Campari: The Red Mistress
There’s nothing quite as cool as old school Italian class. I don’t know where I’m getting this image, Fellini or something probably, but I see a mid-century man in a perfect suit. Wayfairers, scarves, and Alpha Romeros zipping along the coast. He’s definitely smoking a cigarette. And he’s drinking Campari, probably with soda. Has to be. There’s no other way.
Category: Potable bitters — the “amari” (plural) or “amaro” (singular) in Italian.
ABV: 24% ABV, in the U.S. anyway.
Origin: Milan, Italy, since 1860.
Nose: Herbal, like chinese medicine. Orange and rhubarb. Wood chips. Lightly floral.
Taste: Floral into orange sweetness, with a slow building bitterness that crescendos after you swallow and lingers for a minute+, leaving you either (1) begging for more, or (2) wondering why anyone would ever do that to themselves twice.
In 1860, a 32 year old bartender and salesman named Gaspare Campari finalized the recipe for a bitter liqueur he’d been working on. He had other liquers — fruit and cream cordials, mostly — but this bitter red business was propelled by an unusual tastiness. As its fame increased, he soon earned the money to move from the suburbs to the center of Milan and opened a cafe in the newly built Galleria Vittorio Emanuele across the street from the Duomo, making his booze in the basement and serving it in the afternoon to the Milanese intelligentsia.
Caffe Campari was the place to be. If there were movies back then, movie stars would’ve hung out there, and when Gaspare died his obituary ran on the front page of the Milanese daily. His son Davide took over, built a production plant in 1904, and stopped making almost all other products in 1926, focusing heavily on the eponymous apertif.
It is Davide Campari’s name wrapped around the neck of every bottle, not his fathers’. Davide is the one who took Campari from a popular local phenomenon and put it on the road to what it is today, which is multinational leviathan selling 3 million cases a year across 190 countries. Which, if you’re wondering, is a whole hell of a lot.
Of all the aggressively bitter Italian liqueurs, and there are many, Campari is by far the most pervasive. Speakeasy or sportsbar, towny dive or rooftop club, it’s one of the few bottles you can find in pretty much any bar. Which is nice, because it is also amazing.
It is an aperitivo — the aperitivo, really, as it is widely credited with inventing the category — and is sharply bitter, more rust than dirt, one of those things that you’ll hate the first time you have it but grows on you over time. This aperitivo business suggests that you drink it before meals: the acute bitterness, they say, rouses your body’s digestive enzymes from their twixt-meal slumber and prepares you for eating. Italians are big on that kind of thing (there are also digestivos, which is even more bitter liquor, for after the meal).
As for the product itself, we don’t know what’s in it. Oranges for sure, with rhubarb, ginseng (maybe), plenty of herbs and roots as well as the unmistakable bitter gentian and Red #40, but beyond that, Campari seems to take a dickish pleasure in their own secrecy. “Many have guessed simply at the number of ingredients,” they say on their website, toothy smile implied, “some say there are 20 or 60, but others list the ingredients at 80.” There are only three living humans who know the recipe, and no one even knows who those three humans are. So ok: you don’t tell people. Got it.
Regardless, Campari is one of those bottles that is somehow more than its ingredients. Their secrecy doesn’t frustrate me, because a list of herbs would only tell half the story. It’s like Angostura bitters. Yes, there are similar products, in some cases very similar, but all Campari’s peers lack whatever ethereal magic it possesses that makes it sublime and absolutely indispensable. It is at once bitter and sweet, aggressive and subtle, and has that most charming of ingredient characteristics, which is to elevate whatever drink it is mixed in — specifically and especially its three brilliant, canonical cocktails:
(1) Campari & Soda, which is so popular in Italy that an adorable little 3oz version has been pre-bottled and sold since 1932, and which holds the noble purpose of being the one real drink you can get in almost any bar in the world that the bartender literally cannot fuck up.
(2) Americano, a Campari & Soda with sweet vermouth. The greatest pre-meal cocktail ever made, and which more or less defines the category of aperitivo. Still near impossible to fuck up, though some particularly incompetent bartenders have risen to the challenge. Some have also returned with an espresso and hot water, which is less a fuck up than a hilarious misunderstanding.
(3) Negroni, equal measures Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Gin. It deserves its own post, and will get one shortly. Bitter, sweet, strong and seductive, the Negroni is good before dinner, after dinner, before bed, in a mountain lodge, at the bottom of the sea, or really anywhere, at anytime at all. I’m not being hyperbolic about Campari as indispensable: a world without Campari is a world without Negronis, and in that case we should all just kill ourselves immediately.
Trivia #1: Campari has historically not been a vegetarian product. The brilliant red color was, from 1860-2006, the crimson dye carmine, which is created by collecting a bunch of cactus-feeding cochineal insects in a bowl and grinding them up with a pestle. For reasons either compassionate or capitalistic, they changed in 2006 to artificial color.
Trivia #2: Campari was initially called Bitter all’Uso d’Olanda, which translates to “Bitter – the Use of Holland,” or Holland-style bitter. There is, of course, nothing whatsoever Dutch about it, just that Gaspare wanted to tie in something exotic and the Dutch have long been at the center of the spice trade (just like the Branca people did with their imaginary Dr. Fernet). But as “Bitter – the Use of Holland” is an extremely stupid name, they changed it.