True story: up until last week, I didn’t think I liked Campari. My initial dismissal tied into my basic understanding that it was bitter, and the belief that I’m not so into bitter flavor profiles for my cocktails. But while Campari is bitter, it’s also pretty complex. And when balanced with the right accompanying ingredients, it’s not at all hard to swallow.
Campari first came about in 1860 in Novara, Italy. There, a young mixologist by the name of Gaspare Campari experimented with the addition of various flavor combinations to neutral alcohol. He would sell these in his caffe, and ultimately lent his name to the most popular of his concoctions: bitter all’uso d’olanda (bitter in the Dutch way).
With this new cocktail base now at his disposal, Gaspare invented the Milano-Torino, a blend of Campari, sweet vermouth, and club soda, whose name was inspired by the sources of its ingredients (Campari from Milan and vermouth from Turin). This drink eventually came to be known as the Americano, though there are two different explanations behind the name change: (1) the belief that American expats in Italy really seemed to be into it around the turn of the century, and (2) that it was derived from the Italian word for “bitter”—amaro.
Years later, in Florence, another Campari-based cocktail came onto the scene. Count Camillo Negroni, who’d order his Americano with a shot of gin instead of soda water to make it stronger, was credited with the invention of the drink that continues to bear his name to this day. His bartender would garnish the Negroni with an orange peel to differentiate it from its then-lemon-garnished predecessor (lemon and orange both appear in Americano and Negroni recipes today).
More and more cafes opened in Western Europe during the Belle Epoque (Beautiful Era)—which began in 1871—encouraging a shift in customary behavior throughout Western Europe: bitter cocktails began to be sipped before a meal to stimulate the appetite, and meeting for an aperitif became a social activity.
The first ad for Campari appeared in an Italian newspaper in January 1880, launching a long-standing Campari tradition of working with a range of popular artists and graphic designers, like Cesare Tallone, Marcello Dudovich, and Leonetto Cappiello. Their contributions helped to portray the spirit as an essential component of a cosmopolitan lifestyle and often featured beautiful women as representations of the spirit’s essence.
In 1904, Davide Campari, Gaspare’s son, opened a new factory in the resort town of Sesto S. Giovanni, converting production to a mechanized process that helped to facilitate international exports beginning in 1920. Today, Campari is distributed in almost 200 countries. For the American market, bottles are labeled “aperitivo” instead of “bitter” to appeal to our more, uh, particular palates. And the liqueur’s label bears Davide’s name, not Gaspare’s; after Davide died in 1936, the company was sold to a distant cousin, then later out of the family.
So what’s in Campari, anyway? It’s a mix of equal parts alcohol, sugar syrup, distilled water, and an infusion of herbs, plants, and fruit. Some suspect that the bitter flavor comes primarily from an Italian citrus fruit called chinotto. Its distinctive red color originally came from carmine, a dye derived from insects, but artificial dye has been used since 2006. The exact ingredients in the infusion are a proprietary secret. In fact, Campari’s factory director is the only one who knows exactly what’s in it! But don’t worry—just in case you get as hooked as I now am on Campari, the company insists they can get the recipe without him (should they have to—but fingers crossed they won’t anytime soon).
By the way, eh, cumpari means “hey, buddy” in Italian, and it’s the name of a novelty song that’s been playing on loop in my head since I began writing this post (and plenty of times before that). Sing along with me, will ya?