Campari is one of the most iconic of Italian drinks. Its popularity has waned in the UK over the past couple of decades, but with the current cocktail renaissance slowly spreading out across the country, it’s starting to make itself known again.
Invented in 1860 by Gaspare Campari, it’s a classic Italian bitters – an infusion of herbs and fruit in alcohol. Its most famous character is its bright red colour, which originally came from cochineal, a dye made from crushed beetles. Don’t worry if you’re a vegetarian, Campari stopped using it back in 2006, but be careful if you’re looking for vintage bottles.
It’s strongly bitter and herbal, with background sweetness and lots of orange notes, and isn’t really something to drink on its own. The classic serve is Campari and soda, sold premixed as Camparisoda using a bottled designed by Futurist artist Depero in the 1930s, but my serve of choice is the Negroni – the classic, bitter pre-dinner drink:
1 part sweet vermouth (I normally use a mix of heavy Punt e Mes and light Gancia Rosso, tweaking the amounts depending on how rich I want the drink)
1 part gin (I usually use Tanqueray, as it’s a classic gin with a solid juniper note, but it’s well worth experimenting)
1 part Campari
Stir the ingredients with ice and then strain into a tumbler with fresh ice.
It can be a challenging drink if you’re used to fruity cocktails with umbrellas, but for me it was the gateway to a whole world of old-world cocktails – since first trying one I’ve not looked back.
It’s worth seeking out older bottles if you are a Campari fan, as while the recipe (apart from the colouring) hasn’t changed much over the years, its ABV means that it’s not as carefully preserved over time as higher-strength spirits. However, it is still strong enough to allow it to age elegantly over the years – it softens and becomes more integrated, becoming something that can enjoyed on its own as well as adding layers of complexity to cocktails.
If you are looking to step into the world of classic cocktails then your bar isn’t complete without a bottle of Campari. It may not get the fanfare of many drinks, but no bartender would be without it.