When I say the word Campari, what comes to mind? A happy memory of a refreshing Negroni? Or a feeling of being grossed out? The bright red Italian liqueur tends to inspire passionate love or hate in its drinkers. Fans praise its complex bitterness and inherent sweetness, while naysayers compare it to cough syrup. Regardless of your feelings about Campari, it’s a liqueur with an interesting backstory, and can charm even the harshest critics in the right context.
Campari originated over 150 years ago in Milan when Gaspare Campari created the bitter mix while experimenting with various alcoholic concoctions. The recipe is said to be unchanged since then (with one notable exception—more on that in moment), and consists of a blend of a fruit and herb infusion, water, alcohol, and sugar syrup. The infusion is where the mysteries lie, with only a few ingredients known for sure. The cascarilla shrub is one of them, which is also used to flavor vermouth. Small and bitter chinotto oranges, rhubarb, and ginseng go into the mix, but the rest is a well-kept secret.
The liqueur has long been wildly popular in Italy, with Italians buying a bottled mix of Campari and soda as well as the usual bottles of straight Campari. A couple of fun facts: it’s labeled as an aperitif in the U.S. instead of a bitter, presumably to make it more appealing to the American palate. And until 2006, the ruby red drink was colored with carmine dye, a dye made from the crushed dried bodies of cochineal insects. These days they use artificial red dye to achieve the trademark color. A few purists claim it hasn’t tasted quite the same since the switch.
Campari is a bitter that lives up to its name, which is probably the main reason some find its flavor off-putting. You’ll taste notes of grapefruit and orange, spices like clove, a level of herbaceousness, and sweetness. Typically, your sip will start sweet and lightly spicy and end with a lingering bitter bite. It’s a little like taking a bite into a whole orange (peel, pith and all)—zesty, bitter, sweet. But most of all, it just tastes like Campari.
Don’t confuse Campari with almost-as-red Aperol, which is also popular in Italy when used in an Aperol Spritz and now owned by the Campari company. That liqueur is made with similar ingredients, but is lower in alcohol and milder than Campari. If you’re unsure about bitters, an Aperol Spritz (prosecco, Aperol, club soda) with a big wedge of orange could be a good start. Then work your way up to the almighty Campari.
Image via Campari
Stateside, Campari is a favorite among bartenders and drinkers in the know. It’s an acquired taste that, once acquired, often becomes a favorite.
The bitter can be enjoyed plain on the rocks, but is reserved for only the most ardent fans. If you’re not already into Campari, don’t start here.
For an almost equally simple cocktail, combine Campari with two parts soda water and a lemon or orange wedge for a Campari Soda. This is an especially popular drink in Italy.
Probably the most famous use for Campari in the U.S. is a Negroni. The classy cocktail combines equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari with a twist of orange or lemon. It’s a refreshing drink but boozy, making it ideal for slow sipping on a warm evening. There are dozens of variations on this classic recipe.
This variation on the Negroni has you swap the gin for bourbon or rye. Great for those who aren’t into gin and want to sidle closer to a Manhattan.
For something a little lower in alcohol, take the gin out of of Negroni and you have an Americano. Add a splash of club soda or seltzer to really lighten things up.
New to Campari? Like fruity drinks? (Most people do, they just don’t admit it.) Campari pairs extremely well with tart juices like grapefruit. Try a fancy number with cranberry juice and prosecco called a Bittercup, or a simple but delightful Jasmine with gin, lemon, and Cointreau.
A quick Internet search will reveal a long list of Campari cocktails that you didn’t know existed, combining the drink with ginger beer, tequila, Pimm’s, bubbles, and more. No matter your taste, you’re sure to find a way to enjoy this divisive drink.