the holy trinity of Negroni ingredients, is listed on that page. Because of course.
But why do acquired tastes even exist? Isn't it a paradox? If you have to consume a lot of a thing to enjoy it, why would you? Sure, if you're aware that you will learn to love it you might choose to subject yourself to it (and this is actually how my brain works), but how do you know you'll learn to love it? How does anyone know this thing is good eventually in the first place?
I think there's two easy-to-explain routes for how an acquired taste is discovered.
The first requires a pleasant effect. Tobacco is a great example. Anyone who's had a first puff on a cigarette knows it's not pleasant. At all. If you don't hack your brains out, it will taste like shit. But there's a nicotine high. It's pleasant. A lightheadedness. If you don't get it your first hit, you might be encouraged to have a second, and then you'll get it. It might be because you're wanting to look cool. Whatever the reason, by the end of the first cigarette (which lasts for all of five minutes), you've experienced that high, and you liked it. The taste may be shit, even after the first whole cigarette, but you liked the high enough you want to try it again. After your second, you're hooked. The flavor has even grown on you. Let's call this, secondary effect-induced acquirement.
Coffee is an absolute perfect example of secondary effect-induced acquirement.
This doesn't actually explain the origin of how humanity came to appreciate tobacco as an acquired taste, because no one was encouraging the first smoker to have another drag. We can only assume that enough people (I'm sure no more than 10, easily even one) tried it independently that at least one person experienced the high, and that was it. Humanity was hooked.
The second route is more banal. Let's talk about the Earth.
I have rewritten this paragraph and the last word of the previous paragraph countless times because finding the perfect example is essential. I was going to talk about ratatouille (because it's a celebrated peasant food), then lobster (because its history in America is interesting: it was considered a poverty food for at least a century before being a delicacy), then I was going to talk about tequila (because it was considered a peasant's liquor until Americans got a taste of it and convinced Mexican sophisticates that it's incredible stuff) Then I was going to talk about peanut butter, because Americans love it and most of the world hates it. But all of these examples have histories that are somewhat too complicated.
So I'll talk about the sunset.
We, as human beings, find the sunset to be absolutely gorgeous. A good sunset, with streaking reds and pinks poking through the clouds, especially after a violent storm, can be a sublime experience. It's big and awesome and entirely humbling.
But why do we find it beautiful?
Hell, what is the beautiful?
We can talk about various effects in beauty, multicoloredness, pleasing palettes, even symmetry, but something I've thought about a lot is a simple question: what if the world was flat and gray? What if the sunset was scattered by a uniform cloud cover? What if we lived on an ugly planet?
We'd love it. That's the answer I've always believed. We love the way the world looks because it's the only world we know. Our aesthetic appreciation of the Earth is an acquired taste. Through the familiarity heuristic. People can learn to like absolutely anything they've had enough of.
Except, can they? Goddamn this is a meditation, not a thesis. I have no idea anymore. I get absolutely sick of a lot of things, incredible things, if I've had too much of it. Steak. I have had it with steak. And salmon. I used to love salmon. I have had way too fucking much salmon and can't really stand it anymore.
I think I'm stumbling on a more important point almost by accident. We're back to openness.
Some people, conservatives, those low on openness, prefer the familiar. Liberals, high on openness, hate it. They crave novelty.
I once read a fascinating article in Time Magazine about a special allele of a gene present in all humans. I think it was DRD3, but essentially, there are 3 alleles (forms) of this gene. Two of them code for reflective and sedentary behavior, but one codes for novelty-seeking, exploration, and risk-taking. It is found in increasing density the farther from the cradle of humanity you test, and it's present in the highest quantities in America. But this makes sense, right? It's the new world, the farthest from the cradle of humanity that you can get. And the effect is nearly linear and omnipresent in the selection circumstances of history. Every time a group of humans grew restless and packed up and moved on they got closer to America and the allele became more concentrated, right up until a group of Native Americans to be crossed the Bering Strait. And later? After America was rediscovered by Europeans and the great emigration began, the same thing happened again. A German family moving to the American frontier had to be likely to have this allele to leave everything behind for a new life.
America is literally the most liberal country in the world. Here in America we often think of Europe as far more sophisticated and liberal than the US. But it's really not, in a lot of ways. The US may not have the most generous welfare system, but hell, we're the only country in the world to give out one time stimulus payments during the pandemic. We're the most diverse country in the world, and when people think we're the most racist, they aren't accounting for the fact that that diversity allows racism to show it's face, where other countries don't have the opportunity to show racism like we do (ever heard of Black Pete?). First hand accounts of France I've read describe their racial attitudes as being close to America in the 80's. Concepts like Intersectionalism are foreign to their general populace, and the idea of Color Blindness is still pretty standard. Hell, even the liberals in England (J.K. Rowling...) are incredibly transphobic. The French are very Islamophobic, far more Islamophobic than the average American. The Germans, fuck, holy shit are they a mess. They don't even believe in debt! They call it "schuld", a synonym for "shame." (If you don't understand the relevance of this, consider that the concepts of financing and debt are the most liberal of inventions in history: the idea that you can owe people money and it's a good thing, that the owing someone money now will pay off in the future. It demands a belief in progress.) Ronald Reagan, one of our conservatives bragged in his final address about the fact that you can't become a Japanese, you can't become a Frenchman, you can't become a German, but anyone can become an American. This is a profoundly liberal idea. (Watch that speech, please, it's stunning, from a man I do not love.)
The Familiarity Acquisition Route
So I've abandoned my examination of acquired taste upon a new discovery: the second route of acquired taste demands both conservatives and liberals. It demands the interplay of a diametrically oppositional force.
For humanity to discover a familiarity-acquired taste, a simple mechanism can be observed: forced familiarity breeds pride in a flavor. Then, after a change produces an abundance of superior flavors, the original flavor is supplanted. Subsequently, conservatives cling to the old flavor through fear of change, and liberal adventurousness discovers the subtle pleasures of that flavor.
Let's imagine an ideal example of this.
Grapfish is a (fictional) smelly fish. It's very repulsive to the average person on first encounter. But it's also widely available to the peasantry of Grapland. So they eat a lot of it, because it's what they have.
Liberal Graplanders hate Grapfish. It's so common and it's all they can get. They long for hot dogs from America or croissants from France. They want something new.
Eventually Grapland industrializes. The nation starts importing other foods. After a time Grapfish falls out of favor because hot dogs are easily imported and they taste a lot better. So now Grapland is eating a lot of hot dogs and croissants.
Liberal Graplanders are adventurous souls and see an authentic Grapland butcher on the corner of a down and out neighborhood. They've never actually had Grapfish. No one eats Grapfish anymore except really old conservative Graplanders that are proud of their heritage and continue to celebrate it by eating Grapfish. The Liberal Graplander, feeling adventurous, strolls into the store and hears the old Graplander go on and on about how his Grapfish is the best in Grapland. The liberal Graplander tries it, and, knowing the reputation it has among the classical Graplandish writers they've read, gives it a chance. Like, eats the whole meal even though it tastes a little salty, and a little on the rotten scale, like fermented (think: authentic Japanese sushi, which is a little on the rotten scale). Because they're the kind of people that will give something they don't like a chance, they try it a few times, and they actually learn to like it. It has a savoriness not matched by processed hot dogs and Pillsbury croissants. It has now been ushered into acquired taste state. Suddenly there's "Authentic Grapfish Tacotrucks" all over Graplandia's capital city and it's the new Fish Taco.
While humorous, it seems to me this is a very plausible route for something to become an "acquired taste." I find it fascinating, because something like this happens with gentrification. A shitty neighborhood gets invaded by young creative liberals, becomes "cool", and now the conservative money moves in, pushes out the young creative liberals and the original residents, and prices shoot up. Suddenly you have an expensive neighborhood. This literally happens, all the time, in big cities.
Liberals push society forward because they're sick of the old, conservatives follow them into the breach. But rediscovery powers an interchange.
The Real American Cocktail
I started this meditation by talking about the Old Fashioned and its image as the classic, quintessentially American cocktail, but I've kind of come around in the course of it to a new realization.
Sure, the Old Fashioned is classically American. It's got America's Spirit (bourbon) and has been served in some form or another for at least 150 years. Sure, it's also what we think of when we think of what American Men drink. It's what men who want to be seen as American Men, like my brother, drink. But it's a conservative drink. It's familiar. Everybody drinks it. Its taste is easy to acquire (if you like booze, and you're not hunting for sweetness to mask the flavor of ethanol, an acquired taste in its own right, you'll like the OF).
There's a part of the origin story of the Negroni that I find interesting. We all know the story, Count Camilo Negroni, a regular at his bar, keeps drinking this cocktail with Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Soda Water. One day he asks the bartender to strengthen it by adding gin. The Negroni is born, changes the world, yadda yadda. Every YouTube video that tells you how to make (a fucked up) Negroni tells this story.
But there's one thing I left out: that original cocktail he was drinking? It was called the Americano, because American tourists liked it.
Wat? I don't know anyone that likes Campari. How does this work?
They were self-selecting. The Americans that were in Italy were self-selected liberals, because they were novelty seeking in the first place by going to Italy. I know I said Conservatives will travel just as easily as Liberals, the only difference was the spirit of the travel, but this is the early 1900's we're talking about. These people had to be adventurous to get on a steamer ship to go to Italy for vacation. So their palettes were primed for the adventurous flavor of Campari. It really is a wonderful flavor once you acquire it, and, well, When in Rome says the Liberal.
So what I'm trying to say: the Negroni is an American goddamn cocktail. Not because we invented it, certainly not because we perfected it, but because it perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Americanness (liberalism, damnit!) in the flavor profile. I could be a dork and talk about how America is the most extreme and polarizing of nations, which is perfectly valid, but the point is just the cocktail's demand for an adventurous palette. The openness to new cultures, willingness to try anything, and suppression of immediate dislike that characterizes Liberalism is exactly what marks someone who enjoys a Negroni.
Eternal Riffs and Adventurous Templates
One final word. This is extremely pat, and it's supposed to be a meditation, so let me have my last word.
The Negroni is a profoundly simple cocktail: 3 equal parts, one gin, one sweet vermouth, one Campari, with an orange slice, if you're talking with your hands, or an orange twist. (I prefer the peel because the oils are more pungent but it's more expensive.) But there's something profound about this simplicity.
There's a scene in Bertolucci's The Dreamers where Matthew, Michael Pitt's character, is zoning out at the dinner table and the father of the family he's staying with asks if he's boring him. Matthew responds that, no, not at all, it's just he's profoundly affected by the synchronicity of the shape of Eva Green's character's zippo lighter. It fits everywhere. It seems to him that that exact lighter has some kind of golden ratio that matches the size of innumerable items.
The Negroni is like this. I find it kind of remarkable that 3 different ingredients can achieve pretty incredible balance in such a perfect ratio. Why? Why doesn't the campari overpower the other two ingredients? Why isn't it better 1.5 gin, 1 vermouth, 0.5 Campari? Of course, some people do believe that and that's what they go with. But there's no denying the holy trinity is a perfectly amazing cocktail as it is. People who don't really like the Negroni to begin with mess with the ratios. And sometimes that's because they can't get enough Campari (pare back on the vermouth) or because they want it boozier (bump up the gin). But people who pare back the Campari just don't like Campari and probably shouldn't bother with the Negroni. Campari is the Negroni. Sure that's snooty, and maybe you do like Campari but just a little bit. Nothing wrong with that. I think a lot of people, though, pare back on the Campari but keep drinking the Negroni just because it's kind of expected. In sophisticated circles (not my own), the Negroni is a marker of sophistication. This would be peer-pressure-induced acquisition: you want to look cool, so you order what the bartender is drinking.
But so I'm left with the question: why do 3 separate ingredients perfectly combine in equal parts? It's a bit stunning isn't it? We don't put equal parts sweetener and bourbon in an OF. The standard profile for the Martini is not equal parts gin and dry vermouth (though I think that's a better cocktail; the Martini is an alcoholic's comfort cocktail, which is why Noel Coward said that a martini is best made by filling a glass with gin and then waving it in the general direction of Italy). But the negroni is an equal parts template. There are other cocktails, of course, like the Bijou that have equal parts, but the Negroni is the equal parts cocktail. All others are riffs on it, even if they were born before. It's the Platonic Equal Parts Cocktail. I find that fascinating.
That template, by the way (seriously, final word) is the perfect anchor for a lot of little riffs. You can drop a quarter measure of almost anything in it and it will be made better. I love to drop a quarter measure of espresso, doesn't even have to be good espresso, and it will taste incredible. I just saw someone drop in a quarter ounce of Cherry Heering and call it a Negroni Kiss. I'll be trying that tomorrow. I've also thought I might try wine.
You can't do that with the OF. Or the Martini. Yeah, you can Mr. Potato Head the parts, but you can't really just drop in a quarter ounce of Cherry Heering and know it'll be good. Probably will, but who knows.
So it's a template for adventuring. The amount of riffs on Negronis is so deep that there's an actual international competition sponsored by Campari for finding the best riff. How much more liberal can you get?
By the way, unpopular opinion: the Boulevardier is the opposite of a Negroni: where a Negroni is push-pull, the Boulevardier is all pull-push. Great up front, not so great in back. Drinker beware.