How Campari became an American bar

Objectively, it might seem a bit odd that a 200-year-old scarlet Italian liqueur that’s more bitter than sweet is becoming a staple in mainstream America. And yet, Camparithe best-known of the aperitivo bitters, or “red bitters” category, has become a must among bartenders, with sophisticated marketing being a driving force behind the brand’s success.

Some have even built entire bar concepts around the Negroni, such as Knoxville, Tennessee’s Brothers wolfwhich opened in July 2021 with eight variations on the menu and additional aperitivo cocktails.

“Campari isn’t just a constant, it’s a necessity,” says co-owner Jessica King. “It’s a fundamental part of our cocktail program… In the realm of bitterness, Campari rules.”

Of course, before it became a permanent fixture on American drink menus, Campari was common in Italian life. Since the late 19th century, it has been a fixture both as a drink and through its colorful advertising.

An aperitivo is born

Aperol Spritz cocktails / Getty

The crimson liqueur was first created by Gaspare Campari in 1860, according to its current parent company, Campari Group.

The Oxford companion to spirits and cocktails tells a little more about the story: Campari had trained as a distiller in a café in Turin, at a time when it was common for cafés to make their own spirits. In 1862 he moved his business to Milan, where he began marketing a formula called “Bitter all’Uso d’Olanda” (Dutch-style bitters), which soon became “Bitter Campari” before being simplified to “Campari”. .

Orange peel would typically have been the primary bittering agent for such a product, The Oxford Companion Remarks. But according to early records, orange peel was supplemented with gentian, germander and wormwood. “Campari adjusted the botanicals, used less sugar and added more dilution” than comparable liqueurs of the time, creating “a lighter, brighter aperitif,” write David Wondrich and Leo Leuci in The Oxford Companion. The distinctive red hue was probably added later and comes from red insects called cochineals.

Campari stopped using cochineal in 2006 and switched to an artificial red dye, although some other manufacturers still use cochineal, also called carmine.

marketing matters

Campari ad
Campari advert from 1926. Marcello Nizzoli / Image courtesy of Campari

Campari’s son Davide took over management of the company in 1888 and is credited with taking Campari from a local success to an international one – including a dedication to publicity: In particular colorful posters, many of which were designed by well-known artists of the early to mid-20th century, contributed to Campari’s enduring legacy not only as a liqueur but also as a brand. This would become an important distinction.

Campari’s first plant opened in 1904, allowing for a wider production and distribution of the liqueur. In the decades that followed, Campari conquered the cocktail bars of Paris, where the Boulevardier and the Old Pal emerged (their popularization is credited to Harry MacElhone, the founder and owner of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris in the 1920s). In the 1930s, Bitter Campari was shipped as far away as San Francisco and Buenos Aires.

Although World War II almost destroyed his happiness, Campari returned in the post-war decades.

“In 1976, the company began a process of transferring its control from the Campari family to the Garavoglia family, with which it remains today,” he says The Oxford Companion. An “aggressive series of acquisitions buying brands in Europe and America” ​​soon followed. Eventually, the company was renamed Gruppo Campari (the Campari Group), a multinational spirits company.

Enter the Negroni

Homemade classic Old Pal cocktail
Classic Old Pal Cocktail / Getty

Marketing, a key stepping stone to Campari’s early success, was also factored into the late Negroni boom – another windfall in selling the bitters.

While the Negroni is hardly new — most believe the drink dates back to around 1919, depending on which origin story you believe — it became a staple of the aughts’ cocktail renaissance, as bartenders (and later consumers) began to take on the bitter flavors of Amari. The drink’s easily recognizable red glow didn’t hurt either — a Campari-contributed color believed to be a key ingredient (alongside gin and sweet vermouth) that gives the drink its bittersweet personality and signature hue.

The essential nature of red bitters for the cocktail, and the growing fondness of bartenders for it, has not gone unnoticed by the spirits conglomerate: backed by Campari and Imbibe MagazineNegroni week‘ was launched in 2013 to celebrate the drink in bars around the world while raising funds for charity. Though Campari says it can’t quantify the exact impact on sales, it notes that the number of bars and restaurants participating in Negroni Week each year has grown from 120 (in 2013) to over 12,000 (in 2013). 2021) has increased; 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the event.

The initiative helped raise awareness of the drink and certainly helped boost sales of the liqueur. The late bartender and educator Gaz Regan published two versions of a book devoted entirely to Negroni recipes (a self-published version in 2013, followed by a Ten Speed ​​Press version in 2015); Numerous other Negroni compilations followed, containing the many, many variations of the drink.

The drink remains a staple; an annual survey of 100 of the world’s top bars conducted by the trade publication drinks internationally even named the Negroni the “Best-Selling Classic Cocktail” for 2022, sidestepping the Old Fashioned’s eight-year reign.

The proliferation of Negroni and other bittersweet beverages has also helped ensure that an ever-growing selection of red bitters can be found on bar and retail store shelves.

“At the sugar monk We use a variety of red bitters to achieve subtleties in the flavor profiles of our beverages,” says Ektoras Binikos, co-founder and partner of the bar in Harlem, New York City. For example, Binikos sets accents Gran Classico by Tempus Fugit bitter for its “earthy character” and its “deep and rich, lingering finish.” He also praises light-bodied, wine-based Cappelletti for its citrus and herbal tones that are ideal for spritzing, Contratto for its “subtle bitterness with wonderful botanical flavors,” and Leopold Bros Aperitivo, “one of my new favorite aperitifs,” for that relatively dry profile enhanced by grapefruit peel and red berries. That’s a whole arsenal, next to Campari he reaches for nuance and complexity to different drinks, he says.

From Campari to Aperol

Campari Negroni drink is poured.
Campari Negroni / Photo courtesy of Campari

Another Italian aperitivo, Aperol was founded in 1919 by Luigi and Silvio Barbieri. Daniel Warrilow, Italian portfolio ambassador for Campari America, which owns both brands, credits Campari with the launch.

“Campari was the most bitter thing there is,” says David Warrilow. “The Barbieri brothers wanted to create something for their generation that was less bitter and more citrusy.” In comparison to Campari’s pungent, grapefruit-like bitterness, Aperol was engineered to have a taste similar to candied orange or orange peel, he explains .

The two liqueurs are made differently (Campari is made through maceration, infusion, and distillation, while Aperol uses a percolation process to infuse the spirit base); They contain different plant substances and are bottled in different strengths (Campari with 24% alcohol by volume, or Aperol with 11% by volume).

But in terms of flavor, the key difference is bitterness, Warrilow says. “They have the same amount of sugar, but Campari is more bitter,” he explains. “If you taste them side by side, you notice different properties.”

Aperol was acquired by the Campari Group in 2003 and first imported into the US in 2006. While Orange Bitter is a key ingredient in Paper Plane and numerous other cocktails, it’s best known for its starring role in the juggernaut this is the Aperol Spritz, another triumph of the Campari marketing team.

Four to pour

Boulevardier cocktail on a stone background in gray color.
The Boulevardier Cocktail / Getty

aperitif; $29. This classic liqueur is a strikingly bright red-orange and has a mild orange aroma. Although considered a bitter aperitivo, the lively taste is more sweet-bitter… SEE RATING AND RATING

Campari; $28. The original red bitter is a vivid scarlet, with a grapefruit peel-like aroma and flavor. The palate is bitter and light… SEE REVIEW AND REVIEW

Choose Aperitivo; $28. Slightly sweet, this red bitter blends berry tones with light bitterness and floral hints on the exhale. Rhubarb root and juniper berries… SEE RATING AND REVIEW

St Agrestis Inferno Bitter Aperitif; $35. With a relatively natural reddish hue and a grapefruit-like aroma, this red bitter has a juicy quality… SEE REVIEW AND REVIEW

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