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Campari Explained

Campari Explained

A brief history and description of the classic Italian liqueur Campari.


Sealed with a gold label and dressed down in a deep royal red, Campari is a cocktail ingredient that’s found its place in cocktail recipes old and new.

What is Campari?

Campari is an aperitif and cocktail ingredient, fairly common in classic cocktail recipes and equally delicious on its own. Perhaps best known for its characteristically bright red color, it tastes bitter and herbal and is still made in Italy, where it originates.

Who invented it?

Campari’s inventor, Gaspare Campari, spent two decades making bitter aperitifs of various recipes, eventually creating the recipe we recognize today as Campari.

While the exact recipe is kept as a closely-guarded secret, we know that Campari is made by infusing herbs and fruit in alcohol and water, and many suspect its predominantly bitter flavor comes from the “Chinotto” fruit – a fruit that resembles a small orange, but tastes sour and bitter. The distinctive red color was originally derived from Carmine Dye – a dye made from the scales of cochineal insects.


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A Brief History of Campari:

(Sources include Wikipedia and Campari’s own website)

  • ~1840: Gaspare Campari begins experimenting with making and selling bitter aperitifs around Italy
  • 1860: Gaspari Campari perfects his Campari recipe
  • Late 1860’s: Campari moved his family to Milan and opened the “Caffe Campari”, where some credit him with creating the world’s first cocktail: the Milano-Torino Cocktail (later renamed “The Americano”.)
  • 1880’s: Campari began working with local artists, appreciating the appeal of art in advertisements. This set the precedent for the next century.
  • 1900’s: Meeting for an aperitif grew as a custom and resulted in many new cafe’s opening, as well as increased popularity and production of aperitifs like Campari
  • 1904: Campari’s now historic “Sesto San Giovanni” production site was opened.
  • 1919-1920: The famous Negroni cocktail is supposedly “invented” in Florence when a customer (Count Camillo Negroni) used to order his Americano cocktail with an extra shot of gin.
  • 1920’s: Gaspare’s sons take over the company and decide to stop production of everything except Campari and another cordial.
  • Late 1940’s: Campari re-starts production after World War II and kicks off a new advertising campaign with avant-garde artist Carlo Fisanotti.
  • 2006: Pressure from vegetarians and food-labelling groups for Campari to indicate its insect-derived dye on the label resulted in a change in recipe. Campari began using artificial dye to create its distinctive red color.

What does it taste like?

The Campari is notorious for being unique. Like many aperitifs, the recipe is proprietary and very few actually know what’s in it – which means there are no exact competitors. As for flavor:

  • It starts sweet (but not overly so) and the sweetness drops away relatively quickly. It has a long, bitter finish.
  • Dominant flavors of bitter orange and woody bitterness like gentian
  • Herbal, earthy, bitter finish

Three Great Cocktails made with Campari:

This is about as classic as you can get – all three of the following cocktails have been around for decades and make good use of Campari’s beautiful color and unmistakeable flavor.

  • Americano: One part Campari, one part Sweet Vermouth, and one part Soda water.
  • The Negroni: Another “perfect” cocktail where all ingredients are the same amounts. Use one ounce each of Gin, Campari and Sweet Vermouth.
  • Campari Soda: Exactly what it sounds like – made of Campari and soda water.
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