Campari. Bright red and packed into a shiny bottle. You may have seen in it in your liquor store or on the back bar at your local boozateria. Or perhaps you’ve seen the distinctive advertising—the stylish posters, the commercials with Jessica Alba, or the calendars with Benicio Del Toro, Olga Kurylenko, or Penelope Cruz (some of the calendars in this link are NSFW). Clearly, Campari is a brand with money to spend on splashy advertising. The ads portray Campari as a sophisticated drink, one that appeals to cosmopolitans, bon vivants, and sexy Europeans.
If you’ve never had Campari, the bright red liquid masks a surprise. This bittersweet stuff is definitely an acquired taste. I suspect nearly everyone grimaces the first time they try it, but that’s no reason to give up. Campari cocktails are richly rewarding once you come around. Because they’re long on flavor, you can generally savor them, letting them linger in your glass and on your mind.
Interesting bit of trivia about Campari: until just a few years ago, Campari was a sand-pit for vegan drinkers. The dye used to produce the rich red color was taken from crushed cochineal insects; it’s now artificially colored. Some aficionados say they can taste the difference, but I haven’t noticed the change.
Below you’ll find five essential ways to enjoy Campari (once you come around to loving it.)
Most of the drinks in this roundup are simple, but this is the simplest of them all—so simple, in fact, the recipe is in the title. Campari itself is relatively low in alcohol (24% alcohol by volume), so when you cut an ounce or two of it with soda, you produce a drink that’s not much more potent than wine, and seriously refreshing on a hot day. The flavor is crisp and mildly bitter, with lightly spicy flavors. A squeeze of lemon or orange juice isn’t out of bounds here, because Campari’s flavors marry well with citrus. This drink is so popular in Italy that Campari actually makes a premixed version, known as Camparisoda.
The Negroni Family
[Photograph: Michael Dietsch]
I have to mention the Negroni Family, although it may seem blindingly obvious, just because the drinks are so popular, so classic, and so good. What can I say about the Negroni that hasn’t been said? It’s among my five favorite cocktails, and among my two favorite uses for gin (the other being, of course, the martini). What makes the Negroni such a great cocktail is the way in which everything harmonizes. Gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth all contain botanical herbs that meld well in this drink. The vermouth and Campari balance each other, providing bittersweet notes that are smoothed out by the gin. And if you choose your ingredients well (specifically, if your gin and vermouth have some body to them), the drink has a rich, smooth texture that’s very pleasant.
The Negroni is also an excellent starting point for variations and experimentation. Try an Americano, which lacks the gin but adds club soda. The Sbagliato also drops the gin, but swaps in Prosecco in its place. And finally, the Boulevardier uses bourbon (or, better, rye) for the gin. For another spin, take the sweet vermouth from the Boulevardier, and use dry vermouth in its place. You’ll have a drink called the Old Pal.
[Photograph: Heather Arndt Anderson]
Campari is a beverage with many suitors—ingredients that clamor to pair up with Campari on an epic bar crawl. Among the finest is grapefruit juice. Any citrus goes well with Campari, you’ll find, but grapefruit is exceptional. You might expect the two tart flavors would clash, but somehow they don’t; it’s like watching your two bitterest aunts get together and actually be funnier together than either one is alone. The Sanguinea rounds the drink out with pomegranate juice, which deepens the red hue (sanguinea means “blood-red”) and makes for a deliciously fruity brunch cocktail. If you wanted to add an ounce or so of soda water, I’m sure no one would mind.
[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]
Speaking of grapefruit juice, here’s a funny story: my wife is allergic to it. She’s okay with most citrus, but for some reason, she can’t have either grapefruits or oranges. This does tend to somewhat limit the cocktails that I can make at home, but the even sadder thing is that I know that she would love grapefruit, if it were safe for her. She’s a fan of bitter flavors in food and drink, and therefore grapefruit would be just up her alley.
I say this by way of describing the Jasmine. I can’t quite pinpoint the chemistry that happens in this drink, but somehow when you blend gin, Campari, Cointreau, and lemon juice, you come up with something that tastes like grapefruit juice. The first time I made this drink, I set it before her and watched carefully as she sipped it. And as she broke into a wide smile, I said, “Now you know what grapefruit tastes like.”
The Jasmine, by the way, is an excellent drink for those who think they dislike Campari. That is, as long as they like grapefruit.
[Photograph: Robyn Lee]
Okay, confession time: So far, most of the drinks in this roundup have been simple drinks of, at most, four ingredients. The Eeyore’s Requiem breaks that mold. I know that complex cocktails with many ingredients are sometimes a hard-sell, but this one’s excellent, and I think it’s worth it to track everything down, if you can.
Why? Well, first off, the name is excellent. Naming new cocktails isn’t easy. Second, it’s lovely to look at, and finally, the drink is just completely delicious. It’s bitter, with complex herbal flavors and a touch of sweetness, and it rewards long sipping. This is one you can nurse for a while because unlike some cocktails, Eeyore stays fresh even as it approaches room temp. Don’t fear the Fernet here: it blends so well with the other ingredients that you won’t even notice it.
Do you like, loathe, or simply tolerate Campari? If you like it, how do you drink it?