The dark and bright red color and its distinct bitter taste are the most standout characteristics of Campari. Traditionally, Campari gets served as an aperitif. You drink it before a meal to stimulate the appetite and prepare the stomach. Today Campari is still regularly consumed before meals, but mainly as a component of cocktails and highballs.
With the rise of Italian aperitivo cocktails, the demand for Italian bitter liqueurs is growing, too. Drinks like Aperol, Cynar, and of course, Campari are vital ingredients for many of those cocktails. Think of the Negroni, Americano, or a classic Aperol Spritz cocktail. All of them do flow freely in bars for the past years already.
So it is about time to look into what Campari actually is and when it got invented. Read on to find out more about this famous Italian bitter liqueur.
Born in Milan – What is Campari?
Gaspare Campari invented the iconic liqueur in 1860 in Novara, Italy. Novara is a city of the Piedmont region, just west of Milan. The first production plant was established about 44 years later in Sesto San Giovanni. Sesto, as it’s often called, belongs to the Metropolitan region of Milan. Since then, Campari and Milan more or less belong together. And on today’s bottles, you can still find the Mention of Milan on the upper part of the bottle label.
Gaspare Campari was responsible for the original recipe. But it wasn’t until his son Davide took over that the company began to grow and export its product. Nowadays, the brand sells in more than 190 countries. And it’s no longer “only” Campari. The Gruppo Campari owns around 45% of the global liquor market. They acquired Aperol and also other famous Italian brands like Frangelico, Amaro Averna, and Cynar.
As I said before, Campari itself mostly gets recognized by its color and taste. Because both were so unusual, people started to wonder about it. And eventually, they came up with the idea that Campari would use insects to color the liqueur. And, believe it or not, that turned out to be true. The original version used carmine dye to create the iconic color. And Carmine is made of crushed cochineal insects. However, in 2006 this stopped, and Campari began using artificial colors for the liqueur.
But people didn’t only wonder about the iconic color. They also were curious about the intense bitter and herbal taste. The exact ingredients are a well-kept secret, though. What we know is that Chinotto and Cascarilla are part of it. But let’s have a closer look at the ingredients.
What it is made of
The herbal bittersweet liqueur consists of many, many components. The exact list and number of ingredients are not known. But it’s believed to be anywhere from 10 to 70. Quite a range, to be honest. However, some I can name with a decent degree of certainty. These would be Chinotto, Cascarilla, gentian, orange, rhubarb, and also ginseng.
Chinotto is one of the essential ingredients. The orange-like small fruit has a strong bitter taste and is also responsible for Campari’s bitterness. In Italy, this small and bitter fruit is also commonly used in carbonated soft drinks.
Additionally, there’s a number of dried herbs needed. But no one exactly knows what they are. Well, no one besides the factory director. But whatever the recipe is, it’s still the original version Gaspare Campari created in 1860. Long live tradition.
The taste of Campari
If you try Campari for the primary time, you most likely will not be positively surprised. It offers quite a complex and unique flavor profile you probably need to get used to before you can really enjoy it. With the first sip, you’ll notice the intensely sweet and bitter notes. Only once you overcome the initial boost of bitterness can you taste the herbal and fruity notes of the liqueur.
It’s hard to describe and definitely impossible to compare with other liqueurs. It’s an acquired taste, for sure, but once you get used to it, you’ll find many subtle aromas like orange peel, arugula, various herbs, and also hints of cinnamon.
Cocktail recipes rarely ask for a specific brand of alcohol. But as Campari is so unique, it is hard to substitute it without changing the dynamic of the drink.
And there are plenty of classic cocktails based on the bittersweet Italian liqueur, even in the standardized IBA list for cocktail recipes. Besides the Negroni -the probably most iconic drink based on Campari- there are, for instance, the Americano, Boulevardier, Negroni Sbagliato, and the Milano-Torino. But also outside the IBA listed drinks, many classics ask for Campari as an ingredient, like the Garibaldi, Jungle Bird, and Campari Spritz, to name just a few.