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  • Writer's pictureJohn B. Reyna

Campari,the Iconic Red Bitter Aperitivi, Mesmerizes

Look at that color! Damn, Campari photographs well.


With the growing popularity of vermouth, different bars and restaurants began playing with more bitter versions in the mid 1800s. Also, having an Amaro as a digestif after a meal was already common in Italy. Gaspere Campari became a specialist of these unique house-made concoctions and decided to experiment with a bitter before-dinner drink.

He created the original recipe in 1860 and opened his own bar in an outdoor shopping mall. Gaspere’s son Davide created the first production plant near Milan in 1904 after decades of growing popularity. The Campari group now has a portfolio of over 50 liquor and spirit brands, exporting to 190 countries.

The original, secret family recipe is still used 160 years later.

Flavors and Bitterness

There are flavors of orange, grapefruit, and quinine. Nothing is released about the recipe beyond that it contains water and alcohol infused with bitter herbs, aromatic plants and fruit. It is believed the intense bitterness comes from the Chinotto citrus fruit and contains up to 80 ingredients. Not to be confused with Aperol since Campari is far more bitter and alcoholic. While they both have sweet citrisy notes to them, they are not interchangeable.


For the majority of Campari’s existence, the color came from carmine dye, which is made from the cochineal insect. However, in 2006, Campari switched to an artificial dye, which you’ll see marked on the bottle in the US. Some parts of the world still get the insect version, yum!


Campari was originally popularized by drinking it with carbonated water. Then someone had the genius idea to add sweet vermouth to help balance the bitter, and boom, you have your first Americano.

Then, Mr.Negroni, an avid Americano drinker, replaced the sparkling water with gin to make it more boozy, and the first Negroni was born circa 1920. Both the Americano and Negroni were included in the International Bartenders Association list of classic drinks in the 1920s, specifically calling out Campari.

From the Negroni, you can branch out to other related cocktails. For example, replace gin with bourbon for a Boulevardier. Or replace the gin with tequila and alter the vermouth proportions to make it perfect (1/2 dry and 1/2 sweet - .5oz each of each per drink) for a Rosita. You could even make an Old Pal with equal parts Rye, Campari, and dry vermouth. Finally, replace the gin with sparkling wine, and you get a Negroni Sbaglitao. See, the possibilities are endless.


Also in the 1920s, Campari hired renowned artists to create posters, starting a very early advertising campaign and supporting the pop art movement. This included the famous Spiritello poster in 1921 all the way until the Manifesto Campari, which is permanently exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.

Manifesto Campari - Bruno Munari, 1964

And now, back to drinking…


1oz gin

1oz Campari

1oz Sweet Vermouth – we used Carpano Antica formula, also from Milan

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Fill with ice. Stir. Strain into a rocks glass over one large cube of ice. Garnish with an orange slice.

Count Camillo Negroni requested this spin-off of the Americano in Florence sometime between 1917-1920, which quickly grew in popularity. If the martini is the king of cocktails, the Negroni is the king of bitter cocktails.

And a play off a Negroni....


1 ½ oz of bourbon

¾ oz of Campari

¾ oz sweet vermouth - we used Carpano Antica formula, also from Milan

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Fill with ice. Stir. Strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with an orange peel.

This play on a classic Negroni began as equal parts and evolved over time as bartenders and drinkers alike felt it was better balanced at 2 parts Bourbon with 1 part Campari and sweet vermouth. It came quickly after the Negroni and was already popularized and recorded in Harry McElhone’s cocktail recipe book Barfiles and Cocktails in 1927.

It took me years to appreciate Campari. There's no getting past just how bitter it is. However, after playing around with it, I finally understood its beauty. If you are new to Campari, I recommend start in small quantities and work your way up. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but an amazing one!

Sending bright red love,









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