Bright and Bitter: A Brief History of Campari

Classic-Negroni_Overhead

You’ve seen the bottle behind just about every bar worth its salt ever. Luscious red like the lipstick of the girl that you want to take home at the end of the night, it stands out. If you like Negronis, then you probably even have a bottle or two on hand at home for when you want to mix up the classic for yourself. But, do you know where Campari comes from?

Put your learning caps on, gents, because you’re about to find out.

Campari was invented by Gaspare Campari, who was born in Cassolnovo, Lombardy (in today’s Italy), in 1828. By age fourteen, according to The Mixellany Guide to Vermouth & Other Aperitifs, Campari was already working in a bar slinging drinks for thirsty patrons.

Campari

A few years later, in 1840, Campari began his experimentation with bitter aperitifs using a variety of different herbs, spices, and other ingredients. He sold these different drinks across Italy. Finally, in 1860 after two decades of experimentation, he was living and working in Novara, Italy and settled on the recipe that would become the Campari that we know and drink today.

Originally, the bright red color was derived from carmine—a dye made from the crushed scales of cochineal insects. (Don’t worry, though, if you’re against ingesting bugs—Campari stopped using carmine in 2006 after pressure from various groups.)

As far as the other ingredients, the recipe has and is kept a secret known only to a select few people. The Campari website gives no clues whatsoever (stating only known ingredients as alcohol and water). Some have suggested that one of the primary flavors is chinotto, otherwise known as the myrtle-leaved orange tree, which is found in, among other places, southern France and various parts of Italy.

In the late 1860s, he moved his family to Milan, where he opened the Caffe Campari, and created the Americano cocktail (a mix of Campari and red vermouth topped off with soda water).

As the popularity of Campari (and amari) grew in and around Italy, Campari began producing, obviously, more, leading to the opening of Sesto San Giovanni, the company’s first major production site, in 1904.

Campari

This is the part where the history starts to get interesting. In 1920, Count Camillo Negroni (you probably see where this is going) asked for a little something else in his Americano. Instead of the soda water, he got a shot of gin instead, birthing what we know as the Negroni. (If you want to read more about Negronis, you will definitely want to pick up a copy of cocktail legend Gary Regan’s book The Negroni.)

Campari’s popularity continued to rise as Gaspare Campari’s family continued to grow the business, expanding beyond Italy’s borders into international markets, which now number close to 200.

What that means is, pretty much anywhere you go in the world, you’re likely to find yourself in a place where you’ll be able to get if not a Negroni, at the very least a bitter yet refreshing Campari and soda.