In 1860, in Novara, Italy, a 32-year-old bar owner named Gaspare Campari started a cocktail craze by trying to keep ahead of the local competition. At the time, Italian bars fought for customers by infusing alcohol with local herbs, roots, and flowers to invent their own aperitifs – bright, bittersweet little drinks consumed before meals to stimulate the appetite. Gaspare’s concoction, a bracing aperitif he simply dubbed Campari, would soon shoulder out every other home brew for supremacy in Italy – and then spread worldwide.
It’s easy to see why. Campari first attracts attention with its candy-apple color, next with its arresting bitter flavor. That bitterness, prized by the European palate, has always made Campari an acquired taste in America. But as our palates evolve to accept bitterness – with kale, espresso, and hoppy IPAs becoming commonplace – it’s a good time to revisit this Italian export. Whether stretched with soda, stirred in an old-school Negroni, or mixed in a contemporary classic like the Siesta, Campari can be enjoyed at any time of day – but seems best at sunset, as Gaspare intended.
For those of us who like our drinks a little less confrontational, there’s Campari’s cousin Aperol, an aperitif from Padua, just outside Venice. Lighter in flavor, color, and alcohol, Aperol tastes like orange peels and sunshine – with a hint of bitterness to keep it grounded. There’s perhaps never been a more surefire crowd-pleaser for a summer gathering than the Aperol Spritz. It is a vibrant coral color, has bubbles, is remarkably easy to make, and is low enough in alcohol for everyone to have two without wilting in the sun.
- 3 oz prosecco
- 2 oz Aperol
- 1 oz sparkling water
Pour prosecco in a big rocks glass over ice. Add Aperol, then soda. Garnish with an orange wheel, a lemon twist, or both.
- 1 oz gin
- 1 oz sweet vermouth
- 1 oz Campari
Combine ingredients in a rocks glass with ice. Stir till the drink is cold. Garnish with an orange slice.
- 2 oz blanco tequila
- ¾ oz fresh lime juice
- ¾ oz simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water)
- ½ oz fresh grapefruit juice
- ¼ oz Campari
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice.
Other Top Aperitifs
France’s vivid-yellow liqueur takes its woodsy bitterness from gentian root, which grows in the foothills of the Alps. Try it with a squeeze of lemon and healthy pour of seltzer.
Orleans Bitter ($32)
This American-born aperitif is a Vermont apple cider colored with red currants and flavored with herbs like angelica and dandelion. A bone-dry alternative to Campari in any cocktail.