Campari or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bitter

A long time ago in a cocktail lounge located in the heart of New Jersey, Red and I were introduced to the apéritif Campari.  It started as a simple experiment.  Bitter?  Sure.  Apéritif?  Sounds divine; our appetite could be whetted.  Something new?   Of course we’ll try it.

Before delving into this fine spirit, I would be remiss if I didn’t start with a little history on the beverage.  Apéritifs were invented in the 1840s by Joseph Dubonnet.  The original purpose of his concoction was to use it as a vehicle to deliver quinine to French soldiers.  While I enjoy my aperitifs, my preferred method of quinine ingestion is still the British Army method: a gin and tonic.  Nevertheless, we must give a tip of the cap and give thanks to malaria for these delicious beverages.

Campari was developed not long after Dubronnet’s initial foray.  In 1860 Gaspare Campari unveiled his new drink to the world.  Gaspare Campari was an exceptionally gifted drink master and was a maitre licoriste by the age of 14.  Gaspare Campari’s unique beverage is comprised of over 60 different ingredients.  The exact formula is still a closely guarded secret, but there are a few ingredients that are generally accepted to be true in the formula.  The first and possibly one of the most exotic is cochineal dye which gives Campari its distinct red coloring.  Cochineal dye, if you are not familiar with it, is made from the insect: Dactylopius coccus. The dye is produced from the female insect, which is dried and reduced to powder.  Additionally, it is suspected that cascarilla bark from the Bahamas, which has a strong bitter flavor, is also used.

Campari like all good aperitifs is complex.  Despite dozens of previous experiences, there are subtleties and nuances to Campari that I still discover when I enjoy it.  It is a bitter drink, but how bitter is still a bone of contention with Red and myself.  I find it to be bitter with a slight sweetness to it.  Red however finds it to be very sweet on its own with an overtone of bitter.  I must once again admit some slight deficiencies in my palate and side with her because the physical evidence outweighs my perception.  If a bottle of Campari is left alone long enough (30 days or less is sufficient time), when one twists open the cap of the bottle there is a rim of crystallized sugar in the grooves of the screw top.  However, I would be thoughtless if I did not include a caveat with declaring this beverage ‘sweet’.  If you are expecting Campari to be sweet like a cosmopolitan, lemon drop, or some other horrific mocktail or disgusting shooters, you will be overwhelmed by the bitter component of Campari.  This is a beverage for nuanced and sophisticated palates and I don’t think Campari would have it any other way.  I like to think of Campari in a similar vein as a strong and robust rauchbier.  You prepare yourself.  You sit back and brace, but it generally doesn’t matter.  Despite how prepared you are for it – unless Campari is your beverage of choice – that first sip is likely to take you aback.  This is where a superb bar chef can make all the difference in the world.

I believe a quick preface is in order to qualify my previous statement and to understand the rest of what I will write.  Red and I were fortunate enough to live near my favorite bar, Catherine Lombardi, in New Brunswick, NJ for several years.  The owners Francis and Mark are exacting and their cocktails are nothing short of magnificent.  Part of their exacting nature is how they train their bar chefs.  Without going into too much detail (that is for a later blog entry), the best and brightest in the area will come to work for these gentlemen because such is the nature of their enterprise.  It is a finishing school for those that desire to make their name in the culinary and mixologist world.  Our bar chef of choice was an exceptionally talented gentlemen that carried the nondescript moniker of Jon.

Enjoying the establishment as much as we did, we became quasi-regulars and Jon quickly recognized and understood our palates and knew what cocktails we would enjoy.  On perhaps our second or third trip, Jon recommended a Negroni to Red and upon hearing a quick description, she quickly agreed.  The generally accepted recipe for a Negroni is as follows:

1 part Bitters (Such as Campari; this is not to be confused with Angostura or Peychaud’s bitters)

1 part sweet vermouth

1 part gin

This cocktail is a play on the Americano.  It is much stronger than the Americano as it substitutes gin for the seltzer in the Americano.  The Negroni is a strong well rounded drink.  It is floral and herbaceous from not only the Campari, but also the vermouth.  Again, I cannot emphasis enough the importance of using good vermouth.  Vermouth is usually some cheap liquor one will have in their bar in the event someone (generally me) comes over and wants to make a martini or Manhattan, but using an inferior vermouth will absolutely destroy an otherwise well made cocktail.  The gin gives the Negroni substance and a fullness that I find lacking in the Americano.  For me, the Americano is a libation for the summer in the middle of the afternoon at a café and the Negroni is a perfect drink to begin an excellent dinner.

Shortly after this night, Campari became Red’s favorite spirit.  As a result, we experiment with Campari and recently we have been playing around with ginger beer and how to incorporate its unique properties to different cocktails.  One of these creations was the Crimson Gradient.


It is important to note the difference between ginger ale and ginger beer.  Ginger ale is the weak sister of ginger beer.  Ginger ale is sweet with mild hints of ginger.  Ginger beer is generally darker and while still sweet it is robust and intensely spicy with significant heat from the ginger.  Without going on too much of a tangent, without a good ginger beer it is impossible to make a Moscow Mule, a Dark and Stormy, or a Crimson Gradient.  Ginger ale is NOT a suitable substitute.

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Crimson Gradient Ingredients:

3oz. Campari

6oz Ginger beer.

Simply take 3 ounces of Campari and top it with 6 ounces of ginger beer.

This drink is beautiful to behold.  Much like its name suggests the red of the Campari intensifies towards the bottom of the glass.  Not every cocktail needs to be complex to be excellent.  Much like the Manhattan, this drink is beautiful in its simplicity.

I find the Crimson Gradient to be an excellent summer to early fall libation.  It is refreshingly bitter, yet imparts significant heat from the ginger beer.  The nose is herbaceous from the Campari, but while I find this cocktail to be bitter and heated, but there is just a touch of sweetness to make this cocktail balanced.

There is never a wrong time to foray into experimentation and to try new things.  Campari is for the bold and fortune favors those who dare.  Don’t let the perception scare you away.  Embrace it and learn to love the bitter.


~ by its12oclocksomewhere on October 14, 2010.

2 Responses to “Campari or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bitter”

  1. Re: Crimson Gradient. Just made something similar…

    2 oz campari
    2 1/2 oz sweet vermouth
    2 dashes orange bitters
    topped w/ ginger beer, garnished w/ blood orange peel (oil squeezed over the top)


  2. sorry, edit:

    1 1/2 oz sweet vermouth


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