Spirits & Liqueurs Liqueur

What the #$@! Do I Do with This? Campari: What It Is and How to Use It.

Why you should love the red stuff.

A bottle of ruby-hued Campari sits on a golden background. It is surrounded by other bottles, though their labels are darkened so as to be unreadable
Italy's most famous crimson export. Image:

Liquor.com / Laura Sant

You bought a spirit or liqueur because a cocktail recipe called for a very minute amount. Now you’re stuck with the remaining 9/10ths of the bottle and what to do with it. No worries. Thrifty bartenders weigh in with tips and recipes for getting every last drop out of an underutilized ingredient so it doesn’t gather dust on your bar shelf.

Odds are that if you have a bottle of Campari you’re either a fan of the boozy and stirred Negroni or its spritzy kin, the Americano. And while some may enjoy subbing it for Aperol in a spritz, and those who take a dive into Tiki will recognize its role in a Jungle Bird, the crimson-tinged liqueur is often considered too bitter and intense to be versatile in drinks. Affatto, say modern bartenders.

“Campari is very versatile: Fruit, spices and herbs are good enhancers,” says Melissa Romanos, the beverage manager at The Publican in Chicago. She cites citrus, pineapple, berries, basil, thyme and baking spices as having particularly good affinity. “Campari lends itself to sours, beer cocktails and Tiki-style drinks,” she adds. The important consideration is combining the proper ratio of ingredients.

“The best way to overcome any misconception toward a particular spirit is by showcasing [it] in a way that highlights its best qualities and perhaps downplays those qualities people may not find friendly,” says Romanos. To offset inherent bitter tones, her Campari Sour is joined by the maple and dried fruit notes of sherry; her Nordic Winter receives a bracing herbal kick of caraway from aquavit; and the Tiki-esque Castaway acquires a smooth mouthfeel from coconut cream and orgeat.

Campari’s moderate ABV (it clocks in at just 48 proof) makes it a perfect ingredient in low-proof libations. At The Elysian Bar in New Orleans, much of the drink program focuses on spritzes and vermouth-and-tonics, with an aperitivo menu in additional to boozier cocktail offerings. For day drinking, bartender Jesi Goodwin mixes Campari with sweeter citrus juices or cuts it with soda water or sparkling wine. She also adds a dash of it to a Paloma or sours and replaces sweet vermouth with Campari for a spin on some of the classics.

Although Campari carries a deeper bitterness apparent at the onset and finish, Goodwin uses it (along with bianco vermouth) to add a touch of sweetness to her C’est Chic, with lime, cucumber bitters and a housemade hibiscus and mint tea. “[It’s] an invigorating thirst-quencher: hydrating, medicinal, tart, bright and elegant, [and] its deep magenta color is visually stimulating.”

“Believe it or not, Campari is a very flexible product. It all depends on how you balance the ingredients,” says Vincenzo Marianella, the beverage director at Fia in Santa Monica, California. Though it’s generally used as a modifier, taking a back seat to other booze like gin or bourbon, he says it can as easily be a base, as in his Novara Sour, which contains two full ounces. “Campari used to be the bad boy in cocktails back in the day; either you loved it or hated it.” 

Lately though, it’s become the red hot star of the backbar. These are three Campari cocktails to convince you to give the bitter liqueur its due.

  • Ruby Hearts

    On a blue background, a tall collins glass is filled with eye and a spritzy red highball. A cinnamon stick rests on the lip of the glass

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    This beer-based cocktail with mezcal is a most unexpected Campari cocktail. “Two bitters don’t make an extra bitter,” says Romanos. “The grassy, smoky notes in Unión mezcal and the richness of the cinnamon demerara provide just enough balance to the bitterness in both the ale and the Campari.” 

    Get the recipe.

  • C’est Chic

    On a sky blue background, a short, clean cut rocks glass is filled with ice and a berry-red drink, garnished with a sprig of fresh green mint

     Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    This Campari cocktail by Goodwin was inspired by agua fresca, a light, nonalcoholic beverage popular in Mexico. Campari and bianco vermouth add both bitter and semisweet notes, peppermint and lime are cooling and fresh, salt amplifies the ingredients and cucumber bitters round it all out. 

    Get the recipe.

  • Novara Sour

    On a blue background, an elegant coupe holds a vivid and opaque red drink. A thick layer of white foam rests atop the drink

     Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    Marianella cites the renaissance of the Negroni as the reason that newer generations of cocktail fans have cozied up to Campari, which for years was quite a polarizing ingredient. “There is no need to try to convince people to try it,” he says. This sour uses Campari as its base, while ginger syrup and Creole bitters gives it a spicy kick and egg white smooths its mouthfeel. 

    Get the recipe.