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.

[campari] intro

Name: Campari
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.

The History:

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.

[campari] detail bottle

The Product:

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.

[campari] drinking

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.

 

Vieux Carré

The elevator opens, and you’re met with the bright ecstatic cacophony of the city. Everyone up here is dressed well, but not as well as you. You’re a little early. You move easily through the crowd as a seat opens before you at the long mahogany bar. She’ll be a few minutes yet, so you look from your watch to the bartender, vest and tie over a shirt so white it must be new:

“May I offer you a drink, sir?”

[vc] through the sun

That’s what the Vieux Carré is to me. It’s a tailored suit. It’s jazz and a good cigar. Muscular and elegant, beguiling and complex,  it’s one of those cocktails that you look good ordering and you feel good drinking, as if you yourself are more sophisticated for being in its company. And while that would be enough, it also just happens to be really, really damn good.

The Story:

As with so many grand Manhattan variations, the cocktail is named after the neighborhood in which it was invented: “Vieux Carré”means “old square,” what they call the French Quarter in New Orleans. It comes to us from 1937 — one of the rare few classic drinks to be invented post-Prohibition — conceived by head barman Walter Bergeron at the famous Hotel Monteleone, which stands now, as it has since 1886, a block off Bourbon Street on the French Quarter’s southern end.

Today, the Hotel Monteleone is most famous for its somewhat curious Carousel Bar, what the website proudly boasts as “the city’s only revolving bar,” in which the bar and everything on it literally circles bartender at the manageable but still bizarre rate of  1 revolution per 15 minutes. The thought of a cocktail this elegant invented in a room that gauche kind of ruins my day, and it’s comforting to know that it actually wasn’t — in his time it was called the Swan Bar,  and wouldn’t be converted to an orbital experience for another 11 years.

This is a thoroughly New Orleans drink. Them Crescent City folks are unusually proud of their heritage, and any time you’ve got French cognac and liqueur, rye floated down the Mississippi, and the city’s own Peychaud’s bitters in a single drink, there’s really only one place it could come from.

[vc] glamour shot

Vieux Carré
1oz Rye whiskey
1oz Cognac
1oz Sweet Vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir for 30 solid seconds (if using Kold Draft, 45 seconds). Strain into cocktail glass, garnish with a lemon peel.

Ingredient Notes:

Rye: should be big and spicy. I find Rittenhouse 100 proof does the trick perfectly. Many insist on Sazerac Rye just to hammer in the New Orleans connection (despite the fact that the Louisiana-owned Sazerac Rye has been made in Kentucky for its entire existence), which works great if you can find it. Steer clear of bottles that are too soft or low proof. 45% minimum.

Cognac: I prefer V.S.O.P or better. Too young and you’ll taste the brandy’s funkiness, which still makes a fine drink, but it’s not ideal. The cocktail is at its best when the cognac is giving rich, supple, woody notes to balance the spicy rye.

Vermouth: I prefer Carpano Antica, because not much else can stand up to the rest of the ingredients while maintaining the complexity we’re looking for.

[vc] grid

Variations:

There’s some reasonable dissent on the sweetness (some say more Bénédictine, which is crazy; many say less, which is not), and whether or not to use a lemon peel (personal choice, though I think it’s begging for it), but I think the most fertile disagreement is whether to make this drink on ice or up.

This particular cocktail needs a lot of dilution. That sweetness can cloy if it’s not suitably chilled and diluted, which is why almost everyone chooses to make it on ice. It was definitely conceived that way, and I would never say a Vieux Carré on ice is in any way incorrect.

But it’s not how I like it. I mitigate the sweetness instead by stirring longer than other drinks, about 30-45 seconds, depending on the ice, to get a little extra water before straining it up. This is because one of the principle pleasures of this drink is how the herbal interplay from the vermouth and Bénédictine evolves as it slowly warms.

[vc] shot

The cocktail is deliriously good in almost any form, but my favorite part is how the herbal complexity— a background note at first, lumped in with the perception of sweetness — begins to take center stage as time goes on. The warming changes it and the change is half the fun, providing an axis point on which to focus.

It’s like a Manhattan but more interesting. What’s more sophisticated than that?

Trivia!: the Hotel Monteleone apparently offers publications the “official” recipe, which should never be followed by anyone. I’ve found two very similar, equally gross sounding versions:

A la The Georgetowner:                              A la Saveur
0.5oz rye                                                                 0.5oz rye
0.25oz cognac                                                      0.5oz cognac
0.25oz sweet vermouth                                    0.5oz sweet vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine                                            0.5oz Bénédictine
3 drops Angostura bitters                               dash Angostura
3 drops Peychaud’s bitters                             dash Peychaud’s
Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.                 Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.
Served, ostensibly, in a thimble.                  Served alongside a shot of insulin.