Objectively, it may seem a little odd that a 200-year-old scarlet Italian liqueur that’s more bitter than sweet would become a staple in mainstream America. And yet, Campari, the best-known of the aperitivo bitters or “red bitters” category, has become a must-have among bartenders, with savvy marketing a through line to the brand’s success.
“Campari is not simply a constant, but a necessity,” says co-owner Jessica King. “It is a foundational component of our cocktail program… In the kingdom of bitter, Campari reigns supreme.”
Of course, before it became an enduring part of American drink menus, Campari was prevalent in Italian life. Since the end of the 19th century, it’s been a fixture both as a drink and through its colorful advertisements.
An Aperitivo is Born
The crimson liqueur was first created by Gaspare Campari in 1860, according to now-parent company the Campari Group.
The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails tells a bit more of the story: Campari had apprenticed as a distiller in a cafe in Turin, during a time when it was common for cafes to make their own liquors. In 1862, he moved his business to Milan, where he began marketing a formula called “Bitter all’Uso d’Olanda” (Holland-style Bitter), which soon became “Bitter Campari” before it was simplified to “Campari.”
Orange peel would have commonly been the primary bittering agent for such a product, The Oxford Companion notes. But according to early records, orange peel was supplemented with gentian, germander and wormwood. Further, “Campari adjusted the botanicals, used less sugar, and added more dilution” than similar liqueurs of the time, creating “a lighter, brighter aperitif,” write David Wondrich and Leo Leuci in The Oxford Companion. The distinctive red hue likely was added later, derived from red insects called cochineals.
Campari stopped using cochineal in 2006 and switched to an artificial red dye, although some other producers still use cochineal, also called carmine.
Campari’s son, Davide, took over the management of the company in 1888, and is credited with transforming Campari from a local success into an international one— including a devotion to advertisements: Specifically, colorful posters, many designed by well-known artists of the early to mid 20th century, contributed to Campari’s enduring legacy not just as a liqueur, but as a brand. This would become a significant distinction.
Campari’s first plant opened in 1904, allowing for broader manufacturing and distribution of the liqueur. In the decades that followed, Campari conquered the cocktail bars of Paris, where the Boulevardier and Old Pal were created (their popularization is credited to Harry MacElhone, founder and proprietor of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, in the 1920s). By the 1930s, Bitter Campari was being shipped as far away as San Francisco and Buenos Aires.
Although World War II nearly destroyed its good fortune, Campari would return in the postwar decades.
“In 1976, the company began a process that saw its control passing from the Campari family to the Garavoglia family, with whom it rests today,” says The Oxford Companion. Soon followed an “aggressive series of acquisitions, buying brands in Europe and the Americas.” Eventually, the company rebranded as Gruppo Campari (the Campari Group), a multinational spirits company.
Enter the Negroni
Marketing, a key springboard for Campari’s early success, also factored into the late-aughts Negroni boom—another windfall for sales of the bitter liqueur.
While the Negroni is hardly new—most consider the drink to date back to around 1919, depending which origin story you believe—it became a fixture of the cocktail renaissance of the aughts, as bartenders (and later, consumers) began to embrace the bitter flavors of amari. The easily recognizable red glow of the drink didn’t hurt either—a color contributed by Campari, regarded as the key ingredient (next to gin and sweet vermouth) that gives the drink its bittersweet personality and trademark hue.
The indispensable nature of the red bitter to the cocktail and bartenders’ growing affection for it wasn’t lost on the spirits conglomerate: Backed by Campari and Imbibe Magazine, “Negroni Week” was launched in 2013 to celebrate the drink at bars around the world, raising funds for charitable causes in the process. Although Campari says it can’t quantify the precise impact on sales, it notes that the number of bars and restaurants participating in Negroni Week each year has surged from 120 (in 2013) to over 12,000 (in 2021); 2022 will mark the 10-year anniversary of the event.
The initiative helped raise awareness about the drink and certainly helped spike sales of the liqueur. Late bartender and educator Gaz Regan published two versions of a book wholly dedicated to Negroni recipes (a self-published version in 2013, followed by a version from Ten Speed Press in 2015); numerous other Negroni compilations have followed, incorporating the drink’s many, many variations.
The drink remains a staple; an annual survey of 100 of the world’s top bars conducted by trade journal Drinks International even named the Negroni as the “Best Selling Classic Cocktail” for 2022, bypassing the eight-year reign of the Old Fashioned.
The proliferation of the Negroni and other bittersweet drinks has also helped stoke an ever-widening array of red bitters on bar and retail shelves.
“At Sugar Monk we are using a variety of red bitters to reach subtleties in the flavor profiles of our drinks,” says Ektoras Binikos, co-founder and partner of the Harlem, New York City bar.For example, Binikos spotlights Tempus Fugit’s Gran Classico bitter for its “earthy character” and “deep and rich, lingering finish.” He also praises light-bodied, wine-based Cappelletti for its citrus and herbal tones, ideal for spritzes, Contratto for its “subtle bitterness, with wonderful botanical aromas” and Leopold Bros Aperitivo, “one of my favorite new aperitivos,” for its relatively dry profile, enhanced by grapefruit peel and red berries.That’s a whole arsenal, in addition to Campari, he reaches for to add nuance and complexity to various drinks, he says.
From Campari to Aperol
Aperol, another Italian aperitivo, was founded in 1919 by Luigi and Silvio Barbieri. Daniel Warrilow, Italian Portfolio Ambassador for Campari America, which owns both brands, credits Campari for its introduction.
“Campari was the most bitter thing around,” says David Warrilow notes. “The Barbieri brothers wanted to create something that was less bitter, more citrus-driven, for their generation.” Compared to Campari’s sharp, grapefruit-like bitterness, Aperol was engineered to have a flavor akin to candied orange or orange zest, he explains.
The two liqueurs are made differently (Campari is made via maceration, infusion and distillation, while Aperol uses a percolation process to infuse the spirit base); they contain different botanicals, and they are bottled at different strengths (Campari at 24% alcohol by volume, or abv, Aperol at 11% abv).
But in terms of the flavor, the primary difference comes down to 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 characteristics.”
Aperol was acquired by the Campari Group in 2003, and first imported to the U.S. in 2006. While the orange bitter is a key ingredient in the Paper Plane and numerous other cocktails, it’s best known for its starring role in the juggernaut that is the Aperol spritz, another triumph of Campari’s marketing team.
Four to Pour
Aperol; $29; Buy on ReserveBar. Eye-catchingly lurid red-orange, this classic liqueur has a mellow orange-y aroma. Though it’s considered an aperitivo bitter, the vibrant flavor is more sweet-bitter…SEE SCORE AND REVIEW
Select Aperitivo; $28; Buy on ReserveBar. This red bitter is lightly sweet, mixing berry tones with light bitterness, plus a floral hint on the exhale. Rhubarb root and juniper berries…SEE SCORE AND REVIEW