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.

Bottle of Campari

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 on hand you’re either a fan of the boozy and stirred Negroni or its kin, the Americano. Sure, Spritz drinkers in the know may sub it in for Aperol in an ice-filled wine goblet while those who take a deep dive into Tiki will recognize it as an ingredient in a Jungle Bird. But beyond those classics, the Italian crimson-tinged liqueur is often considered too bitter, too intense, too red to have wide appeal. 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 be used in 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 of sherry; her Nordic Winter gets a bracing herbal kick of caraway from aquavit; and the Tiki-esque Castaway picks up 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, vermouth-and-tonics and other less-boozy sips, with an aperitivo hour each afternoon. For day drinking, bartender Jesi Goodwin mixes it 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 new spin on some of the classics.

Although Campari carries a deeper bitterness apparent at the onset and finish, Goodwin actually 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 out,” says Vincenzo Marianella, the beverage director at Fia in Santa Monica, Calif. Though it’s generally used as a modifier, taking a back seat to other booze like gin or bourbon, he says it can just as easily be a base, as in his Novara Sour, which contains two full ounces of it. “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

    Ruby Hearts

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    This beer-tail with mezcal is a most unexpected Campari cocktail. “Two bitters don’t make an extra bitter,” says Romanos. “The grassy, smoky notes in Union 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

    C'est Chic

     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

    Novara Sour

     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, gets a spicy kick from ginger syrup and Creole bitters, and a silky mouthfeel from egg white. 

    Get the recipe.