Objectively, it may seem a little odd that a 200-year-old scarlet Italian liqueur that’s more bitter than sweet would become a staple in mainstream America. And yet, Campari, the best-known of the aperitivo bitters or “red bitters” category, has become a must-have among bartenders, with savvy marketing a through line to the brand’s success.
“Campari is not simply a constant, but a necessity,” says co-owner Jessica King. “It is a foundational component of our cocktail program… In the kingdom of bitter, Campari reigns supreme.”
Of course, before it became an enduring part of American drink menus, Campari was prevalent in Italian life. Since the end of the 19th century, it’s been a fixture both as a drink and through its colorful advertisements.
An Aperitivo is Born
The crimson liqueur was first created by Gaspare Campari in 1860, according to now-parent company the Campari Group.
The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails tells a bit more of the story: Campari had apprenticed as a distiller in a cafe in Turin, during a time when it was common for cafes to make their own liquors. In 1862, he moved his business to Milan, where he began marketing a formula called “Bitter all’Uso d’Olanda” (Holland-style Bitter), which soon became “Bitter Campari” before it was simplified to “Campari.”
Orange peel would have commonly been the primary bittering agent for such a product, The Oxford Companion notes. But according to early records, orange peel was supplemented with gentian, germander and wormwood. Further, “Campari adjusted the botanicals, used less sugar, and added more dilution” than similar liqueurs of the time, creating “a lighter, brighter aperitif,” write David Wondrich and Leo Leuci in The Oxford Companion. The distinctive red hue likely was added later, derived from red insects called cochineals.
Campari stopped using cochineal in 2006 and switched to an artificial red dye, although some other producers still use cochineal, also called carmine.
Campari’s son, Davide, took over the management of the company in 1888, and is credited with transforming Campari from a local success into an international one— including a devotion to advertisements: Specifically, colorful posters, many designed by well-known artists of the early to mid 20th century, contributed to Campari’s enduring legacy not just as a liqueur, but as a brand. This would become a significant distinction.
Campari’s first plant opened in 1904, allowing for broader manufacturing and distribution of the liqueur. In the decades that followed, Campari conquered the cocktail bars of Paris, where the Boulevardier and Old Pal were created (their popularization is credited to Harry MacElhone, founder and proprietor of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, in the 1920s). By the 1930s, Bitter Campari was being shipped as far away as San Francisco and Buenos Aires.