Wine Talk: Bitter red

Instead of going straight for the wine, why not start the evening with a classic aperitif such as a Campari and soda.

Cambari (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I am fortunate that my hobby and profession are one and the same. How many people can say that? I love wine. Most of my time is spent reading about wine, talking about it, tasting it and even writing about it. My other great love is malt whiskey. However, if I am going to a restaurant and want an aperitif, I will invariably choose something other than wine or whiskey. More often than not, I will start the evening with a Campari and soda.
Campari comes from a category of beverages known as bitters. The term refers to spirits flavored by bitter herbs and roots, which tend to have medicinal qualities.
They are also thought to aid digestion.
Angostura, Underberg, Unicum and Fernet Branca are other bitters.
Campari was named after Gaspare Campari, who was born in 1828 in Castelnuovo in the Lombardy province of Italy. At only 14 years old, he became a drinks maker in a famous bar in Turin.
In those days, each bar had its own drinks maker, who invented innovative, novel drinks using wine and spirit bases and various herbs and spices. By the 20th century, the drinks maker had metamorphosed into the skilled bartender. The cocktails by then had well-known names, and the recipe was followed strictly, usually out of a book.
Only today have the new-wave mixologists (the modern name for skilled barmen) returned to the skills of yesteryear, recreating the spontaneity of Campari’s generation. They have become more like chefs. The best will make up drinks on the hoof, depending on the customer’s stated wishes and the natural ingredients available on the day. This was what Gaspare Campari was doing all those years ago. However, then it was a private business. Loyalty was to the bar owner, and individually made concoctions were strict secrets.
In 1862 Campari settled in Milan and opened the Café-Patisserie Campari. The bar offered customers his new invention of bitters, made from his own unique recipe. Campari’s youngest son was Davide Campari, who was born in 1867.
He started working in the business absorbing the past but with an eye to the future. When he reached his 30s, he noticed how popular his father’s aperitif had become. He permitted rival bars to sell it, on condition that they showed a sign acknowledging that it was the “authentic Campari.” That was the birth of a global brand.
By a strange quirk of fate, Campari became an international drink through unrequited love. Davide Campari fell in love with an opera singer, Lina Cavalieri.
She moved first to France, then to Russia and finally to New York. The lovesick Davide followed her to each of these countries with the lame excuse that he needed to open an export market. In the end, Cavalieri had a series of marriages, none of which was to Davide Campari.
However, where he failed in love, he succeeded in business. He went against the trends of the time, insisting that his bitters be served in a tall glass as an aperitif rather than just as a digestif. His was the first drinks company to carry out a major advertising campaign using original posters, including one he commissioned of his lost love, Lina Cavalieri. The initial markets he opened in France, Russia, and the US proved to be the basis of a major export success.
By the time Davide Campari died in 1936, his brand had transcended the bitters category. Today it is a brand like Martini and Guinness that has become the generic word for the style of drink it is. In the same way that Martini is the generic word for vermouth and Guinness for stout, customers will order a Campari instead of a bitters aperitif.
Campari is made by a secret blend of selected aromatic plants, bitter herbs, roots and spices, including citrus peel of Seville oranges and wood barks, which are macerated in neutral spirit. The result is a dark red spirit with a strength of 28.5 percent alcohol, and it has that unique bittersweet and spicy taste that has endured through all the ebbs and flows of changing fashions over the years.
A Campari and soda is the classic aperitif, and it is certainly the most dry and refreshing way to enjoy Campari. Choose a highball glass, fill it 1⁄3 full of Campari, and then add soda water to taste, being careful not to add too much. If it is too strong, you can add more. Likewise with ice. You need ice, but too much will dilute the precious Campari flavors. All Campari drinkers know their own recipe, and you can find your own through trial and error. The skilled barman will bring the Campari and soda separately, so you can add as much or as little soda water as you want.
Campari and orange juice is also a popular drink. Fill a tall glass with 1⁄3 Campari and 2⁄3 orange juice. The result is a medium-dry drink, where the orange juice offsets the bitterness. I recommend you also try it with grapefruit or cranberry juice.
Other famous Campari cocktails are the Negroni and Americano. Negroni is made with equal measures of gin, Campari and sweet red vermouth in a tumbler with ice and soda. The Americano is made with equal measures of Campari and red vermouth with soda water added.
For a locally inspired Campari cocktail, pour equal amounts of Campari and either Kawer or El Namroud arak into a tall glass over ice. Fill up with red grapefruit juice and stir. If the result is too bitter, add a small amount of sugar syrup to provide balancing sweetness.
I have noticed in Israel that Campari is most often served with a slice of lemon.
This is not absolutely “correct.” So give kudos to the barman who gives it to you with a slice of orange as the purists expect.
Campari is now one of the major international drink brands of the world, and it is sold in no fewer than 190 countries. It is a unique product with a touch of Italian chic, individuality and style. No bar will be without it. It cleans the palate and gets the appetite juices working. In other words, the perfect aperitif! Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.