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on Campari

A friend of mine, an accomplished amateur cook who is extending into cocktails, was recently introduced to Campari, and was so impressed he bought a bottle.

It was at the Portland restaurant the Screen Door (which serves a huge and delicious plate of fried chicken and sweet potato waffles), that Eric had a long drink they called the “Blanche Dubois”, described as sweet tea, freshly made lemonade, and Campari.

Campari is an Italian orange bitter, from the western area of Lombardy. It has a distinct red hue. Notes of gentian and orange peel are prominent in the aroma, and the taste is akin to grapefruit peel, with gentian and sweetness behind it. In the old days its beautiful red color was from cochineal, but that has recently changed to an artificial color1. It is said to stimulate the appetite, and I find Campari drinks best early in the evening.

The bottle label used to state that one needs to allow three attempts before realizing that you enjoy Campari. So, in the interests of making sure that Eric continues to develop his enjoyment of Campari, here are a few mixed drinks with Campari.

Campari and Soda
Sure it’s suggested on the label, but Campari and Soda is a great drink for the early evening, porch-sitting in that hour before preparing dinner. Pour a shot of Campari over rocks in a tumbler, then add soda water. Garnish with a slice of orange. The amount of soda water can vary between one to three times as much as Campari, to taste.

Campari and Orange Juice
Pour a shot of Campari into a (short) glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice with ice to taste. The Campari adds depth to the citrus oils expressed while squeezing the orange juice. Another drink commonly listed on the back label; great with brunch (instead of a mimosa and before opening a bottle of Viognier).

This is the classic Campari drink. It is made from equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. I feel that Carpano Antica provides the best balance, while Cinzano suggests a cola-like flavor that isn’t unpleasant. Occasionally sightings of a vodka negroni are reported. I’ll go on record as to say that anyone specifying that substitution is in denial of their enjoyment of gin. But the Negroni lends itself to variation, as there are any number of gins and sweet vermouths that might be tried, some of them requiring slight variance off the equal parts.

In the middle of winter, when I need something just a little bit less sharp (or when I’m out of gin), I like to substitute an amber rum for the gin in a Negroni. I call this a Mahogany. Sometimes (when I really need to fight the Gray Overcast) I’ll further substitute Lillet Blanc for the sweet vermouth. I serve that as a Golden Mahogany, but I’m open to other suggestions on the name.

In Thomas Mario’s Playboy Bar Book I found a Negroni variant with dry vermouth. This was listed as a Cardinal, and it is certainly a bright red potion. I like Vya dry vermouth in this. It is semi-dry, which brings the bitterness of the Campari even more to the front. But I’ve also done a half sweet- half dry- vermouth version, and it is great. One might go so far as to call this a Perfect Negroni (and I have).

Although there are other orange bitters available now (Reagan’s and Angostura are both very good), Campari substitutes very well. For a Manhattan (two parts Knob Creek or Maker’s Mark with one part sweet vermouth), I like to rinse the cocktail glass with Campari.

Paul Harrington (who served as Wired Magazine’s Resident Alchemist), created a great Campari drink while he worked at the Townhouse in Emeryville California in the 1990s. This drink, he relates in his book Cocktail: the Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, was named for the man who ordered it, an off-duty bartender2.

1½ oz gin
¼ oz Cointreau
¼ oz Campari
¾ oz lemon juice
Garnish with a strip of lemon peel.

This is a beautiful cocktail. I used to call out the ingredients at El Bobo in SOMA and then watch the pink drink served to me garner a couple of pointed fingers and nods. In a minute, someone down-bar would be served one, and I’d chuckle at the look on their face when they tasted the bitter cocktail.

1. I feel that the new dye doesn’t seem to contribute as much of its hue when diluted. The Jasmine Cocktail in particular doesn’t seem to have the same pink color it used to. Of course, my eyes could be failing.
2. Perhaps it’s apocryphal, but I’ve heard that the namesake replied “congratulations, Paul, you’ve just created grapefruit juice”.