Cocktail consultant, Liquid Productions
Co-owner, Pacific Standard
Co-owner, Clover Club, Leyenda, and Milady’s
Campari is one of the most widely known representations of the Italian red bitter liqueur category. It’s an essential ingredient in countless classic drinks, from spirit-forward cocktails like the Negroni, Boulevardier, and Old Pal to the tropical-leaning Jungle Bird and Siesta.
However, the Campari’s need for dilution means it tends to work best as a component of multi-part drinks, rather than as a solo pour. There’s also an expanding range of red bitter alternatives on the market, some of which may be better suited to palates that skew toward the lighter end of the bitter spectrum. But Campari’s signature flavor and complexity continue to make it a vital tool in the arsenals of professional and home bartenders alike.
Classification: Red bitter liqueur
Company: Campari Group
Expression: Italian red bitter
Essential for making classic drinks like a Negroni or Americano
Well-suited to mixing in a range of cocktails
Bold and complex flavors
Not intended for solo sipping, limiting use to mixed drinks
Bitterness may be off-putting to some drinkers
Color: Deep crimson
Nose: Bitter orange, dusty gentian, grapefruit, lemon zest, quinine, cherry, woodsy notes, hints of saffron and cinnamon
Palate: Very bitter with slight sweetness. Quinine and bitter orange followed by mint, blood orange, rosemary, honey, cinnamon, and grapefruit peel
Finish: Long, bitter, and complex
Suggested uses: Topped with soda water, sparkling wine, or grapefruit juice; Countless cocktails including the Negroni, Americano, Boulevardier, Garibaldi, and Negroni Sbagliato
Campari is an essential ingredient in many classic cocktails, most famously the Negroni. Our reviewers agree that in many cases, there’s simply no replacement for the citrus-forward red bitter liqueur, which offers an intense bitterness and complexity.
“It is one of those bottles that every bar should have, and any home bartender looking to make classic cocktails should purchase,” says Julie Reiner. “Many other brands like to suggest that you make a Negroni with their bitter, but it just isn’t the same.”
Our reviewers don’t recommend Campari to be sipped on its own. “It needs some dilution to tame the flavors,” says Jacques Bezuidenhout. He suggests trying the liqueur in a classic cocktail or topped with a mixer like club soda or orange juice (as in the Garibaldi).
“It’s best enjoyed simply, [for instance] with soda water and an orange slice, or in one of its many signature cocktails like the Negroni, Boulevardier, and Americano,” says Morgenthaler. Reiner also suggests combining the liqueur with grapefruit juice and sparkling wine for a Campari Spritz, or employing it in the Siesta, a Hemingway Daiquiri riff that also uses tequila, grapefruit juice, and lime juice.
While our tasting panel unanimously believes Campari to be in a class of its own, they also acknowledge that its bitterness will not appeal to everyone. Reiner suggests Aperol for drinkers who are looking for a sweeter bitter liqueur with more pronounced citrus notes, or Select Aperitivo as an option that “falls somewhere in between Aperol and Campari on the bitterness scale.”
For those who enjoy bitter flavors, Campari is a home bar essential. “It’s perfect,” says Morgenthaler. “It’s Campari and there’s literally no substitute.”
“[It’s a] benchmark in the aperitivo category,” adds Bezuidenhout.
Like many amaro producers, Campari does not reveal any of the ingredients in its secret recipe aside from alcohol and water, which are blended with “bitter herbs, aromatic plants and fruit.” However, many drinkers speculate the prominent bitter flavor comes from Italian chinotto sour oranges.
While the liqueur once received its bright-red hue from carmine, the crushed-up scales of cochineal insects, Campari stopped using carmine in 2006 and now relies on artificial coloring. The liquid is bottled between 20.5% and 28% ABV, depending on where it is sold; in the U.S., it is bottled at an ABV of 24%.
Bartender Gaspare Campari invented his signature liqueur in 1860, in Novara, Italy, after two decades of experimentation. His proprietary recipe reportedly remains the same today. At the time, the bitter and citrusy liqueur’s bright-red hue was novel, and it preceded other aperitivo-style red bitter liqueurs including Aperol and Select Aperitivo.
In 1867 Gaspare opened Milan’s Campari Caffè, where the Americano—a combination of Campari, soda water, and sweet vermouth—was created as a simple riff on the Milano-Torani, which omitted the soda water. (Notably, the drink wasn’t dubbed the Americano until the 1920s.) The Americano is thought to be the precursor to the Negroni, which was purportedly invented when, in the early 20th century, Italian count Camillo Negroni asked a bartender to swap the soda water for gin.
Gaspare’s son Davide inherited his father’s business in 1882 and drove its international expansion. For more than a century, Campari Group focused mostly on its namesake product, but beginning in the 1990s the company started to acquire other spirits brands. Today, Campari Group owns more than 50 spirits and liqueurs, including Aperol.
—Written and edited by Audrey Morgan
The Campari Soda, a simple combination of the bitter liqueur and soda water, is considered to have been the first-ever ready-to-drink aperitif when it debuted in 1934. The iconic bottle was designed by Italian Futurist artist Fortunato Depero.
The Bottom Line
This aperitivo-style red bitter liqueur contributes its aromatic complexity and deep red hue to countless cocktails, including the classic Negroni and Americano, and it also mixes well with soda water and fruit juices. Its intensity may be off-putting to some drinkers, but for those who enjoy bitter flavors there is simply no substitute for Campari, according to our reviewers.